Toronto’s 25 Hottest Restaurants 2014

Where to eat and drink... right now!


Nobody said anything about best. These are the restos everyone talks about, the joints du jour where the music is loud and the chef’s likely covered in ink. Their hashtags trend on social media. Reservations? We laugh. Foodies are fickle. Thirteen of the cutting-edge cantinas included last year – popular boîtes like OddSeoul, Ortolan and Hawker Bar – failed to make the new list. Two more – Hoof Café and A-OK Foods – closed their doors. As Project Runway’s Heidi Klum says, “One day you’re in and the next one you’re out.” Here’s what’s hot right NOW!


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25. Home of the Brave (NEW THIS YEAR!)

589 King W, at Portland, 416-366-2736, thehotb.com, @theHOTB

American-themed junk-food menu kinda like 416 Snack Bar that’s best enjoyed when bombed out of your skull? Check. Bartender with waxed moustache pouring bourbon and root beer cocktails? Present. Skinny waiters with tat sleeves letting their backbone slide to K-Tel’s Hip-Hop Hits of the 90s played at an appalling volume? 10-4!

Say hello if you will to Home, the latest operation from La Carnita taco king Andrew Richmond. And while the decor’s a little too obvious – reclaimed barnboard, Edison light bulbs, old road signs that look like they fell off the back of a truck – chef de cuisine Nathan Middleton’s trashy trailer-park carte often hits the mark.

There is deep-fried cauliflower of the Buffalo chicken-wing persuasion and buckets of meaty Kansas City-style pork ‘n’ beef ribs with house-pickled celery stalks. But our hands-down favourite is the Kentucky Fried Handshake, a regulation hamburger bun dressed with retro mayo and iceberg lettuce, then stuffed with a brined, battered and deep-fried thigh of juicy chicken with its leg, foot and claws still attached.

And look who’s now doing lunch.

Lunch Monday to Friday from noon, dinner Monday to Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to 2 am. Closed Sunday, some holidays. No reservations. Average main $18. Licensed. Access: 11 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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24. Ursa (LAST YEAR NO. 9)

924 Queen W, at Shaw, 416-536-8963, ursarestaurant.com, @ursarestaurant

You never know what you’re going to get from Jacob Sharkey Pearce.

One minute the alarmingly adventurous chef is sculpting skyscraping salads out of curlicued heirloom carrots, fermented burdock and barely blanched candy-cane beets, the next it’s a dessert created from bee pollen, honeycomb and dehydrated grapes still on the vine. Of late, he’s taken to turning insect protein – translation: crickets – into pasta. His devoted regulars can’t get enough.

But there’s more to Ursa. It’s not all $105 nine-course extravaganzas. Those of us on more restricted budgets can now sit at the bar and order a $15 tasting plate – raw yellow-tail hamachi with blood-orange salsify and cured sea urchin, perhaps? He’s also got a brunch project in the works.

“The food is much better than it’s ever been and far more intelligent,” says Pearce. “But first I had to fire all the big egos who were trying to help me.”

Nightly 6 to 11 pm. Bar till late. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $30. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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23. Hudson Kitchen (NEW THIS YEAR!)

800 Dundas W, at Palmerston, 416-644-8839, hudsonkitchen.com, @hudsonkitchen

Sprung on the public with considerable fanfare during last year’s film fest, this rather ordinary-looking Dundas West boîte was host to several Hollywood A-list galas. Rumour has it that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston – together again! – are still holed up in the basement party room with Matthew McConaughey.

Former Woodlot sous and Ursa chef de cuisine Robbie Hojilla’s solid carte is as deserving of the spotlight. At dinner, he festoons broccoli salads with paper-thin sheets of imported Serrano ham and crumbles of strong Manchego cheese. His gnocchi with braised beef come in a classic veloute.

But its his unconventional brunch that we adore, bennys dressed not with boring ol’ ham ‘n’ hollandaise but corned veal brisket and sauerkraut and French toast finished with sweet Filipino glazed pork. A straightforward steak tartar pays tribute to former employer Marc Thuet, its dizzying flavours offset by the understated elegance of the plate.

