Toronto has a massive food community. I think a lot of people forget the sheer variety and volume of restaurants we have in the city. And it’s what I love about Toronto. At any time, you can pretty much get any culture or any type of food. On top of that, we’re really pushing for street food and great people like Suresh Dosh of Spotlight City have made great strides in getting gourmet street eats recognized with events like Food Truck Eats and random pop-up events since. Lately, I’ve been challenged to do a review a day for Yelp Toronto (self-inflicted) and it got me thinking about my favourites.
I’ve been lucky to review a few restaurants in my day and have many food enthusiasts as friends. I haven’t been to every restaurant (so it’s why you might not see restaurants like Luma or Scaramouche on my list; I just haven’t been there yet), but I’ve been to more than 200 so I figure that’s a start. This list is compiled of places where I’m compelled to go to time and again. Obviously, it’s because the food and service are really good. And the list is not in any particular order. I don’t know if I could choose a favourite!
1. Khao San Road (KSR). This newcomer came onto the scene in early 2011 and foodies have been raving about it ever since. I’ve had many a traveler come to town and I usually take them here. It’s a nice break-away from the lack of decent restaurants in the club district, but still very central. You will wait for a table if you come in prime time but it’s worth it. They also don’t take reservations. Honestly, the whole menu is good. You won’t be disappointed. I’m a big fan of: their thai iced tea (condensed milk? Um, yes please); garlic chicken (and that sauce. OMG!); and Sam Roas pad thai (the crack king of all pad thais; nothing else compares). The curries are tasty and the squid chips a delicacy. And the service? So on the ball. Their Social Media guy Monte is also very active on Twitter and engages with everyone. It’s a testament to their service.
2. The Black Hoof.I can’t have a top ten favourites list without having Black Hoof on this list. Anyone that can make a tongue sandwich tasty and mainstream is on my list. These guys really put charcuterie (cheese and meat) on the Toronto map and made Dundas West carnivore row. They are also so inventive and put twists on delicacies like adding wasabi to sweetbreads and chimichurri to bone marrow. Unfortunately, co-founder Grant Van Gameran left the Hoof mysteriously (in my opinion) in the summertime and it’s sad to see because he is like the jedi master of charcuterie – such a talent. Jen Agg is the consummate hostess, however, and seems to still have the hoof going strong. This was also after the closing of popular brunch spot the Hoof Cafe (their french toast being my favourite in the city). That said, the staff is professional and on the ball, always making sure their customers are at ease. Easily one of my favourite bars to sit at in TO. The Hoof Cafe is now the hoof’s cocktail bar across the street and Jen is easily one of the most talented in the city, ensuring your classic drink is done well. Just don’t order vodka.
3. The Stockyards. My favourite BBQ joint in the city. If it’s the one craving I have, it’s their buttermilk chicken. This soft, tender chicken that would have Colonel Sanders rolling in his grave. And the kicker? those spiced up thin fries, served in a skillet. I’ve tried other favourites like the ribs (a bit dry for me, though the BBQ sauce is tasty), but I’ll come back again for their version of the burger. It’s juicy and cooked well. Plus, they’re smart to have a few versions. I’ll also be back for their brunch, which I hear is one of the best in the city. It’s not the coziest joint; many perfer take-out here and I always take my order to the Wychwood Barns, renovated TTC barns that is one of the more fun spots in the city to hang out. It is well worth the commute past St. Clair and Bathurst!
4. The Burger’s Priest. If I’m going to die of clogged arteries, I will have the Burger’s Priest to thank at my funeral (where there will be an ice cream truck with the requisite ice cream music. I digress.). Some say the actual burger lacks flavour (a little bit, I admit) but it’s preimum beef, always cooked well and with farm fresh toppings and accoutrements. Let’s talk about the Option: melted cheese and portobello mushrooms fried in panko crust. You can get this alone or you can pair it with the cheese burger, aptly named the Priest. The place is tiny so good luck finding a comfortable place to sit. In the summer, it’s best to take this to the beach if you can wait long enough. They also have a secret menu, my favourite being the High Priest, the answer to the Big Mac. If you want to go hog wild, get the Vatican. The link to the secret menu was covered in Now and they did a good job of explaining it. A much-needed boost to the East End that those West Enders actually commute to (it’s about time!).
Overall, worth the fanfare. Cash only.
5. Campagnolo. When your friend dates a cook, you become a friend with benefits. Complimentary cake at the bar? Don’t mind if I do! Extra special birthday perks where your group of twelve gets a custom made meal? Yes, please! When your friend said said cook break up, well, it’s not as fun. You can’t go there as often. BUT I’ll still go because the food is that good and the staff are just as nice (Craig’s one of the most down to earth guys you’ll ever meet! He’s like “meet your nana” material). I waited the obligatory time period but I had to go back. And not just for the food but also for the drinks. What to get? Buratta with roasted grapes; pappardelle with braised rabbit; home-made prosciutto, olives and bread. And many, many winter sours! It’s one of those places you have to experience for yourself. These guys cook from the heart. And a well deserved congratulations on being chosen as one of En Route’s top restaurants in Canada for 2011. I don’t think I’ll be able to get a seat there now! 😦 (This is also a birthday contender restaurant). Psst: update your website dudes!
