BEST BAR: THE CAMERON HOUSE 408 Queen West, 416-703-0811
Photo: R. Jeanette Martin
The art bar has long been a local tradition. Its lineage can be traced from the original Pilot on Yonge in the 60s and Grossman's in the 70s to the regeneration of this former tap room slash flophouse nearly 25 years ago. Although it may have lost some of its cachet to recent copycats like the Drake and the Gladstone , the Cameron deservedly remains at the heart of Toronto's art and music scene. As the sign behind the bar says, this is indeed paradise.
BEST PIZZA: PIZZA GIGI 189 Harbord, 416-535-4444
Photo: John Scully
Nothing causes more arguments than thick crust versus thin. In the former category, this old-school pizza parlour has been delivering superlative pies topped with pepperoni, peppers and double cheese since the 60s. Aficionados of thin swear by Terroni 's artfully dressed 'za, though Marcello's on St. Clair and Gerard Pizza on the Danforth are certainly their equal, while non-conformists dig Live Organic Food Bar 's deliciously raw version made from sprouted buckwheat, topped with diced pineapple and faux cheese fabricated from sweet red pepper and hemp.
BEST BEER: BEER BISTRO 18 King East, 416-861-9872
One of North America's leading authorities on malted barley beverages, Stephen Beaumont knows his suds. So its no surprise that his two-year-old watering hole in the financial district features the most comprehensive lineup of ales, pilsners and lagers around, 20-some on tap. Fuller's London Pride, La Maudite and Blanche de Chambly are among the more fanciful brews.
BEST BREAD: LE COMPTOIR De CELESTIN 623 Mt. Pleasant, 416-544-1733
For years, Ace Bakery and Fred's Bread have baked what are widely regarded as the best loaves in town. But this petite patisserie adjacent to the uptown Celestin bistro holds the current crown, if only for its remarkable seven-grain pain cereales. About to move to above-ground quarters next door to its current church-basement digs, St. John's Bakery keeps it organic with stellar whole wheat sourdough and walnut-studded raisin bread.
BEST BREAKFAST: LIBAN 211 Queen East, 416-214-5901
Photo: David Laurence
There’s more to breakfast than an Egg McMuffin. Take it from a Somalian cabbie: there’s no better fuel to start the day than fool madamas. This culinary kick-start gets scooped with French bread – think of it as East African porridge, a steaming bowl of smoky fava bean purée garnished with tart lime and as much incendiary hot sauce as you dare.
BEST BRUNCH: THE OLD NICK 123 Danforth, 416-461-5546
Race to this Danforth local if you want to experience peripatetic chef Michelle Bellerose 's iconoclastic weekend noshes - organic buckwheat flapjacks layered with wild chanterelle mushrooms and seaweed caviar - before she makes her next, inevitable move. For a more conventional all-you-can-eat latkes 'n' lox spread, check out Sunday's $16.95 Bella Did Ya Eat? brunch at the Free Times Café on College for a full-scale feeding frenzy.
BEST BURGER: THE RIVOLI 332 Queen West, 416-596-1501
Bymark 's 40-buck whopper might be made from beer-fed beef, the much-ballyhooed burger at Thornhill's Golden Star is a Harvey's clone, and Lick's would do the trick if they'd just stop the cheesy singing, but our vote for king of the quarter-pounders goes to the Riv 's version, served on challah and topped, as it has been for nearly 24 years, by sweetly sautéed onions. Honourable mention: sibling Queen Mother 's 70s freakazoid vegetarian Cozmic Burger.
BEST CHICKEN SALAD: LE PETIT GOURMET 1064 Yonge, 416-966-3811
Served on a flaky house croissant, Christian and Linda Boniteau 's incomparable curried chicken salad has been on the card of their uptown patisserie since it opened in 1971. Sure, there've been other curried versions since, but theirs is the only one to include apple, melon and strawberries. For a more traditional take, try Jim's Best Western on Queen East, where tender chunks of roasted bird come slathered with mayo on Texas toast.
BEST COFFEE HOUSE: I DEAL COFFEE 84 Nassau, 416-364-7700
As the name of his Kensington java shack suggests, James Fournier does more than brew the finest espresso in town. His righteous roasts made from organic and bird-friendly beans are also available at Wholesome Foods in the Beach, Mercantile on College and at a second just-opened I Deal in Ottawa.
