“When I tell my friends in Toronto how much I love their city,” Francine Prose wrote in a rapturous profile of Toronto’s dining scene in The New York Times last year, “they often say, ‘Really?’” That’s Canadian modesty for you. But the truth is that any Torontonian with working taste buds and a bit of disposable income can tell you where to find a great meal—from a sublime banh-mi, to perfect fish tacos to a bowl of ramen you won’t shut up about for hours after eating it.
Toronto doesn’t want for great restaurants. (Toronto’s even got a genius-level restaurant critic, Chris Nuttall-Smith, whose writing on food is so good that it’s worth following even if you don’t live in the city.) What’s unusual about Toronto is that its best restaurants tend not to make a big show of their own excellence. This is a city of two and a half million residents. But it isn’t a city of celebrity chefs or yearlong reservation lists—indeed, a lot of the best places don’t take reservations at all. Think of it as a democratic spirit: everybody sidles in with everybody else.
Such a rich and varied culinary landscape makes it hard for any best-of list to get it exactly right. So try to think of this list as not so much a definitive claim as an affectionate portrait—one view of the eating well in the city that might point the hungry and eager in some helpful directions. Here are our picks for the 10 best places to dine.
Ask virtually any Torontonian to name the coolest restaurant in town and you’ll hear the same refrain: It’s got to be Grand Electric. Ninety minutes was the customary wait time for a table during the Parkdale outfit’s first year in operation—a small price indeed, as anyone who’s ever eaten here will attest, for the most extraordinary tacos in the city. It has been around long enough that the once-deafening hype has settled down to a modest hum, which makes dropping by for a pint of the house draught and a few chipfuls of exquisite tuna ceviche all the more convenient.
Toronto is not, broadly speaking, a great place for pizza—even the direst dollar slice in New York bests the city’s average delivery selection. Which makes the existence of Pizzeria Libretto all the more remarkable. VPN-certified, brick oven baked, and popular enough, among discerning Torontonians, to routinely warrant hour-plus waits, the Libretto pie is nothing less than a marvel. (Doubly true when graced with duck confit.) From their humble digs in the city’s trendy Little Portugal the restaurant has expanded to a further two locations, and their much-deserved success seems still on the upswing.
QUEEN AND BEAVER
The Queen and Beaver is better than any restaurant in the tourist-overwhelmed Yonge and Dundas area has any right (or need) to be. Tucked into an unassuming side street, and in a building that looks more like a retirement home than a nice place to eat, it happens to be only not a distinguished English pub in the traditional style, but in fact the closest approximation of an authentic English pub you’re likely to find outside of Britain. Downstairs its elegant and pleasantly old-fashioned dining room affords the sophisticated a fine place for supper; upstairs, meanwhile, a clutch of sofas and armchairs make this the ideal refuge for pints on a weekday evening or, for football fans, Saturday morning straight through till the afternoon. The food is exemplary across the board (the scotch egg and Welsh rarebit starters especially). Just don’t leave without dessert, because of these three glorious words: Sticky, toffee, pudding.
Toronto, as might be made clear from this list, has no shortage of Mexican restaurants, many of which do what they do quite well. But Los Colibris shares little in common with the two-bite fish tacos and bowlfuls of guacamole slung elsewhere around the city. Rather this is Mexican fine dining, upscale down to the tablecloths. The menu, realized with exceptional flair by executive chef Elia Herrera, tends toward lamb shanks and flat-iron steaks, prepared with skill and ingenuity using family recipes. (Herrera is from Cordoba, and says many of her dishes are inspired by the cuisine of the region.) And no less excellent than the food is the atmosphere, conceived on a grand scale and put together at no doubt lavish expense; you may be hard-pressed to find a better-looking place to eat.