Tuesday to Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Weekend brunch 10 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $25. Licensed. Access: bump at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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22. Skin + Bones (NEW THIS YEAR!)

980 Queen E, at Carlaw, 416-524-5209, skinandbonesto.com, @skinandbonesto

Launched at the tail end of 2012, ex-Enoteca Sociale partner Daniel Clarke and company’s urbane Leslieville bistro has been something of a hard sell out here in the land o’ Lady Marmalade. We blame the optics of the Bones’ inaugural “champagne campaign,” even if the bubbly in question was half-price.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and that’s precisely why Clarke introduced a family-friendly Sunday brunch buffet over Christmas. Skin’s been packed to the rafters with SUV strollers ever since. Did we mention that sprogs under five eat for free?

We like to start à la carte with Cowbell sous Tara Lee’s sensational porchetta Benny, a great slab of crackling pig in textbook hollandaise over cheesy polenta. Other mornings, we opt for fancy de Puy lentils with beefy king mushrooms and one perfectly poached egg. Buy either and get access to the buffet for only another 3 bucks. House-baked cinnamon buns still warm from the oven and house-cured charcuterie like bresaola and fatty fennel-flecked salami make return trips mandatory.

Sunday 10 am to 2 pm dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $18. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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21. District Oven (NEW THIS YEAR!)

842 College, at Ossington, 416-901-7717, districtoven.com, @DistrictOvenTO

According to three of the 10 bestselling titles sold at the influential and now sadly defunct Cookbook Store, the style of Middle Eastern cookery popularized by Israeli-born chef and Guardian food writer Yotam Ottolenghi is the next big thing. You don’t have to tell that to Isam Kaisi, who’s been demonstrating that there’s more to the cuisine of the so-called Holy Land than falafel at 93 Harbord on, er, Harbord since the early aughties. Long in the planning, his recently launched Oven is only the latest stage. And what a stage! A bygone Portuguese sports bar, the new cavernous room sports the titular wood-burning ovens alongside elaborate chandeliers, coffee tables reconfigured from driftwood and enough red tufted leather banquettes to outfit a dozen THR & Co’s. Kaisi’s tapas-like card marks a major move upmarket as well, from the flatbread pizzas dressed with halloumi and fresh figs to the fall-from-the-bone duck legs à la tagine. We’re particularly partial to his meaty cauliflower “steak” with creamy Israeli couscous, a vegetarian main that could convert the most uncompromising of carnivores to the cause.

Nightly 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Late-night menu Friday and Saturday till midnight. Bar to close. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $20. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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20. Big Crow (NEW THIS YEAR!)

176 Dupont, at St George, 647-748-3287, roseandsonsbigcrow.com, @roseandsons

If there was any year to not open an outdoor barbecue restaurant – granted one tented and heated and equipped with Hudson Bay blankets – it was this it. Chilly? Toronto hasn’t seen a winter this bitterly cold since Barbara Ann Scott skated across Lake Ontario in 1953.

But that didn’t stop ex-Drake Hotel chef Anthony Rose from launching the Crow. And he certainly didn’t listen to the purists who say that what he does isn’t true Southern barbecue, it’s burning meat over an open fire. Nor did he complain about the paparazzi camped out front whenever Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska popped by for a bite to eat.

We were too busy to notice, knocking back his deliciously grilled rabbit in honeyed-butter hot sauce sided with chunky potato salad thick with blue cheese, scallion and barbecued bacon. Or maybe it was the fault of his house-baked Nanaimo bars and the pitchers of Purple Jesus?

Look for lightning to strike twice when Rose unveils the Middle Eastern-themed Fat Pasha in the old Indian Rice Factory a few blocks west later this season.

Nightly 5 pm to close. Weekend brunch 11 am to 3 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $26. Licensed. Access: three steps at door, three steps to washroom. Rating: NNNN

Photo by Michael Watier


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19. Valdez (NEW THIS YEAR!)

606 King W, at Portland, 416-363-8388, valdezrestaurant.com, @thevaldezTO

Found down the same unmarked alleyway as Buca, original Origin chef and season-one Top Chef Canada contestant Steve Gonzalez’s King West kitchen comes across as more nightclub than noshery. All that’s missing is the red velvet rope.

