A look at 15 big changes to Toronto restaurants over the last 15 years


From casual seating to gourmet hamburgers to vegan everything, the city’s restaurants have experienced seismic shifts in the last 15 years.

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Gare de l’Est Brasserie serves a “Steak Hache” ground beef brisket topped with a fried egg and white anchovy on a toasted baguette

surrounded by a

bordelaise sauce.

When I started this job 15 years ago, there were three kinds of Toronto restaurants: formal French, fancy Italian and cheap everything else.

Then seismic shifts occurred. Restaurants became more diverse, experimentation more widespread. Chefs fell for wood-fired ovens, immersion circulators and rooftop herb gardens. Diners embraced bacon, poutine and kombucha. We all started having more fun.

Thank goodness. Here’s a look at 15 big restaurant changes in the last 15 years.

Loosen up

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Co-owner Chris White pours a glass of wine for customers. Brothers Food & Wine is a 30-seat restaurant located above the Bay subway station.

Say goodbye to white tablecloths and silver cloches. Sharing plates are pretty much standard nowadays and casual is the new watchword. The counter seating at Brothers Food & Wine in Yorkville is both relaxed and delicious. At the comatose end of the casual continuum is Parkdale’s battered looking Tennessee Tavern.

Eat local, taste global

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Pansit Ginataang (green and yellow noodles) at Dolly’s Mojito Bar & Panciteria.

Toronto has grown to produce a United Nations list of dining options. In one month this year, I got to try Uzbek lamb plov at Taj, Burmese curries at Royal Myanmar, Filipino noodles at Dolly’s Panciteria and Moroccan tagines at Atlas. There’s no place like home.

Online menus

Back in the day, before every restaurant had an online presence, I stole menus in order to check facts. I haven’t had to do this in years — until earlier this month, when I slipped the Cheesecake Factory’s spiral-bound menu into my purse because the Canadian prices weren’t online.

Indigenous cuisine

We’ve had Indigenous restaurants before (carry on Tea N Bannock, RIP Keriwa Café), but this year Indigenous food breaks big. Pow Wow Café opens in Kensington Market, Nish Dish debuts in Koreatown and Kukum Kitchen impresses on Mount Pleasant Road with its elk chops, pheasant stew and cedar tea. (Seal tartare? Too chewy.)

Everyone’s a critic

Thanks to social media, all of us can now publish our dining experiences. But crowd sourcing only goes so far, I learned in February after eating mediocre food at Yelp’s top three Toronto restaurants. Naturally, I prefer rigorous reviews based on multiple meals and journalistic standards.

Pricey cocktails

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BlueBlood steakhouse inside Casa Loma serves a $20 cocktail.

In 2006, I wrote about a $12 caipirinha. Soon after, craft cocktails exploded — homemade bitters, bacon-infused spirits, customized ice, etc. — and prices rose to $15 by 2010. This year, Blue Blood steakhouse inside Casa Loma set the bar higher with a $20 cocktail, pictured, served under a glass dome. Your call, Toronto.

Tipping point

Gratuities have similarly risen over the years, from 15 per cent when I started to the 20 per cent I recently recommended. The ensuing debate shows 88 per cent of Toronto Star readers want to abolish tipping and raise servers’ wages. Shall we take it to the legislature?

Vegan victory

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Harvesting greens from the Urban Cultivator. Awai is a plant-based restaurant, with flavours rooted in the produce found in Ontario’s fields and forests.

What used to be a fringe way of eating hit the mainstream this year. Planta in Yorkville was first to debut its plant-only menus. Next came sophisticated Awai in Bloor West Village. Vegan diner Mythology in Parkdale is the latest.

Celebrity crushes

The GTA has its share of celebrity chefs. But this year when Massimo Capra opened Capra’s Kitchen in Mississauga, I found it needed work. Even more disappointing was Claudio Aprile’s Copetin. Only The Marilyn Denis Show’s Rod Bowers delivered the goods with Bunny’s.

Pineapple expressive

Edison bulbs are so out. When it comes to restaurant decor, pineapples and palm fronds are the hot trend these days. Find the tropical accents at Grey Gardens, La Palma and the not-yet-reviewed Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen.

Bathroom break

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Nomads Restobar features a subway-themed downstairs which leads to the bathrooms.

It used to be a relief just to find the restaurant bathroom clean. Now, owners are going beyond hygiene by installing art in the facilities. Interesting art, like the doodles at Superpoint or the orgy scenes at Bacchanal. The trompe l’oeil subway platform at Nomads is next level.

Innard beauty

The move toward nose-to-tail eating (innards, heads, skin, feet) is now finally embracing fish, as in a snack of fried tilapia skin at Scarborough Chinese restaurant Vintage Garden.

Fried chicken

As part of the decade’s new casualness, chefs got behind fast and greasy staples like fried chicken. I found two good examples this year at Koreatown’s White Brick Kitchen, open five years, and the new Union Chicken at Sherway Gardens.

Bespoke burgers

Burgers are another working-class food chefs keep trying to improve. Alo offshoot Aloette spent two months perfecting the ratio of chuck to brisket and the size of the grind. East-end bistro Gare de l’Est calls its burger “steak haché” and serves it with red wine sauce.

Beyond 31 flavours

No longer is there such a thing as a weird ice cream flavour. Purchased vanilla ice cream is receding into the past as restaurants make their own frozen desserts. I loved the squash ice cream at Skippa sushi bar on Harbord Street for its subtle sweetness. And the gjetost version at Uncle Mikey’s is a gorgeous caramel accented by crunchy toasted buckwheat.

Thanks for joining me this year. Here’s to good eating in 2018!


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