Toronto’s 25 Hottest Restaurants 2013

We like our drink strong, our music loud and our food outrageously over the top. And quick - the faster the better. Reservations? Don't need 'em. Besides, who knows what we're doing 15 minutes from now, let alone a week next Friday night. Lineups? No sweat. They only add to the buzz. The resto rules are changing: we eat here NOW!


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25. Guu

398 Church, at McGill, 416-977-0999 559 Bloor W, at Bathurst, 647-343-1101, guu-izakaya.com

Launched with considerable fanfare four years ago, this Vancouver-based chain of Japorean izakayas was immediately hailed as the greatest thing to hit our local resto scene since sliced bread or the death knell of fine dining. Us? We’re somewhere in between.

We’re not that crazy about lining up in the cold to be yelled at in unison by the samurai staff, nor are we overly fond of cheese in our otherwise exemplary bi bim bap. And a two-hour time limit on tables isn’t anybody’s idea of hospitality. But now that both kitchens offer lunch – combo specials like meat loaf in a soy demi-glace with banchan pickles ‘n’ rice, or a respectable bowl of shoyu chicken ramen with caramelized onion – and they’ve even stooped to take reservations, we’ll turn into regulars yet.

Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm (both locations). Dinner nightly 5 to 11:30 pm (Church), Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to 12:30 am (Bloor). Average main $10. Licensed. Access: barrier-free (Church) barrier-free, washrooms in basement (Bloor). Rating: NNN

Photo by David Laurence


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24. La Carnita

501 College, at Palmerston, 416-964-1555, lacarnita.com.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the folks behind Grand Electric should be dead chuffed. Not only does this College Street cantina knock off the Parkdale spot’s low-rent decor and retro hip-hop soundtrack, but its neo Tex-Mex carte is mighty familiar as well. They even hand you a piece of allegedly collectable artwork with the bill. But while all of GE’s tacos cost $3.50, La Carnita’s come in closer to $5.

The room’s three times the size, so any peak-time lineups are usually short-lived. Still, they patiently form for owner/chef Andrew Richmond’s signature In Cod We Trust fish tacos lashed with lime, crema fresca and spicy tahini-like Voltron sauce, and grilled corn on the cob slathered with sharp Mexican cheese. He finishes southern-fried chicken with pickled cabbage and peanut mole and tops tostadas with beef tongue and grilled pineapple. Dessert can only mean popsicle-like key lime paletas coated with crumbled pie crust.

Service is even faster than Electric’s. Last Sunday brunch, the table next to ours slammed back a round of 40s and a couple of tacos apiece and were back on the street half an hour later.

Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm, Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Brunch Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. No reservations. Average main $10. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN

Photo by Michael Watier


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23. Oddseoul

90 Ossington, at Humbert, twitter.com/to_oddseouls.

Though some are calling Leemo and Leeto Han’s four-month-old Ossington hot-spot the best new restaurant of the year, some things about it leave us cold.

Oddseoul very much follows the script. The shotgun storefront is dark, very dark, the potables potent, and the Momofukian menu of bits ‘n’ bites gets listed on a cheap plastic sign tacked to the wall. The kind of a hip-hop popular with 14-year-old boys 20 years ago booms from speakers overhead. I swear I heard Maestro Fresh Wes complain that his backbone had slid.

And then there’s the food, some of it hit, more of it miss. The kitchen sends out deftly re-engineered Big Macs (“The Loosey”) composed of shredded short ribs, processed American cheese and the inevitable sesame-seed bun garnished with kimchee, of course. Poutine gets reinterpreted as cubes of deep-fried squash and cheese curds in curried gravy drizzled with Kewpie mayo. Delish!

Though mix ‘n’ match ssam platters have been on the menu at Swish from the get-go, lettuce wraps are starting to get a little passé après Chantecler and David Chang et al. Where’s the creativity we fell in love with at Swish by Han on Wellington?

Instead of merely running with the pack, Oddseoul should be top dog.

Nightly 6 pm to 2 am. Closed some holidays. Average main $9. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN

Photo by David Laurence


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22. A-OK Foods

930 Queen W, at Ossington, 647-352-2243, aokfoods.ca.

Despite its intentionally generic handle, this low-budget sibling to Yours Truly is anything but ordinary.