BEST DATE RESTAURANT: GEORGE 111 Queen East, 416-863-6006
You can keep Kalendar. If the fastest route to your inamorata's heart is through the stomach (and not through the chest with a carving knife, as Roseanne Barr believes), a dinner date at this glitzy supper club in a converted 19th-century warehouse will have you in like Flynn. Candles cast forgiving shade, and thoroughly professional servers hover attentively while chef Lorenzo Loseto 's multiple-course tasting menu causes orgasms on the tongue.
BEST DECOR: LEE 603 King West, 416-504-7867
In a city full of knockoff mid-century modernism, Brenda Bent 's design for her partner, Susur Lee 's, latest venture is a breath of fresh air. Call it kitsch meets fin de siècle Saigon: a photorealist mural of pet-store parakeets' faces, tables topped with translucent pink plexi, dramatic gauzy scrims and oils of sad clowns. Now, if only Lee's card were of the same calibre as the furnishings.
BEST DESSERT: RAHIER 1586 Bayview, 416-482-0917
Just Desserts might do exactly that, but Belgian-born François and Sonia Rahier 's uptown patisserie makes some of the most impressive pastries this side of Paris. All made with pure butter and cream, their luscious fruit flans, pain au chocolat and single-serving cakes - named for famous French philosophers! - are the perfect finale for almost any occasion.
BEST DIM SUM: LAI WAH HEEN Metropolitan Hotel, 108 Chestnut, 416-977-9899
The New York Times, no less, has deemed this luxe hotel dining room's dim sum "maybe the best in North America," so who are we to argue? Although you're more than likely to be seated next to a convention-attending dentist from Des Moines than a card-carrying epicure, Hong Kong-trained chef Terence Chan 's parade of plates - seahorse-shaped wontons stuffed with scallops and pricey conploy, "bumble bees" fashioned from panko-crusted crab fritters striped with foamy calamari mousse - never fail to impress. Over on Spadina, the far less expensive and more traditional daily spread at Rol San is our Chinatown choice.
BEST DIVE: PLANET KENSINGTON 1971/2 Baldwin, 416-341-0310
Whoever thinks punk's as dead as Sid Vicious's post-Pistol solo career has never visited this black leather 'n' leopard print wreck room, where middle-aged men with green mohawks party like it's 1979. Across town, at the Danforth's Eton Tavern , another bunch of retro hellraisers gather every Saturday afternoon for its Newfie matinee to belt back straight-up screech, arm wrestle and heckle the Down East country combo.
BEST DONUT: CAJUN CORNER 920 Queen East, 416-703-4477
Forget Tim Hortons and kiss Krispy Kreme goodbye. The finest fritters in town aren't found at a fast food franchise but at this east-side specialty shop that offers New Orleans-style beignets. Only available on weekends and sold by the dozen, these highly addictive deep-fried nuggets will have you wondering what happened to the hole until your first bite. It's on the inside!
BEST FALAFEL: SYRIANDIPITY 671 Queen West, 416-366-3633
Open a few months, this modern Middle Eastern take-away's chickpea patties are the meatiest around. Akram's in the Market ups the ante by using a combination of fava and soy beans instead, as well as wrapping its falafel in whole wheat pitas from Arz Bakery on Lawrence East, while Yonge Street's Pita Break bakes its own double-thickness flavoured flatbreads.
BEST $5 LUNCH: MOTHER'S DUMPLINGS 79 Huron, 416-217-2008
This spotless subterranean Chinese café specializes in delicious house-made Chinese dumpling and noodle dishes that are as much a treat for the pocketbook as for the taste buds, the most expensive priced at $4.95. Runner-up: two $2.50 veggie dogs topped with sweet fried onions at Ernie's hot dog cart at the top of Victoria outside Ryerson.
BEST GREASY SPOON: THE STEM 354 Queen West, 416-593-0530
You can't begin the day any better than with a leisurely plate of eggs over easy sided with home fries, toasted brown and a steaming cup of coffee, parked in the window booth at this most quintessential of Queen West eateries, sun streaming through the glass, morning paper in hand. Now that every other spoon in town has morphed into a trendy trat, the Stem , in business for more than 50 years, deserves a commemorative plaque from the historical board.