Latino street food is the unlikely bill of fare. While the glammed-up bunch at the next table dig into guacamole and chips – the latter of the plantain, yucca and taro variety – we’re laying waste to a substantial bowl of vegan ceviche, its “compressed” cubes of citrusy melon tossed with slippery strips of seaweed. A petite trio of empanadas stuffed with minced chorizo and potato are the polar opposite of Jumbo’s. Think of chaufa as Peruvian fried rice, though rife with shredded duck confit, shelled edamame and salty tobiko fish roe, the lot garnished with a chiffonade of crunchy bits scraped off the flat-top.

But what to make of a salted watermelon and pineapple popsicle the size of a squat Dixie cup? Sure, it only costs 2 bucks but, frozen solid, it’s near-impossible to eat.

Monday to Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Closed Sunday, some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $22. Licensed. Rating: NNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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18. Seven Lives (NEW THIS YEAR!)

69 Kensington, at Baldwin, 416-803-1086, sevenlives.ca, @sevenlivesTO

Forget the Lilliputian Schnitzel Queen. Based solely on most bodies squeezed into smallest space, Sean Riehl’s Cal-Mex taqueria is flat-out the most popular restaurant in town, let alone Kensington Market. It’s been this way since it left the same low-rent food court on Augusta that spawned Agave y Aguacate for higher-profile digs around the corner. Pedestrian Sundays? Try getting in on a Thursday afternoon in the dead of February.

Frankly, we don’t get the attraction. The calling-card Gobernador taco is a shotgun wedding of smoked marlin, flat-topped shrimp and shredded cheddar cheese and tastes of way too much chipotle. Now that every sports bar in the GTA does them, breaded Baja-style fish tacos aren’t much of a draw. The mushroom and cactus taco is greasy.

In the tacos’ defence, they’re enormous! Maybe that’s why each one comes wrapped in a doubled-up shell.

Wednesday to Sunday noon to 7 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. No reservations. Average main $5. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, no washrooms. Rating: NN

Photo by Steven Davey


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17. Drake One Fifty (NEW THIS YEAR!)

150 York, at Adelaide W, 416-363-6150, drakeonefifty.ca, @thedrakehotel

If the wall-to-wall suits are any indication, Drake Hotel honcho Jeff Stober’s first foray into the financial district is an out-and-out success, at least with the stock market crowd who descend en masse come the 4 o’clock bell.

Few come for One Fifty’s conceptual decor, the Micah Lexier text installation over the bar, the Douglas Coupland Wallpaper or the weird Guy Madden silent movies in the can. No, most are here for the very conspicuous consumption.

Not that you have to break the bank to enjoy executive chef Ted Corrado’s contemporary comfort food carte. He’s right on trend with blistered shishito peppers – the same ones you see at Bar Isabel and Patria – and floppy-crusted Neapolitan-style pizzas. And who can resist the opportunity to wash down his Swiss Chalet-inspired rotisserie chicken with a glass of Fat Banker chardonnay?

Monday to Wednesday 11:30 am to 1 am, Thursday and Friday 11:30 am to 2 am, Saturday 5 pm to 2 am. Closed Sunday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $26. Licensed. Rating: NNN

Photo by David Laurence


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16. Grand Electric (LAST YEAR NO. 6)

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

Remember when we thought nothing of standing on a freezing sidewalk in Parkdale for hours for the privilege of eating tacos? Good times, good times.

That’s no longer the case at Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan’s (yes, them again) General Electric. Show up prime-time Friday or Saturday night after 8 with a party of four and they’ll take your cell number and ask you to come back later when a table’s available. Tuesday, say.

Arrive at any other hour and you’ll waltz right in. And either we’re mellowing with age or we’re slowly losing our hearing, but the once-contentious tunes they spin – so-called gangsta rap of the type popular with 14-year-old boys from 20 years ago – isn’t nearly the aural assault it used to be.

We like to frequent GE for lunch, when main-sized bowls of pozole are the sure morning-after cure for any hangover from the night before. And who can refuse the offer of a scrapple taco, especially if its splashed with Uncle Ben’s Mouth Fuckery hot sauce? Certainly not this fucker.