Yes, seating is little more than communal picnic tables, and the room’s been painted a garish glossy turquoise, all the better to go with the cheap plastic dishes they serve almost everything on. And unless you want to be disappointed, don’t order the ramen.

Oh, they try valiantly, making their own broth and noodles from scratch. And the cold tsukemen-style version laced with a flotilla of numbing Szechuan peppers would kill on a hot summer’s night. No, the reason you come to A-OK is the all-over-the-map starters.

We could easily make a meal out of chef Chris Jang’s ‘Fuku-inspired Brussels sprouts sautéed with smoky pancetta and finished with wiggly bonita flakes. Greek-ish salads come tossed with braised beef tongue, red radish and Mexican feta. And what au courant menu’s complete without sous-vide Korean pork ssam-style lettuce wraps?

Stick to the winners and dinner will be more than A-OK.

Wednesday to Sunday for lunch 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner 5:30 to 10 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. No reservations. Average main $8. Licensed. Access: nine steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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21. Bristol Yard

146 Christie, at Pendrith, 647-716-6583.

Weekend brunch at Davy Love’s retro UK-style café is such a crowd-pleaser, the former club DJ now has to offer it five days a week.

The cozy west-side storefront certainly looks the part, it’s walls plastered with a photographic rogues’ gallery of 60s pop and TV stars like John Steed and Mrs. Peel from the Avengers and the Who’s Keith Moon, the carefully curated period soundtrack a trip back to a groovier time.

Yes, there are proper meat pies – minced pork, Melton Mowbray, the none-more-British chicken tikka – as well as house-made bangers and Cumberland sausage. The more herbivorous will have to make do with a very convincing vegetarian shepherd’s pie. Those with uncommonly expansive appetites will be thankful for the Full Monty fry-up and the Glasgow Cheeseburger, thick slices of meat-loaf-like Lorne sausage in sausage gravy sandwiched between slices of fried-potato scone. Defibrillator, anyone?

And you won’t want to miss Love’s just-introduced Friday-night $20 three-course beef Wellington suppers. We’re sure Gordon Ramsay would bloody likely approve.

Brunch Wednesday to Friday 9 am to 3 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Dinner Friday 7:30 to 10 pm, Sunday 6 to 10 pm. Closed Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. No reservations. Average main $10. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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20. Sabai Sabai

225 Church, at Dundas E, 647-748-4225, sabaisabaito.ca.

The last thing Toronto needs is another Thai restaurant.

But that hasn’t stopped Sukhothai’s Jeff and Nuit Regular and company from venturing into previously uncharted waters, saying goodbye to pad thai and hello to Sabai’s Thai tapas. That’s not to say the inordinately talented chef Nuit has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Her sensationally creamy khao soi still rides a bed of linguini-like noodles, only the portion’s grown somewhat smaller, and her panang shrimp continues to pack a punch.

But now you’ll also find pitchers of muddled kaffir lime mojitos and stir-fried morning glory stems in fiery Red Flame sauce. A remarkably spicy beef soup arrives thick with wide rice noodles and finished with lime and crushed peanuts. Stir-fried shrimp still in the shell come anointed with holy basil, while hot ‘n’ sour chicken wings taste deliciously of the grill.

One bite of Regular’s sensational curried fish custard – a fluffy mousse more like – and you’ll never settle for bad Thai again.

Lunch daily 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, dinner nightly 5:30 to 11 pm. Closed some holidays. Average main $8. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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19. Momofuku Noodle Bar

190 University, at Adelaide W, 647-253-8000, momofuku.com/toronto/noodle-bar-to.

Has there ever been a local restaurant this hyped in advance and so disappointing on delivery as superstar Manhattan chef David Chang’s three-storey restaurant pavilion in the luxe Shangri-La Hotel? And apart from the tourists who stay there, who can afford it, when a rib-eye with Yorkshire pudding alone goes for $600 for six at Daisho on the second, and the multi-course tasting menu costs $150 a head at Shoto on the third floor?

But back at the entry-level Noodle Bar, Momofuku’s a different story. At 15 bucks, ramen might seem pricy to those used to Kenzo, but the quality’s all there in the bowl, his house-made mein sufficiently alkaline, his pork-based broth deeply flavoured. A root veg as maligned as cauliflower scales unimagined heights when combined with crispy “spaghetti” configured from carrots and umami-rich fish sauce vinaigrette.