BEST GOURMET SUPERMARKET: CHEESE BOUTIQUE 45 Ripley, 416-762-6292
Think Whole Foods is expensive? This hard-to-find one-stop grocery in south Etobicoke makes Pusateri's look like Price Chopper. As operettas play over the PA, locals swarm the aisles of this two-storey space drinking espresso and filling their baskets with pricey organic produce while staff hand out free samples from the wine cellar and cheese-aging vaults. A tour is offered, and celebrity chefs hold cooking demos in the trellis-laced atrium. Almost makes four bucks for a tomato worth it.
BEST GROCERY STORE: PUSATERI FRUIT MARKET 497 Church, 416-923-2043
No, not Pusateri's Fine Foods on Yorkville and Avenue Road, but second cousin Joe 's immaculate fruit 'n' veg stand in the heart of the gay village. For 40 years he's been hitting the Food Terminal daily to guarantee the top produce for his loyal customers. He also stocks his freezer cases with the likes of crab and ricotta agnolotti and his shelves with homemade apple pie. Bonus: the Garage sandwich emporium has just set up shop in the rear of the premises.
BEST HOME DELIVERY: DANGEROUS DAN'S 714 Queen East, 416-463-7310
It's late. You and your drinking buddies have been hitting the Jgermeister when the munchies strike. Why settle for cardboard pizza or substandard chow mein when you can have one of Dan's humongous 8-ounce hamburgers delivered to your front door? Available from noon to midnight, Dan's delivery zone takes in most of the east side and extends across the DVP into Cabbagetown, the Church Street village and the downtown core. For the boundaries, check out www.dangerousdansdiner.com.
BEST ICE CREAM: GREG'S 750 Spadina, 416-962-4734
Greg Mahon jokes that he cooks them over a campfire out back on sticks, but the roasted marshmallows in his most acclaimed ice cream flavour are reason alone to cause year-round lineups out the front door of his tiny Annex parlour. In the Beach, Ed's Real Scoop uses Callebaut chocolate to spectacular effect, St. Clair's La Paloma keeps it traditionally Italian with gelato, and Finch East's Soy-N-Joy carries a super line of vegan ice cream that could convince Elsie the Cow it's dairy.
BEST INDIAN: DHABA 309 King West, 416-740-6622
Of the hundreds of Indo eateries scattered across the GTA, only this upscale room on downtown's touristy restaurant row gets the mix of traditional technique and contemporary polish exactly right. Though most are familiar with its terrific daily lunch buffet, check out the nightly $30 four-course prix fixe to truly experience owner/chef P. K. Singh 's cooking at its most creative.
BEST ITALIAN: THE BIG RAGU 1338 Lansdowne, 416-654-7248
Judging by the sorry state of our Italian restos, one would never guess that Toronto is the second-largest Italian-speaking city in the universe. Sure, La Bruschetta and Marcello's nail the southern family vibe, but only this trad trat gets it to a tee. Dripping candles in Chianti bottles? Check! Red-and-white gingham on the tables, old-school spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, Louis Prima and Dean Martin on the sound system? All aboard! Though it might not be the most sophisticated spot on the Corso Italia, there's certainly none more authentic.
BEST JUICE BAR: THE BIG CARROT 348 Danforth, 416-466-2129
Located on its own common, Toronto's first organic source for juices features more than two dozen cleansing cocktails and vegan shakes as well as a short card of ecologically conscious salads, soups and sandwiches. Queen East's Pulp Kitchen is also worthy, offering nearly 20 nourishing elixirs, including our fave, Detox Darling, a blood-purifying blend of organic apple, kale and lemon juices mixed with wheatgrass and milk thistle.
BEST MEXICAN: EL SOL 1448 Danforth, 416-405-8074
Though an overabundance of Tex-Mex cantinas serve bastardized grub to gringos who don't know any better, Toronto has virtually no authentic Mexican eateries. Of the few that aspire, only El Sol' s Yolanda Paez 's charming east-side spot comes close - spice-rich moles, chile relenos and dynamite guacamole. And, yes, her kitchen takes its time. El Sol should really be called El Slo. If you want fast, there's always Taco Bell.
BEST MUFFIN: URBAN HERBIVORE 64 Oxford, 416-927-1231
With apologies to our Martha, Toronto's most magnificent muffin isn't found on Echo Beach. This vegan co-op headed by Fressen's Stephen Gardner produces the most potent pick-me-up in Kensington since the Greeks stopped serving "special" coffee. Packed with organic fresh fruit - ridiculously ripe raspberries, sun-kissed pineapple - and more fibre than seems necessary, and priced at two bucks each, is there a better instant breakfast in town?