David Chang, patron saint of ramen, brought the toast of New York to Toronto in 2012—and, rumor has it, had a bit of a rocky start. But you’d never know it to drop by now. With four distinctive sub-restaurants spilling up its three opening-concept stories (as well as a miniature glass-enclosed Milk Bar wedged near the bathrooms on the second level), Momofuku Toronto seems the very picture of trendy haute cuisine at work, nearly as dazzlingly to look at it as its food is to eat. The standout, by popular opinion, is the exclusive (and expensive) Shoto, and, true, for special occasions its luxe set menu can hardly be beat. But as an overall experience we prefer Daisho, the third-floor dining room that, on a bustling weekend night, is certainly the place to be. Besides which, few dishes inspire affection as passionately as the large-order bo ssam.
BANH MI BOYS
The only fast-food joint on this list, Banh Mi Boys clearly has a lot to prove. But a mere glimpse of their signature kimchi fries—slathered, in an inspired culinary stroke, with mayonnaise—are enough to dispel any doubt that the restaurant is a best-of-the-city contender. Momofuku’s (relatively) cheap-eats Noodle Bar has the wider reputation as purveyor of Toronto’s best steamed bao, but there are a great many who swear by the five-spice pork belly baos served up by the Boys—a race too close to call, in my books, but we’re talking a seriously high standard of excellence either way. And that’s to say nothing, of course, of what by name alone ought to the restaurant’s main attraction: the wide array of Banh Mi sandwiches, from squid to duck confit, that the place makes fresh to order daily.
The highest of the highest-end restaurants in Toronto, Oliver & Bonacini’s Canoe is the blindingly bright star at the center of the city’s fine dining scene. Chef John Horne, considered something of a genius, serves dishes of almost ludicrous extravagance and audacity, including such marvels of ingenuity as poached organic pullet eggs, s’mores foie gras (!), and Wagyu tri-tip with smoked tongue. A rare four-star review in Toronto’s Globe and Mail even describes the restaurant’s quest to source an obscure fish called “the unknown” from Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, which they eventually bought, served, and ditched a few weeks later—just to keep things interesting. Well, genius has a way of seeming eccentric to you and me. But we trust the results.
We’ve raved about People’s Eatery around these parts before, in our round-up of Toronto’s best bars. And while it’s true that this newly opened Chinatown joint proudly remains among the hippest places in the city to catch a drink, its dinner menu, designed by executive chef Dustin Gallagher, is worth raving about all on its own. The fried-tongue sandwich, served on a chewy pretzel bun and topped with pickles and mustard, is one of the most satisfying small plates in town; for those inclined to share (or anyone particularly hungry), meanwhile, the deluxe smoked fish platter is delicious enough that we’re willing to overlook its rather tenuous connection to the cuisine of the neighborhood. We only wish they’d bring back their standout bao, a greatly missed causality of recent (and otherwise positive) menu changes.
Head chef Ariel Caplan helped found Thoroughbred Food & Drink after stints at acclaimed restaurants in New York, but this relatively new establishment isn’t simply modeled on the trends of the five boroughs. Billed as a “contemporary Canadian restaurant,” and serving through the evening what are rapidly proving among the best cocktails in the city (with drinks named after both Seinfeld and Infinite Jest), Thoroughbred has already made clear, in its short time on the scene, that it’s nothing less than world class. The dishes, like the drinks, are as striking as they are innovative, running the wow-factor gamut from chicken-liver mousse (whose almost dessert-like creaminess is brilliantly cut by pickled sultanas) to kung-pao cauliflower, the restaurant’s calling card and signature dish.
DON DON IZAKAYA
Step into Don Don Izakaya and, no matter how thronged with happy diners, the room erupts in cheers—that’s just the sort of place this is. Nor does the revelry diminish once you’ve been seated. An izakaya is a rather unusual Japanese restaurant, more like an English pub in the middle of a Premiership game than a traditional sushi-and-teriyaki joint. The atmosphere has much to recommend it. So too does the food: Don Don’s shareable small plates, from superb beef tataki to a burned-hay sashimi platter, are as delightful as the ambiance.