And don’t say he didn’t warn you. Listed on the menu as “very spicy noodles,” these fragrant suckers get their kick from shredded red chili and tongue-numbing Szechuan peppers.

Lunch daily 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner nightly 5 to 11 pm. Closed holidays. No reservations. Average main $14. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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18. Strada 241

241 Spadina, at Grange, 647-351-1200, strada241.com.

If Guy and Michael Rubino have their way, Chinatown is the next hot new resto nabe.

That’s where the televisual twosome found an enormous 19th-century warehouse space and transformed into one of downtown’s chicest trats. Up front, there’s an all-day caffeinated café that gives nearby Dark Horse a run for its money, while out back a second, slightly more formal dining room offers the usual pasta ‘n’ pizza suspects.

Of the former, we’re fond of the brothers’ tomato-sauced linguini à la puttanesca tossed with Little Neck clams and capers and their house salad so large it could be a main course. For two people! But it’s their pizza that causes lineups at noon and dinner – appropriately thin Neapolitan-style pies dressed simply with sweet family-recipe ragu and a few fresh basil leaves or more lavishly with sauce, mozzarella di bufala, sliced mushrooms, wilted arugula and wild boar cacciatore.

At this rate, Spadina and Dundas could be the next Little Italy!

Sunday to Wednesday noon to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday noon to midnight. Café weekdays from 7 am, weekends from 8 am. Closed some holidays. Average main $16. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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17. Hawthorne Food & Drink

60 Richmond E, at Church, 647-930-9517, twitter.com/hawthorneto.

Given the professionalism on display at this exceedingly polished bistro, some may find it hard to believe that almost half its staff are taking part in a three-month paid internship sponsored by local hotels and the hospitality workers’ union.

Now ex-executive chef Eric Wood helmed a similar program at Fabarnak. If you’ve ever enjoyed the food at Fab, you’ll recognize what Wood now calls the Four-Square Deal, a four-course mini tasting menu that changes every day and goes for as little as $16 at lunch. It’s quite the meal deal, one day Korean-inspired cabbage rolls followed by a wheat berry-mushroom risotto, house cured Arctic char over fennel slaw and a textbook sticky toffee.

The kids slow-cook hanger steak à la sous vide, then skilfully plate it over chunky Kennebec frites and spicy house-made ketchup. The beignets that accompany the Earl Grey brûlée could double as bear claws – the pastry, not the feet of grizzlies.

See for yourself when weekend brunch starts later this month.

Lunch Monday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, dinner Wednesday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, some holidays. Average main $22 dinner/$13 lunch. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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16. Actinolite

971 Ossington, at Hallam, 416-962-8943, actinoliterestaurant.com.

Someone once said that quiet is the new loud. Or I think that’s what he said I couldn’t hear above the racket.

Think of ex-Susur sous Justin Cournoyer and partner Claudia Bianchi’s off-the-beaten-track eatery as the anti-Guu. Oh, the rewards are still great – it’s just that they don’t hit you over the head with them.

Against a backdrop of low-level 80s electro, diners of a certain age tuck into opening salvos of just-baked bread and health-conscious kale salads heaped with apple and shredded cheddar.

Mains are equally subtle. Herbivores will note the winter-root gnocchi tossed with toasted almonds and exotic ‘shrooms, while the less adventurous meat ‘n’ potato set can stick with grilled blood-rare Angus skirt steak and charred fingerling spuds.

Can’t make up your mind? Opt for chef’s $75 seven-course tasting menu.

Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 6 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Average main $25. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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15. 416 Snack Bar

181 Bathurst, at Queen W, 416-364-9320, 416snackbar.wordpress.com.

It might seem that just about everybody and their sous-chef has jumped aboard the multiculti small-plate bandwagon, but Adrian Ravinsky and David Stewart’s diminutive dive on what was once one of the most notorious corners in town got there first. And they’re still miles ahead of most of the Joni-come-latelies.

Who but the 416 would have the audacity to put together charcuterie-style seafood platters groaning with scallop ceviche, grilled calamari salad, Arctic char fish cakes and kimchee-topped Caraquet oysters and charge 11 bucks, tax-included. Or stack four-bite Reuben sandwiches with house-smoked brisket, sauerkraut and pricy Le 1608 from Laiterie Charlevoix Dairy sourced from endangered cows for $7? They even manage a take on Trinidadian doubles made with freshly baked dumplings and spicily stewed chick peas.