Sadly, management have recently increased their prices.

“Tacos used to be $3.50 each,” says McGrenaghan. And now?

“We’re asking $3.60 a pop!”

Daily 11:30 am to 4 pm, Monday to Wednesday 5:30 pm to midnight, Thursday to Sunday 5:30 pm to 1 am. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Average main $10. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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15. Kinton Ramen (LAST YEAR NO. 7)

51 Baldwin, at Beverley, 647-748-8900 668 Bloor W, at Manning, 416-551-8177, kintonramen.com, @KintonRamen

Toronto’s no stranger to ramen. Konnichiwa on Baldwin has been serving the meal-in-one Japanese noodle soup since the 90s and has the Tampopo poster to prove it. But nearby Kinton has turned the eating of once lowly ramen into both ritual and art.

They start with cauldrons of bubbling broth, some of obscure pig parts, others of unidentified seafood. They ladle some of one and a bit of another into massive ceramic bowls of house-made linguini-like mein and then layer them with blowtorched slices of tender chashu pork and crispy sheets of seaweed. They’ve even been known to add Swiss cheese to the mix.

The newly minted outpost in Koreatown adds chicken-based stocks to the repertoire, and a third Kinton has been mooted for a tentative early summer launch at Queen West and Spadina. Wherever you go, keep in mind that slurping is encouraged, and it’s considered extremely bad form to leave an unempty bowl.

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

Photo by David Laurence


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14. Kingyo (LAST YEAR NO. 14)

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

Apres Guu, le déluge!

Ever since the successful launch of Vancouver import Guu five years ago, Toronto has been overrun with Tokyo-style izakayas – such now-familiar names as Don Don and Ryoji and Teppan Kenta, not to mention Kintaro, Kintori and Zakkushi. But only Cabbagetown’s Kingyo breaks the mould.

For starters, the room is huge, staff are friendly in a giggly way, and management deigns to take reservations. Drums are not pounded nor gongs ka-bonged. Better still, no one yells at you on your arrival or departure, and there isn’t a two-hour limit because everyone gets too drunk.

There are sea urchin shooters spiked with “natural ocean Viagra,” extravagant plates of tuna seared à la tataki, and tables with shallow tanks full of goldfish for tops. And any resto that unspools a Japanese monster movie over the bar to the accompaniment of Roy Orbison’s greatest hits during dinner is a winner in our books.

Nightly 5:30 to 11:30 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $14. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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13. Pukka (NEW THIS YEAR!)

778 St Clair W, at Arlington, 416-342-1906, pukka.ca, @pukkatoronto

The well-heeled burghers of St. Clair West aren’t the type to jump on the latest flavour of the afternoon, but when they do – witness Stockyards, Marcello’s and Ferro back in the old days – they hold on tight.

For proof, look no further than erstwhile Amaya vets Derek Valleau and Harsh Chawla’s Pukka, a stylish Subcontinental kitchen that dares to go beyond the clichés of mainstream Indian restaurants. The sensibly shoed are eating it up.

As is the unwritten law, butter chicken is mandatory, but here it’s aromatically nutty, beautifully sauced and doesn’t taste predominantly of Campbell’s cream of tomato soup as it does most everywhere else. Chef Dinesh Butola puts a contemporary spin on papri chat, tossing the vegetarian starter with puffed rice and pomegranate seeds, and his smoky lamb chop lollipops rip a page from Vancouver’s Vikram Vij’s playback. No fool he.

Service is fawning (though they somehow manage to lose my coat), and dinner music bounces from boomer-friendly James Brown to Aretha Franklin and back again, always at a volume conducive to conversation. How positively adult!

Nightly 5 to 10 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $22. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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12. Bent (LAST YEAR NO. 4)

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

If any local chef deserves the Order of Canada – or at least a historical plaque – it’s Susur Lee for transforming Toronto’s resto scene from a provincial backwater into the internationally recognized trailblazer it is today.

Having abandoned the pricey avant-garde tasting menus he served backwards from main course to starter at his eponymous King West bistro, the ponytailed chef changed direction with the decidedly downmarket Lee and now Bent.

