Downtown's disparate dining scene continues to evolve into one with a unique global outlook. Here's a look back at the eateries NOW visited in 2004 that made our mouths water, as well as a few that made more than our stomachs grumble.
1 The Restaurant (69 Nassau, at Augusta, 416-340-1110) There are others on this list with far more expertise, but Michelle Bellerose 's 20-seat vegetarian Kensington Market luncheonette is certainly the most significant. The self-taught cook, homeopath and avant-garde artist has created a unique cuisine through happenstance and intellect, fusing raw food technologies with contemporary cooking methods. It doesn't always work, but when it does - her faux cream cheese made from organic raw chocolate, for example - it's revelatory. But, as with all delicious things, this Restaurant comes with an expiry date. Come New Year's Eve, Bellerose will close the Restaurant for good so she can focus on her dub combo Zoulou, travel to learn more about food and write a cookbook. Four or five years down that road, she just might come back and open another Restaurant. "I seem to be in a period when I'm asked by life to make hard decisions," says Bellerose, explaining the sudden closing. "I used to do everything to be nice and please people. But I've discovered that unpopular choices sometimes open doors into greater opportunities."
2 The Drake (1150 Queen West, at Beaconsfield, 416-531-0429) David Chrystian has twice won the number one spot - in 1997 for the defunct Café Societa and three years later for the equally dead Patriot - and his work at this hipster haunt is as innovative and brash as at previous gigs. Chrystian's Drake Burger and frites is the best burger 'n' fries deal in the city. All this and he's still only 30!
3 Ultra (314 Queen West, at Peter, 416-263-0330) When Charles Khabouth and Brenda Lowes demolished one of Queen West's most beloved institutions, Aristotelis' Barber Shop, as well as the Bamboo to create Toronto's swankiest supper club, some saw it as the final nail in the coffin for Toronto's once-hippest strip. But chef Paul Boemher's assured upscale card and Ultra's thoroughly professional and - gasp! - friendly staff have made Queen cool again.
4 Tomi-kro (1214 Queen East, at Leslie, 416-463-6677) Former Lolita's Lust principal John Coronios brings the Danforth spot's Mediterranean à la carte menu to booming Leslieville but filters it through Japanese and Latin American flavours in an intimate, offbeat room. Shame about Malcolm Brown's pointlessly banal paintings, though.
5 Batifole (744 Gerrard East, at Howland, 416-462-9965) Further proof that the east side is the new west side: a 30-seat bistro serving owner-chef Jean-Jacques Texier 's wallet-friendly takes on classic French cuisine. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a restaurant this special at the end of their street.
6 Bloom (2315 Bloor West, at Windermere, 416-767-1315) Greg Couillard acolyte Sam Gassira - who waltzed off with number-one honours for Focaccia in 2001 - brings downtown style and culinary wit to a neighbourhood that equates fine dining with perogy. Whether locals will ditch goulash for Gassira's salt-crackled guinea hen remains to be seen.
7 Café Margaux (796 College, at Roxton, 416-588-7490) First-time restaurateurs Patrice Baron and Rob Briden - ex of Pastis and Quartier - quietly took over the former Café Societa last winter and turned the already charming room into an affordable neighbourhood noshery that also happens to be French. Be sure to save room for their extravagant chocolate desserts.
8 Tasty (692 Bloor West, at Clinton, 416-537-7553) That 14-year Southern Accent chef Elena Embrioni and the chi-chi crew behind King West sushiteria Blowfish are behind the rebirth of the Korea Town greasy spoon is remarkable in itself. That the menu of Southern U.S.-style comfort food - chicken-fried steak sided with cheesy grits and seared collard greens studded with double-smoked bacon, say - makes it even more so. That most mains hover around 10 buckso well, you get the Tasty picture.
9 Burrito Boyz (120 Peter, at Richmond, 416-593-9191) Smelling a hit, instead of raving about this tiny San Francisco-style burrito take-away in these pages two weeks after its launch last spring, I should have ignored the joint and quietly invested my life's savings in this sure-fire money-making machine. But that would conflict with my code of critical ethics (cough). Besides, it's not like the Boyz need my financial help - they're already planning on opening a second and third outlet this spring.
10 King Palace (105 Sherbourne, at Richmond, 416-306-1888) A Pakistani take-away in a gas station included as one of the best boîtes in town, you say? How utterly NOW. But this late-night cabbie 'n' club kid hang deserves its place if only for its incendiary fat-free lamb with chickpeas in thick tomato gravy spiked with chili oil, curry leaf and ginger. Anyway, where else can you fill 'er up as well as fill yerself up?
Lee (603 King West, at Portland, 416-504-7867) Susur Lee 's somewhat down-market bistro gets more points for design than for degustation. Jamie Kennedy's Wine Bar does the same thing but with considerably more polish.
Laurentian Room (51A Winchester, at Parliament, 416-925-8680) Next time, spend as much cash on the kitchen set-up as you do on art deco light sconces.
Liu Liu Hot Pot (149 Baldwin, at Spadina, 416-593-8858) Unidentified pork parts boiling in what appears to be dishwater for slumming SUV-equipped yuppies.
Fahrenheit 350 (467 Bloor West, at Brunswick, 416-929-2080) Silly fad diet food for those too lazy to order steak frites and ask the kitchen to hold the fries.
The Fifth (221 Richmond West, at Duncan, 416-979-3005) Pretentious, overwrought and dated - and that's just the freight elevator you have to take to enter the joint. Chef Marc Thuet should consider himself lucky he left.
NEXT BIG THING: Tapas - half the food, twice the price.