6. Porchetta & Co. A testament to any restaurant, no matter how big or small, is the ability to transform your senses. And when you’re eating their food to not make any sense. This is how I always feel after I eat at Porchetta. I’m literally sitting there –there’s three stools and in fall, for some reason, there’s usually a seat available and I stay to people watch—and I can’t speak. It kind of sounds like this: “ArrrghghghgMmmmmmNoommmmmm.” Like, OMG, it’s SO GOOD. I’ve brought a few visitors from out of town and have made them converts. The crackling pig parts crunching in your mouth or the option of that sweet, sweet truffle oil on your prosciutto wrapped porchetta? It’s over. It’s so over. And their daily soup is not to miss. Including the truffle mushroom soup, if you’re lucky to get it. These guys know how much I love it. And as with the Hoof and Campagnolo, it’s all on Dundas West just past Bathurst.
7. Pizzeria Libretto and Enoteca Sociale. This is a two-fer because both establishments are owned by Rocco Agostino, who is one of the nicest guys (I actually haven’t met him yet!). This guy owns two restaurants, is a dad AND manages to keep up with his customers on Twitter. Who does that?! Many covet Libretto’s pizza as the best in Toronto and it’s no wonder. Thin crusts, fresh ingredients, and authenticity (DOP what?) make this a great pie. Their duck confit and pear is a unique combination with both sweet and salty flavours and their margharita and prosciutto pizzas are classics. The budino is one of my favourite desserts in the city. If you want to know the meaning of food-gasm, this is it. I’m super pumped for their Danforth location (I love you Ossington but you are way too freaking far). As for Enoteca Sociale, this is their wine bar serving traditional Roman dishes. They’ve transformed me into an arancini addict (their version is SO good) and their cabonara (though they’ve changed the noodle) is one of the best I’ve ever had. Seconds please! Oh, and the atmosphere is so inviting here. The staff really know what they’re talking about. Really passionate and down to earth staff. It really does show in the food.
8. Lolita’s Lust. Not a lot of people get down to the east end, especially tourists. I happen to live in the area, so this is my east end pick and I encourage tourists to come to other parts of the city (it’s really not that far). Though LL is in the heart of Greektown, it’s not a Greek restaurant (though it has a Greek flavour to it). The one dish I always get here is their clamari. It is grilled and is topped with pesto sauce and kalamata olives. It’s one of the best things I’ve had. EVER. If I’m having a particularly craptacular day, this dish makes it all go away, emotional eating aside. This a great place for a date and has a solid cocktail list with an ambient vibe. Runner up contender on the Danforth for Greek food is Mezes. Opa!
9. Origin. Latin American and Asian influenced tapas. In short, there’s four different streams of tapas menus you can get with a variety of options under each menu. I feel like I need to go here again to give a full report but ate heartily the first time. It’s not cheap. If you are doing a business dinner, this should be on the list! But also great for a date (OMG, if you’re taking me here on a date, I’m impressed). Cravings: black miso cod; buratta with eggplant; perfectly cooked scallops; tuna hand roll (though quite pricey); But the one thing you can’t leave the restaurant without getting: the dulce de leche sponge soaked cake with crispy rice balls on top. If you are a sweet fan of any kind, you will have the most food-gasmic dessert experiene of your life. It’s that good! Six months later and I still think about it. You can read my full review and see the pics here.
10. El Trompo. It’s not fancy, but if I’m getting Mexican food (like real authentic Mexican food and not some 18-ingredient stuff burrito), I’m coming here. There’s a variety of taquitas (chicken, pork, etc) but they’re simple. They’re not overloaded with ingredients and they take a different spin like pairing pineapple with pork. And it works! I always eat their guacamole bowl by myself, it’s that good. It has the right amount of kick and is always fresh. The service is ho-hum but the staff still friendly. A very casual, low-key place right in the heart of Kensington. Yes, their patio is tops in the summer for people watching. This is another one I take guests from out of town to.
VERY HONORABLE MENTIONS
Acadia. I’ve been here once but I was so impressed with their food and service that I couldn’t not mention it. The menu changes on the regular, but anything you get is going to be top notch. I also love that there’s a French Canadian AND Lousiana influence on the menu. I crave: their Vidalia onion tart (that crust, that oniony garlicy flavour with a hint of gruyere. I could go on!); their ” Farro Sukkotash,” rice dish with wild mushroom and truffle oil which was immediately gobbled up; and their collard greens, which are a great compliment to the heavier mains. These guys also have a very solid cocktail list and wine list. I had the “To Dew List” which included gin and honey dew. Seconds and thirds please! Also: very cute, attentive staff (you’re welcome ladies). These guys are totally on their game and I’ll be surprised if they’re not on En Route’s top restaurants in Canada list next year. I think they were too new for this year’s list but next year, the prize should be all theirs! This will be the restaurant choice for the Natalie Birthday Extravaganza in November.
Ravi Soups. I was originally going to give this slot to Gandhi’s because their ginormous portion of butter chicken roti is the stuff dreams are made of. But then I started to think of overall value and though it is worth the once in a while splurge, Gandhi’s can get quite expensive for a lot of potato and chicken (and the delicious, milky sauce). So I started thinking of my new favourite lunch pick and it would have to be Ravi Soups. For overall value (about $11), Ravis is tops. You can get such a variety of a soup and sandwich combos and you’re full for the next four hours. But it’s the quality that I’m impressed with: a succulent, spicy lamb wrap with sweet yam and a textured porcini mushroom soup (with surprise, truffle oil). There’s a porchetta option for wrap but I personally found it lacked flavour. Lamb is king! The apricot soup lacks a bit of flavour as well but it’s still a good option. For a lunch place (also right beside Khao San Road on Adelaide), it has a really nice atmosphere: a beautiful, wooden table inside and a gorgeous, hidden back patio with a brightly colored mural. Really a gem!