Some said it would never work. The location’s wrong, the menu too wonky, and who puts his two young sons in charge, then just 19 and 21? They’d be wrong.

Lee’s signature fusion of Eastern ingredients and Western techniques – or is it the other way around? – has never been more focused, whether its taco shells made from deep-fried taro extravagantly stuffed with lobster, or watermelon ceviche with sashimi-style tuna in exotic calamansi lime. And surely his cleverly jerked chicken with ginger coulis is a nod to fellow leading light Greg Couillard?

The room’s a delight, as warm and inviting as the service. And if you pay attention to the playlist, you’re as likely to hear a classic track by Grace Jones as the latest Gucci Mane mixtape.

Tuesday and Wednesday 6 to 10:30 pm Thursday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm. Bar till close. Closed Sunday, Monday, some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $26. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by Michael Watier


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11. 416 Snack Bar (LAST YEAR NO. 15)

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

d to open a dive bar with a menu dedicated to small plates of glorified junk food on what was then one of the most depressing corners in town. And look who’s laughing now, albeit all the way to the bank.

Funny how things change. Who’d have predicted back then that le tout Hogtown would go gaga for the declassé likes of pint-sized Reuben sandwiches on rye complete with sauerkraut and pickle, or Trini-style doubles on Chinese steamed bao bursting with Indo-curried chickpeas? Well, other than Momofuku’s David Chang?

And is there any better meal deal around than chef Rory McGouran’s $18 smorgasbord platter for two? Not when it includes Korean fried chicken in sweet ‘n’ sour sauce on sticks and ruby-red ravioli stuffed with roasted beets.

Count on Stewart and Ravinsky to make an even bigger splash later this spring when they unveil their People’s Eatery, with ex-Susur sous and Grace chef Dustin Gallagher in the kitchen, directly across the street from the Banh Mi Boys’ equally imminent Lucky Red on Spadina. There goes the neighbourhood!

Nightly 5 pm to 2 am. Average tapas $7. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN

Photo by Steven Davey


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10. Patria (NEW THIS YEAR!)

480 King W, at Brant, 416-367-0505, patriatoronto.com, @PatriaTO

Despite its eligibility for last year’s roundup, don’t-call-us-club-kings Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji’s super-sexy Patria didn’t make the cut. Oh, it’s a lovely room and all, with its kooky sputnik light fixtures and dramatic staircase to the loo. And executive chef Stuart Cameron’s stellar tapas carte – Manchego-stuffed dates, guindilla peppers wrapped in fatty Iberico bacon – is about as authentic as you’ll find this far west of Barthelona. It’s just that Patria felt like a bit of a meat market – no surprise considering its primo location cheek-to-chic-cheek with the likewise Blowfish, Brassai and Spice Route on the King West bottle-service strip. Since then, Patria has found a middle ground where front-line foodies share face space with desperate 30-somethings on the make. Still too much of a Saturday-night scene to stomach? Come back Sunday morning for sophisticated Spanish-inspired brunches of cracker-thin pizzas strewn with white anchovies and piquillo peppers washed down with pitchers of sangria and have the joint virtually to yourselves.

Nightly 5:30 pm to close. Brunch Sunday 10:30 am to 2:30 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average tapas $12. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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9. Banh Mi Boys (LAST YEAR NO. 3)

399 Yonge, at Gerrard, 416-977-0303 392 Queen W, at Spadina, 416-363-0588, banhmiboys.com, @BanhMiBoys

Brothers Peter, Philip and David Chau’s cheap ‘n’ cheerful cantina might look like just about every other fast-food resto on the block, but its dirt-cheap card is anything but par for the course.

Talk about multiculti mashup! Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches on flaky house-baked buns get stuffed with five-spiced pork belly and shredded duck confit rather than mystery meat. And tacos loaded with sweet bulgogi beef and raw diced jalapeños show up on Indian paratha flatbread instead of the usual tortillas. So what if there’s inevitably a lineup?

Their Chinese-style steamed bao loaded with KFC-style southern fried chicken from the Boys’ not-so-secret menu is a work of pure genius. Side them with a box of skinny sweet potato fries doused with pulled pork, Kewpie mayo and fiery Korean kimchee and go home one happy camper.