Just don’t show up on Friday night after 11 with a party of 12 and presume you’ll blag a table. It’ll never happen. Tuesday night? Possible.

Nightly 5 pm to 2 am. Closed some holidays. Average main $6. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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14. Kingyo

51B Winchester, at Parliament, 647-748-2121, kingyotoronto.ca.

We fell in love with this spacious Cabbagetown izakaya the second we clapped eyes on a Godzilla movie unspooling over the bar to the soundtrack of vintage Roy Orbison. There’s nothing quite like someone in a rubber suit stomping over Tokyo to the histrionic bleating of It’s Over.

This Vancouver import’s contemporary Japorean carte is just as theatrical. Festooned with carrot “flowers,” rice-paper salad rolls stuffed with chashu pork and all manner of greenery arrive splayed over artfully arranged leaves of radicchio. Briefly seared tataki-style tuna shows up alongside a vial of ponzu oil and a toss of deep-fried garlic chips. And noodle aficionados will appreciate salads of spicy cold ramen dressed à la bi bim bap with salty cod roe, barbecued pork and eggy tamago.

Order the sticky chicken wings and get a side of little white pills that, once a stream of hot water is poured on them, turn into handy moist towelettes!

Nightly 5:30 pm to midnight. Average main $12. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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13. 3030

3030 Dundas W, at High Pk, 416-769-5736, 3030dundaswest.com.

There’s no question that the Junction is quickly becoming the hottest nabe in town. Problem is, it’s too damned far from downtown. Next stop, Hamilton.

But if we lived round the corner from this cavernous music club/café/art gallery and part-time knitting cabal, we’d be here every night. The chalkboard roster of obscure local microbrews alone would make us regulars, and servers who manage to be both flirty and informed don’t hurt. And the room’s so large – a former Bad Boy store, we’re told – that if you’re not into watching the band, they’re not in your lap.

We’ll gladly fight crosstown traffic for ex-Grand Electric chef Adisa Brian Glasgow’s pan-global tapas, all priced at 5 bucks a plate. There are Indo butter chicken wings frenched like lollipops, with cashew raita, and Momofuku-style steamed bao layered with King Cole duck confit. Crispy popcorn chicken gets paired with Trinidadian peanut sauce, while extremely chunky fries come with an intoxicatingly smoky pepper dip.

But be sure to save room for his primo sautéed chicken livers in veal demi-glace – on rye yet. Half an hour closer to downtown they’d be more than twice the price.

Dinner Tuesday to Sunday 6 pm to midnight, bar 5 pm till close. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. No reservations. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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12. Karelia Kitchen

1194 Bloor W, at Brock, 647-748-1194, kareliakitchen.com.

Toronto is clearly obsessed with brunch. And why shouldn’t we be? When else do you get the opportunity to check out somewhere new without taking out a second mortgage?

And no one does that democratic midday meal more stylishly than this all-day Scandinavian café in burgeoning Bloordale. There, owner/chefs Leif Kravis and Donna Ashley have created a distinctly Nordic card that takes in everything from extravagantly decorated open-faced smorrebrod sandwiches (not seen locally since the Copenhagen Room in the Colonnade closed in the 70s) to ABBA-tastic Swedish meatballs.

But the unequivocal star of the show is their Smokehouse Platter, a veritable smorgasbord of house-smoked or house-cured salmon, trout, chicken and pork tenderloin sided with sweetly pickled grapes and a raft of various Ryvitas.

Take that, Hoof Café!

Brunch Saturday 11:30 am to 3 pm, Sunday 10 am to 3 pm. A la carte menu Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to 9 pm, dinner Saturday 5 to 9 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. No reservations. Average main $12. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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11. Ortolan

1211 Bloor W, at Margueretta, 647-348-4500, littledrunkbird.com.

Could owner/chefs Damon Clements and Daniel Usher’s Bloordale bistro be the ideal restaurant?

It is if you’re looking for a cozy 28-seat resto slightly off the beaten track in Bloordale with a short seasonal-ingredient-driven card and a largely VQA wine cellar listed at prices that won’t break the bank. You’re also in luck if you’re looking for servers who aren’t so laid-back they’re comatose.