BEST NEW COCKTAIL LOUNGE: DOKU 15 8 Colbourne, 416-368-3658
Despite the fact that it doesn't officially open until early December, this swanky watering hole just off the lobby of the impossibly chic Cosmopolitan Hotel has already attracted Hollywood A-listers Kate Hudson and Woody Harrelson to its low-key glamorous digs. In the tall, narrow, elegantly minimal space , a long, low banquette faces a bar that looks like it's made of melting chocolate. Local fashionistas are already in a tizzy over its imminent lineup of 15 sake-tinis, and paparazzi will appreciate that every celebutante's visible from the street through the all-glass facade.
BEST PATIO: ULTRA 314 Queen West, 416-263-0330
The backyard terrace complete with wading pool, cabanas and massage technicians at Wellington West's C Lounge may have hyped it into the headlines this summer as T.O.'s hottest al fresco scene, but downtown's most exclusive party took place on the roof of the old Bamboo. Equipped with comfy white-on-white South Beach couches and billowing kaftanesque drapes, the deck couldn't be more not-Queen West if it tried. Next season, let's hope Ultra ditches its exclusionary dress code. Who says Bermuda shorts aren't cool?
BEST PLACE TO EAT WITH YOUR HANDS: PHIL'S ORIGINAL BBQ 838 College, 416-532-8161
Next to authentic Mexican food, the one thing Torontonians crave that they can't get locally is Southern U.S.-style barbecue. Though many claim to 'cue the real thing, only Phil Nyman 's west-side smokehouse gets it right: slow-cooked ribs, chicken, pork shoulder and beef brisket that are as much fun to get all over your face as to eat.
BEST REASON TO CONVERT TO VEGETARIANISM: cafe 668 668 Dundas West, 416-703-0668
We've been fans of chef Ngoc Lam 's and partner Hon Quach 's marvellous Southeast Asian vegetarian café for so long now - four years and counting - that every time we return it's like coming home again. Their refreshingly complex card is comforting as well: vibrant salads loaded with shredded herbs and toasted nuts, deep-fried tofu mains served over crispy made-to-order noodles, and to finish, lightly battered bananas in coconut cream.
BEST ROTI: GANDHI 554 Queen West, 416-504-8155
Priced at $10.49, the butter chicken roti sold at this west-side East Indian eatery is not only the tastiest in town, but one of the most expensive - and worth every penny, if only for the house-made wrappers cranked out on a pizza press. For Caribbean-style roti, none is more generous than the substantial 26-ouncer served at St. Clair West's House of Gospel , a dozen or so shrimp in a fabulously flaky dahlpuri wrapper.
BEST SALAD: SUNNY CAFé 322 Bloor West, 416-963-8624
Haven't a clue what to feed a vegan dinner guest? Tucked away in a corner of an Annex health food store, Toronto's first and only organic dairy-free take-away also offers downtown's most extensive health-conscious salad bar. It features old standbys like macrobiotic brown rice with steamed broccoli and beets as well as garlicky tomato tofu salad and Asian greens in sunflower oil vinaigrette, all sold by the kilo.
BEST SANDWICH: MUSTACHIO St. Lawrence Market South, 91 Front East, 416-368-5241
50 Cent don't know shit about sandwiches. There's his autographed glossy pinned to the wall at St. Lawrence's Carousel Bakery, the home of the widely acclaimed peameal bacon on a bun, right next to those of Emeril Lagasse and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Perhaps next time the bulletproof rapper hits town he'll head to the Market's basement instead, where this far superior takeout stand deals massive focaccia-based sandwiches piled high with breaded eggplant, grilled hot peppers and sweet caramelized onion.
BEST SOUP: IT'S ALL GOOD 68 Wales, 416-504-0222
To make his awesome cream of tomato soup, self-taught foodie Ezan Shanta starts with ultra-ripe organic tomatoes grown in his partner, Natalie Sach's, grandmother's back yard, adds fresh basil, rich house-made veggie stock and heavy cream, then blends them to order into an ambrosial purée that only improves with a substantial shot of his signature chipotle hot sauce. Campbell's never had it so mm-mm good.