Not content with two blockbuster takeaways, the Boys are already working on a third BMB – the Annex? The Beach? – as well as an entirely new concept at 318 Spadina just north of Dundas to be called Lucky Red.

“It’s still fast food, just a little fancier,” says the Banh Mi Boy named David of the new Chinatown resto’s mostly bao menu. “And we’re doing noodles, too, but not ramen. More dry like dan-dan.” Lucky Red is expected to hit big in early May, permits permitting.

Monday to Friday 11 am to 10 pm, Saturday 11 am to 9 pm, Sunday noon to 7 pm. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Average main $6. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free barrier-free, washrooms in basement (Queen W). Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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8. Bar Buca (NEW THIS YEAR!)

75 Portland, at King W, 416-599-2822, barbuca.com, @barbucatoronto

Rob Gentile’s way-too-corporate Buca on King West isn’t exactly our cup of Tetley’s, but its nearby casual cousin is much more to our liking.

We’re mad for the cannoli stuffed with lemony mascarpone and crumbled pistachios the all-day café sells in its upfront coffee bar, and the terrific porchetta sandwiches on house-baked focaccia the size of frisbees it offers in the slightly more formal 40-seat dining room to the rear. And dig those industrial wine racks fashioned from angle iron overhead!

There are inexpensively priced platters of frito misto – crisp baby artichokes with lemony zabaglione custard, deep-fried testina pig’s face – and gluten-free mains like minced goat ‘n’ ricotta meatballs in a classically simple tomato sauce, hold the pasta. At weekend brunch, Gentile layers eggy tissue-thin omelettes with butterflied rock shrimp, and completes a stew of skinny house-made liver sausage and nutty barley-like faro with the wholly poached eggs of free-range hens.

And if there’s a more professional and sincerely welcoming crew of servers around, I’ve yet to meet them.

Daily from 11 am to 2 am coffee and pastries from 7 am. Weekend brunch 10 am to 4 pm. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Average main $14. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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7. Electric Mud (LAST YEAR NO. 1)

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

No longer the toppermost of the poppermost, ex-Hoofer Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan’s spinoff of their equally red-hot Grand Electric isn’t quite the full-on mob scene it was when it first threw open its doors last winter.

Most were able to overlook the former 24-seat Parkdale burger joint’s intentionally slapdash decor, cramped picnic-table seating and ear-pummeling ZZ Top soundtrack to focus on chef Ben Denham’s idiosyncratic barbecue carte. He leavens his so-called crack rolls with pork fat drippings straight from the smoker, and mops fatty pigs’ tails with the sweet heat of tomato sauce. His impossibly meaty triple-A beef ribs finished with crushed peanuts in a sticky-sweet ‘n’ sour glaze are worth the price of admission alone. And dessert can only mean banana cream pie.

Still not convinced? Beat the ever-clamouring crowd by picking up takeout or, better yet, come back later once it’s patio season – from the way the weather’s going, our guess is late August – when the Mud introduces lunch service.

Wednesday to Monday 5 pm to 1 am. Bar till close. Closed Tuesday, some holidays. No reservations. Average main $13. Licensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, tight seating, washrooms upstairs Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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6. Richmond Station (LAST YEAR NO. 10)

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

Condolences to the Chase. Much as we admire the gorgeous restoration of your historic Temperance Street digs and its panoramic rooftop patio, you will never be our Bay Street boîte of choice.

That inestimable honour goes to Carl Heinrich’s Richmond Station, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trat surreptitiously located next to an underground parking garage in the heart of the downtown core.

Dinner at the one-time Marben toque and season-two winner of Top Chef Canada’s always mobbed bistro inevitably kicks off with a basket of house-baked pain rustique still warm from the oven and a shareable platter of co-owner Ryan Donovan’s charcuterie, old-school capicola and summer sausage.

Heinrich reconfigures pierogi with fennel before plating them over sautéed Swiss chard and a beet-red reduction infused with raw horseradish, and couples bread-crusted sea bream with a scad of spaghetti squash and a hash of bacon-studded Brussels sprouts in pumpkin-seed pesto. And didn’t we read somewhere that the Station’s burger – 8 honkin’ ounces of heritage beef thick with short-rib trimmings on a classic house-baked milk bun dressed with aged cheddar and sweet beet relish and sided with skinny frites and roasted radish salad – is considered the best in town?

