If you want to fully appreciate Toronto’s incredible food scene, you need to understand its evolution. Not that long ago, white tablecloths outnumbered Edison lightbulbs and kitchens were hidden in the back, with nary a tattoo in view front of house. Italian and French were de rigeur, fusion was not yet mainstream (remember Rain anyone?), and the word “foodie” simply meant someone who loved to eat. Today, haute cuisine has been turned on its head, refurbished is the new polished and dining out has become a sport. And, although some masters (like Jamie Kennedy and Mark McEwan) no longer operate their pioneering hot spots, many are still going strong.
Here are 10 iconic institutions that every foodie can still — and must — visit:
Über-Canadian, Canoe is where you take out-of-town business partners or uppity in-laws to show off. Everything about Peter Oliver and Michael Bonacini’s 20-year-old restaurant is consistently luxe: from its location atop the 54-storey Mies van der Rohe–designed TD Bank Tower with views of the bustling Downtown core, sparkling lake and sweeping sunsets, to its local, seasonal menu with dishes like venison tartare, northern woods mushroom soup and bison rib-eye. It’s a classic.
While not exactly the most convenient location (underneath a nondescript condo building near Avenue and St. Clair), this romantic hilltop restaurant also serves up stunning city views alongside its French haute cuisine. There’s smoked partridge with chanterelles, filet mignon with bordelaise sauce and halibut with a Gruyère crust. Chef-owner Keith Froggett has ensured impeccable yet straightforward sophistication for 35 years. Go here for your anniversary.
Opus doesn’t grace top restaurant lists often, but if you’ve ever dined here, you know it’s one of the city’s best. Its continental menu, massive wine cellar and traditional Yorkville style has been bringing diners back since 1992. There’s foie gras, caviar with buckwheat blini, heritage rooster, rabbit ravioli — oh and 52,000 bottles of wine. Go here when you get promoted and want to splurge.
Barberian’s (pictured at top)
This is old-school decadent dining at its most cliché. Some might say Barberian’s is no longer relevant, but over 50 years in the business must mean they’re still doing something right. There will always be the need for an elegant steakhouse, and the simple pleasure of a perfectly grilled cut of beef cannot be understated. Barberian’s menu is incredibly classic and includes coquilles St. Jacques, French onion soup, baked Alaska and the best steaks a cow can deliver. Bring your dad here to toast his retirement.
George can be found inside a private women’s club, Verity, and is the ultimate feminine alternative to those old boys’ clubs with their dark decor and woody masculinity. George is bright and colourful, playful yet serious and has a charming courtyard terrace too. Chef Lorenzo Loseto’s Torontonian-styled menu includes lobster tagliatelle, Cornish hen with kale, and black cod with Thai curry. George is for the alpha female set.
Chef Victor Barry’s Harbord Village restaurant has been experimenting with Canadian gastronomy for 20 years. Their extensive tasting menu is the way to go at Splendido, with over a dozen constantly changing courses made from ingredients supplied by local purveyors whenever possible. It’s pretty creative and not everyone’s cup of tea, but Splendido is a must for any self-declared foodie. Test it out during a ‘Licious if you’re afraid to fully commit.
Massimo Capra, with his CityLine-famous moustache, has been the co-owner of Yorkville’s Mistura for 17 years. This contemporary Italian restaurant offers an à la carte menu and a glimpse into what Mediterranean dining was like pre–Rob Gentile. The classic choices include crostini, salumi, antipasti, risotto and pastas like wild boar agnolotti or tagliatelle Bolognese, as well as mains like veal scaloppini or braised rabbit. It’s haute without the hype.
Arguably Toronto’s first lady of celebrity chefs, Lynn Crawford has been a culinary legend since her years at the helm of the Four Seasons’ kitchen. Though she didn’t open Ruby Watchco until 2010, her reputation grants it the long-standing legs to join this list. Crawford was an early proponent of local, sustainable cooking and infuses her comfort-food menu at Ruby Watchco with seasonal market fare. Each night she plates a unique prix fixe dinner that makes you feel at home. Take your best friend.
Susur Lee changed Toronto’s culinary landscape in 1987 when he opened his first modern Chinese restaurant, Lotus. His creative approach to Asian-French fusion garnered critical acclaim and worldwide fame. Though it closed after only a decade, today’s diners can grab a taste of this master’s magic touch at his King West restaurant, Lee, which opened in 2004. He also runs Bent, Luckee and Frings (co-owned by rapper Drake), as well as Tunglock Heen in Singapore. The man is an empire. Just go.
Located just outside Collingwood, Michael Stadtlander’s restaurant, Eigensinn Farm, first introduced farm-to-table dining to Torontonians in the 1990s. This 100-acre iconic institution is part field trip, part culinary-camp adventure. No, it’s not in the city, but it has influenced so many Toronto foodies that it must be included. Now one of the forefathers of locavore dining, Stadtlander got his start at Scaramouche with a young Jamie Kennedy in the ’80s. Eigensinn Farm’s mindful tasting menu should be on every bucket list.