BEST SPECIAL OCCASION RESTAURANT: SUSUR 601 King West, 416-603-2205
Although it's theoretically possible to eat here nearly every day (even chef Susur Lee regularly takes a needed break in Chinatown), this internationally recognized temple to gastronomy is at the top of most foodies' once-in-a-lifetime wish list. Foie gras three ways, a dazzling tasting menu served in reverse from main to starter and an exceptionally polished crew make Susur Toronto's ultimate dining destination.
BEST STEAK-FRITES: LA PALETTE 256 Augusta, 416-929-4900
After years of perfecting his technique at Queen West's Le Select, chef and co-owner Michael Harrington makes his mark with a cookbook-correct interpretation of the bistro classic, a 10-ounce triple-A black Angus sirloin daubed with herbed butter, sided with ridiculously crisp skinny frites. For a straight order of fries, none beat Jamie Kennedy 's legendary double-fried spuds splashed with lemon mayo and plated in a paper cone, at his Wine Bar on Church.
BEST TAPAS: LAIDE 138 Adelaide East, 416-850-2726
Instead of a series of shared dishes served over a leisurely tipple, tapas to most area restaurateurs translates as smaller plates and higher prices. As primitive porno loops unspool above the bar of this louche east-side lounge, chef Sam Gassira 's concept-correct aps ( snack-sized and cheaper than mains) pan-fried lamb and cashew gyoza, hoisin-glazed baby back ribs - almost steal the show.
BEST THAI: LINDA 335 Yonge, 416-971-7041
When Salad King 's Ernest Liu overhauled his popular Bangkok-style cafeteria, he transformed its unused second floor into an elegant supper club for his wife, Linda Liu . Along with a new upmarket look, she also installed a six-course $49 prix fixe meal deal and a fusion-inspired card that includes Toronto's priciest pad thai. Mind you, at $16.50 a pop, it does come with wild prawns from the Gulf of Mexico.
BEST 24-HouR DINING: OWL OF MINERVA 700 Bloor West, 416-538-3030; 5324 Yonge, at Churchill, 416-221-7275
Toronto's come along way since Fran's was the only 24/7 option in town. This extremely casual Korean café doles out bowls of fiery goulash-style pork bone soup round the clock to the seriously hung-over round the clock. Beats a cheeseburger at Vesta Lunch any time of the day.
Best wine cellar: Le Select Bistro 328 Queen West, soon relocating to 432 Wellington West, 416-596-6405
Expense-account-draining, beef-friendly Centro , Bymark and Harbour Sixty all have well-deserved reps for great wine lists. Those lists are not cheap or surprising, but they are extensive, with all the essential picks. In the Etobicoke neighbourhood once populated by no-tell motels, Via Allegro is an astonishing spot with a head-spinning Italian emphasis and an impressive array of California vintages. But for value and lack of pretence, long-time Queen West mainstay Le Select (moving soon to Wellington) remains the city's best, with its 13,000-plus French-friendly collection. Giancarlo Trattoria is another spot featuring a relatively petite but powerful list, well-chosen and priced, with a solid emphasis on Italian and California.
BEST CURRY: Banjara Indian Cuisine 750 Yonge, 416-963-9360
I am a recent immigrant from England -- the Midlands, to be exact, where it's considered foolish at best and life-threatening at worst to go more than a fortnight without eating curry. When I opened my bank account, I seized the opportunity to quiz my British Indian financial consultant about the best place to go. Her reply was instant and unequivocal. "Banjara. Yonge and Bloor near Hayden, opposite the strip club. Proper curry." Desperate by this stage, having forgone my favourite food for weeks following several crushing disappointments, I marched my husband down there. The paper tablecloths boded well -- a good curry laughs in the face of damask. The Japanese sitar player was random but good. The service was charming, and the food was excellent -- cheap as chips and twice as tasty. I always judge a curry house by the quality of its vegetable side dishes, and they were all delicious. Take it from a girl who comes from Birmingham. - MARILLA WEX
BEST CHINESE FOOD:
Buddha's Vegetarian Foods 666 Dundas West, 416-603-3811
Huge portions, kid-friendly, excellent selection, very loyal following, incredibly inexpensive, always freshly prepared. Best dish: mock duck. - TRACEY THOMAS
Szechwan Chung King Restaurant 428 Spadina, 416-593-0101
I have a friend whose grandfather lives in the country and loathes coming to Toronto. She introduced him to Chung King, and now he makes extra trips to the city just to eat the garlic broccoli. We've been going there for at least 16 years, and it has yet to disappoint. - INGRID SIKORCIN