Smooth pâté-like rabbit rillettes still get spread on crusty Thuet baguette, and pillowy house-made gnocchi arrive in a rich mascarpone cream right on schedule. And only a fool would miss following ridiculously tender slices of flat-iron steak in spicy Moroccan harissa with a cookbook-correct panna cotta scented with lavender and strewn with stewed strawberries.

And guess who now takes reservations for groups up to five as long as they spend $45 per head? Sounds like win-win from here.

Dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Average main $19. Licensed. Access: slight bump at door, tight tables, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by Michael Watier


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10. Richmond Station

1 Richmond W, at Yonge, 647-748-1444, richmondstation.ca.

With a career trajectory that goes from Daniel Boulud’s Bistro Moderne in both New York City and Vancouver to Marben on Wellington West to winning the second season of Top Chef Canada, Carl Heinrich makes it all look effortless.

It helps that he’s a seriously nice guy, damn his 26 young years. You’ll see that easy-going professionalism all over this split-level room. Servers are unusually engaging and clearly enjoy interacting with customers. No cold shoulders here.

Heinrich’s updated comfort food carte is equally accessible. He pairs warm house-baked bread with pricy cold-pressed canola oil, and crisp polenta fries with a timeless marinara sauce. Co-owner Ryan Donovan’s (another Marben vet) charcuterie boards are edible works of art. Naturally raised coq au vin luxuriates on a bed of creamy pommes purée, while the best upmarket burger in town gets sided with correctly skinny frites and a salad of roasted radishes.

And if that isn’t enough, he throws in a couple of house-made salted caramels with the bill.

Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Average main $23. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, eight steps to washrooms. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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9. Ursa

924 Queen W, at Shaw, 416-536-8963, ursa-restaurant.com.

When it comes to resto rules, this darkly lit west-side eatery rewrote the book, no surprise when you learn that co-owner/chef Jacob Sharkey Pearce’s background is in sports nutrition.

Perhaps that explains starters like elk tartare with jerky, sumac and pine bark, and an outrageously tall salad composed of sculpted root vegetables, edible flowers and what chef refers to as “foliage.” Not surprisingly, mains go the locavore route, his Georgian Bay whitefish over cedar-infused pommes purée with pickled juniper a recent highlight. And who can pass up dessert when it consists of warm made-to-order ricotta, local bee pollen, a chunk of honey comb, a smashed pomegranate and dehydrated grapes still on the vine?

Not up for the standard meat ‘n’ two veg? Pearce and crew are about to introduce a streamlined three-course card for spring with smaller portions – and smaller prices – to offset their late-night tapas card.

“It’s like a tasting menu without advance notice,” says Pearce.

And some wonder why NOW named Ursa the best new restaurant of 2012!

Dinner Tuesday to Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Reservations recommended. Bar till late. Closed Monday. Average main $25. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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8. Hawker Bar

164 Ossington, at Foxley, 647-343-4698, hawkerbar.ca.

We blame the British Commonwealth.

How else to explain our unique cross-pollination of pan-Asian and Afro-Caribbean cuisines? Australia gets it, too, as witness Melbourne-born chef Alec Martin’s inspired spins on Singaporean street food at this quintessentially Ossington watering hole.

Perched on logs, we hit the road running with soft-poached Son-in-Law Eggs that literally explode on contact, and a perfectly acceptable vegan interpretation of chicken laksa, because we’re like that. But it’s his whole deep-fried sea bream that steals the show, a great flaky flounder doused in garlicky sweet ‘n’ sour sauce served over a bed of cabbage slaw tossed with cherry tomatoes and a pair of “dice” cleverly fashioned from dragon fruit. He even makes a wicked mock mojito.

Authentic? Maybe not. Terrific? No question!

Monday to Friday 5 pm to close, Saturday and Sunday 11:45 am to close. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Average main $12. Licensed. Access: three steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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7. Kinton Ramen

51 Baldwin, at Beverley, 647-748-8900, kintonramen.com.

Everybody loves ramen.

The management of this spatially challenged Baldwin Village noodle house have even had to post rules of acceptable conduct for the perpetual mob outside, “You will be seated when everyone in your party has arrived” our favourite. And then there’s the warning that “we may not be able to seat you if we run out of soup.”