We’re also told that Farzan Fallah’s explosively deconstructed desserts – strawberry upside-down shortcake, crème brûlée with carrot sorbet and powdered cream cheese – aren’t the work of a pastry chef so much as a demolition expert.

Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $24. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, eight steps to washrooms. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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5. Barrio Coreano (NEW THIS YEAR!)

642 Bloor W, at Manning, 416-901-5188, playacabana.ca/locations/5/barrio-coreano, @barriocoreano

We’ve never been a fan of Dave Sidhu’s wildly successful Playa Cabanas. (That makes us Playa hatas.) We think the decor’s hackneyed, the service either clueless or hostile, and the overpriced gringo grub is more than reminiscent of a certain Grand Electric. Yet Barrio in newly cool Koreatown gets the formula exactly right.

Lit by a riot of red neon, the 65-seat room’s best described as Blanche du Bois’s shabby-chic boudoir meets Shibuya back alley, all rusted wrought iron, artfully distressed tables and wobbly chairs. Servers are friendly and can actually be heard above the background music – the Gipsy Kings, of all things – when they explain the nuances of Sidhu’s multiculti card.

There is watermelon sashimi served ceviche-style and heaped with kumquats and unseeded jalapeños. A perfectly grilled tangle of calamari gets coupled with salty-sweet pineapple laced with kimchee. Even the tacos get the Seoul-food treatment, layered with slow-braised kalbi beef or South Korean fried chicken.

Those with an insatiable appetite are hereby directed to Barrio’s colossal Cowboy steak, a 32-ounce rib-eye that can easily feed a family of four hardcore carnivores. Their dog has dibs on the bone.

Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Average tapas $10. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, three steps to washrooms. Rating: NNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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4. Momofuku Daisho (NEW THIS YEAR!)

190 University, at Adelaide W, 647-253-8000, momofuku.com/toronto/daisho, @momofuku

The three different versions of celebu-chef David Chang’s Momofuku in the Shangri-La are very different beasts than the highly feted Manhattan originals that inspired them. Instead of funky downtown storefronts with extremely limited seating, they’re located in the dining pavilion of a luxury hotel.

With all the ambience of the nearest Spring Rolls, the always-packed Noodle Bar on the first floor is the entry-level ‘Fuku, its relatively inexpensive lineup of ramen and the like popular with the punters. The more formal Shoto offers eclectic $150 10-course tasting menus, while top-of-the-line Daisho is geared to international high rollers who think nothing of dropping $600 on prime rib-eye for six. But now that Daisho does à la carte lunch, Chang’s nuevo Korean oeuvre is more accessible than ever.

A crisply beer-battered play on a Filet-o-Fish with savoy slaw beats the pedestrian bao downstairs and goes for all of 6 bucks, while a fiery apple salad tossed with kimchee, arugula and pork jowl bacon will set you back $14. Anyone who ever ate at the now defunct A-OK Foods will recognize the $10 side of roasted Brussels sprouts with puffed rice. And who knew ‘Fuku did a burger for $19, albeit one crusted with kimchee, dressed with trumpet mushrooms and sided with both kohlrabi slaw and onion rings?

Don’t forget to pick up a slice of crack pie in the Milk Bar, and a copy of Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine in the gift shop on your way out.

Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm dinner Sunday to Wednesday 5:30 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $25. Licensed. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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3. Chantecler (LAST YEAR NO. 2)

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

Most local beaneries have trouble doing one menu well, but Jacob Wharton-Shukster and Jonathan Poon’s charming Parkdale bistro manages to execute three.

Some come to this cozy 26-seat bistro for its nightly à la carte lineup, when starters like spicy popcorn chicken drizzled with hot sauce and honey rub shoulders with meal-in-one lettuce wraps stuffed à la Chinoise with slowly braised beef and smoky pork shoulder.

Others swear by chef Poon’s ever-evolving Friday and Saturday night tasting menus, when first courses of torched Bay of Fundy scallops with kumquats and scallions get followed by lobster thermidor cheekily dusted with Ritz cracker crumbs. They’re sure to sell out weeks in advance once Poon – who staged at Rene Redzepi’s prestigious Noma in Copenhagen back when Noma was better known to most as a manufacturer of Christmas lights – returns from sabbatical later this month.

We like to get the best of both come Sunday’s dim-sum-style lunch. Where else will you encounter the East-West fusiony likes of creamy pan-seared turnip cakes studded with lap cheong sausage in spicy house-made XO sauce, a playful spin on an Egg McMuffin and steak tartare laced with grated horseradish, raw peanuts and coriander stalk?

Little wonder NOW named Chantecler the best new resto of 2013.

Sunday to Wednesday 6 to 11 pm, Thursday and Friday 6 pm to midnight, Saturday 6 pm to 1 am. Lunch Sunday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $21/$12. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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2. Agave y Aguacate (NEW THIS YEAR!)

35 Baldwin, at Henry, 647-748-6448, agave-y-aguacate.com, @AgaveyAguacate

Those concerned that Francisco Alejandri’s celebrated Kensington Market food-court take-away might lose some of its quirky charm with its move to a real live restaurant in nearby Baldwin Village will be greatly relieved at the results. Not only does Agave now sport tables and chairs – and forks and plates and servers! – but Alejandri’s classic Mexican tapas carte is as spectacular as ever, perhaps even more so. And you no longer have to line up for an hour and a half to get it!

You’ll find no trendy tacos here. Instead, brittle tostadas arrive piled with smoky pulled chicken, shredded spicy chorizo and very refried beans, an ice cream scoop of avocado and drizzle of crema fresca to finish. Whitefish gets marinated in lime and dressed in coriander pesto and more buttery avocado, while lidded casseroles reveal sides of stewed pinto beans laced with fabulously fatty pork rind. And as ever, no visit to Agave is complete without a slice of his signature lime charlotte.

Like Rob Ford, the new room’s not perfect. In the downstairs lounge, unless you’ve commandeered the six-seat communal table in the front window, you get stuck on a narrow banquette outfitted with small round tables that can barely accommodate a couple of drinks, let alone dinner. And upstairs might as well be Etobicoke, but that’s nothing that two garden patios – one curbside, the other hidden out back – can’t rectify come summer.

Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Average tapas $10. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms upstairs. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by David Laurence


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1. Bar Isabel (NEW THIS YEAR!)

797 College, at Shaw, 416-532-2222, barisabel.com, @barisabel797

Grant van Gameren’s used to being something of a local culinary cause célèbre.

He is, after all, the chef who made charcuterie and offal fashionable at the highly regarded Black Hoof and subsequent Hoof Café. But even van Gameren has been surprised by the response to Bar Isabel.

“It just keeps getting crazier,” laughs the 33-year-old self-taught cook. “We’re running at capacity every night. It’s exactly what I wanted – a room that’s always open even on the worst, stormiest night.”

The one-time Grappa’s not the full-on feeding frenzy it was when it first launched exactly a year ago. Back then, the tapas bar’s combination of hard ceramic floor – as gorgeous as it is – and barrel-vault ceiling had us likening the room’s acoustics to the St. Andrew subway station. It’s not for nowt they call it Bar Decibel.

Van Gameren still sends out split-roasted veal shanks oozing marvellous marrow, but now serves them with gluten-free toasts, while a starter of blistered shishito gets simply dusted with sea salt. His grilled octopus platter is built to feed a crowd. He even accommodated a request for a special salad from a raw vegan who then didn’t bother to show up. It’s still on the menu to this day, though why a hardcore herbivore would choose to dine at a restaurant that puts foie gras on Basque cake is beyond us.

But it’s his whole sea bream that brings folks back time and time again. Marinated in bitter orange juice and tamarind before being deep-fried and heaped with Spanish onion and fried leeks, the flaky flesh virtually disintegrates on the fork.

“I’m always amazed when people suck the bones clean. I guess the cheeks and eyes are the best parts!”

Nightly 6 pm to 2 am. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Average main $24. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN

Photo by Michael Watier

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