Oh, but what soup! Start with a complex blend of pork, chicken and unidentified fish broth, then lace with either shio sea salt, miso soybean paste or shoyu soy sauce. Load up with squiggly house-made mein, gorgeously fatty chashu pork and a perfectly timed yolky egg and let the slurping begin. There’s even a twisted Italian version garnished with Swiss cheese, Thai basil and a great whack of garlic – so much, in fact, that the basement washrooms are stocked with bottles of mouthwash.

And remember the first rule of ramen: it’s considered exceptionally bad form to leave anything in your bowl.

Lunch daily 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to midnight. No reservations. Average main $11. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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6. Grand Electric

1330 Queen W, at Elm Grove, 416-627-3459, grandelectricbar.com.

Has Hogtown ever seen a feeding frenzy as hysterical as the one that greeted the launch of this wacky taqueria two years ago? You had to arrive 45 minutes before the tiny Parkdale beanery threw open its doors, and even then you wouldn’t be guaranteed admission. When the city recently put the kibosh on a planned expansion upstairs, the lines only seemed to grow longer.

However, now that GE does lunch every day, show up around noon and you’ll have the 28-seat joint virtually to yourselves. Start with crispy tostadas layered with fried runny-yolked eggs, crumbled chorizo and hick’ry sticks, followed by pliable tortillas dressed with lightly battered tilapia and shredded radish, or deep-fried cauliflower and scallion. And only a vegan, a pyrophobe or possibly both would pass up southern-fried chicken doused in five-alarm hot sauce.

As for the incessant gangsta rap played at punishing volume, I’ve heard louder and more hardcore at my grandmother’s house. But then, she is a little hard of hearing.

Lunch daily 11:30 am to 4 pm, dinner Monday to Wednesday 5:30 pm to midnight, Thursday to Sunday 5:30 pm to 1 am. No reservations. Average main $7. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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5. Hoof Cafe @ Hoof Raw Bar

926 Dundas W, at Gore Vale, 647-346-9356, theblackhoof.com.

Some things are even better the second time around.

Seemimgly shuttered for good two years ago, Jennifer Agg’s insanely popular sequel to her equally celebrated Black Hoof rises from the dead in new digs across the street from the original. A comfortable room and less hung-over staff combined with chef Amancio dos Santos’s all-day brunch guarantee full houses, especially on the weekend, when queues are the rule rather than the exception.

And worth them, too. The Cafe’s groundbreaking Benny now features shaved beef tongue instead of suckling pig, their eggs poached to an exact yolky 62.5C. Dos Santos reimagines Egg McMuffins from fried eggs and blood sausages, and dresses old-school waffles with slightly frazzled sweetbreads. And no visit to the Hoof is complete without the absurdly rich French toast topped with seared foie gras.

We just wish they’d bring back those fantabulous bone-marrow-infused beignets of yore. One resurrection at a time, we suppose.

Thursday to Saturday 10 am to 3 pm, Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Closed Monday to Wednesday, holidays. No reservations. Average main $14. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, three steps to washroom. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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4. Bent

777 Dundas W, at Markham, 647-352-0092, bentrestaurant.com.

The indefatigable Susur Lee has been at the forefront of the Toronto dining scene for the past 30 (!) years, his culinary CV littered with legendary names like Lotus, Oceans and the eponymous Susur and Lee.

But when we first heard that Toronto’s undisputed top chef and his two young sons, Kai and Levi, were opening a swanky resto-lounge at Bathurst and Dundas, it sounded like a recipe for disaster. Like Toronto Western Hospital and a 24-hour McDonalds drive-thru are the market for avant-garde gastronomy and cutting-edge mixology.

Sometimes we’re wrong. It turns out that Bent – named for Lee’s designer wife, Brenda Bent, who’s responsible for the room’s striking decor – is some of the ponytailed toque’s best work yet. He wraps cubes of silken tofu in house-cured gravlax, brilliantly contrasts raw sushi-style tuna with watermelon, and stuffs taro-shelled tacos with shredded lobster and charred onion salsa. Servers are both formal and friendly as needed, and dessert’s always on the house.

We agree with the retro Grace Jones dance mix on the sound system. Dinner at Bent is truly la vie en rose.

Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Bar till close. Closed Sunday, Monday, some holidays. Average main $16. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by Michael Watier


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3. Banh Mi Boys

392 Queen W, at Spadina, 416-363-0588, banhmiboys.com.

They don’t call David, Philip and Peter Chan the Banh Mi Boys for nothing.

Not only did the brothers grow up working at their family’s string of Saigon sub shops, but they also put in time at the bakery their parents own that supplies nearly every Vietnamese takeout joint in town. You could say banh mi is in their blood.

So it’s understandable that they’d launch their own operation, only something a little different and uniquely Toronto. Instead of mystery meats and vaguely porkish pâtés, they stuff their flaky French loaves with veal meatballs and five-spiced ‘n’ grilled pork belly. Steamed Chinese bao get piled with deep-fried tofu, pickled radish and squiggles of miso sauce.

And no tortillas for these Boys. Their sweet Korean bulgogi beef tacos optionally dressed with jalapeño come wrapped in Indian paratha flatbread. And did we mention the sweet potato fries topped with kimchee, pulled pork and Kewpie mayo?

Keep it under your hipster fedora, but the new BMB is scheduled to open as soon as next Friday (April 12) at 399 Yonge, in the old Coronet grindhouse.

Monday to Friday 11 am to 10 pm, Saturday 11 am to 9 pm, Sunday noon to 7 pm. Closed some holidays. Average main $6. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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2. Chantecler

1320 Queen W, at Brock, 416-628-3586, restaurantchantecler.ca.

Jacob Wharton-Shukster and Jonathan “Johnny” Poon have the best of both worlds.

Most nights their deeply romantic 26-seat Parkdale bistro is packed to the gills for its wallet-friendly lettuce wraps, and rightly so. Where else will $21 get you a generous plate of nuevo Korean-style braised pork shoulder and Chinese-inspired beef ribs sided with steamed rice, house-made pickles and a stack o’ baby Bibb? Why, that’s half what David Chang charges at Daisho!

Better yet, be far-sighted enough to reserve weeks in advance one of the only two tables available Friday and Saturday and come back for chef Poon’s ever-evolving tasting menu, a multiculti mashup of East-meet-West fusion the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the early days of a certain Susur Lee.

You’ll see baked oysters on the half-shell finished with Parmesan bread crumbs, and steak tartare studded with peanuts and coriander stalk. Seared geoduck over cucumber threads. Twice-smoked duck over decorative kale nicked from a nearby front porch. And flash-fried pears with ice-shocked caramel, all washed down with individually paired fruit juice cocktails.

Lucky sods.

Monday and Wednesday 6 to 11 pm, Thursday and Friday 6 pm to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 6 pm to 1 am. Bar nightly till close. Closed Tuesday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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1. Electric Mud

5 Brock, at Queen W, 416-516-8286, twitter.com/electricmudbbq.

Our apologies, Grand Electric, but your days as downtown’s reigning “it spot” are over. As if GE’s Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan should worry. They own the Mud – conveniently located in a blacked-out bunker around the corner – too.

One rarely sees so much attention paid to non-detail, from the cheesy neon beer signs that light the 24-seat room to the cheap chipboard and exposed wiring on the walls. Set against a cranked soundtrack of non-stop ZZ Top and Exile-era Stones, chef Ben Denham’s nouveau Southern barbecue card mirrors that smirky irreverence, whether it’s beefy slow-smoked side ribs of Flintstonian proportions finished with a salty sweet ‘n’ sour Thai glaze or deconstructed pastrami sandwiches of fatty cured pork belly, house-pickled dills and unapologetically white bread. Toasted, of course, as are most of the would-be lumberjack clientele.

Oh boy, Doughboy! One bite of Denham’s house-baked buns spread with porky pan drippings and you’ll understand why he calls them crack rolls. Sides are classics like collard greens and coleslaw – but all with that post-ironic twist – while desserts careen between atypically flavoured soft ice cream (e.g., bay leaf) and banana cream pies smushed into Mason-Dixon jars.

But until the patio out front opens later this spring, show up early or expect to get put on the list. For, like, next Tuesday. Don’t queue for ‘cue? Mud now does takeout!

Wednesday to Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Bar till close. Closed Monday, Tuesday, some holidays. No reservations. Average main $12. Licensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, tight seating, washrooms upstairs. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence

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