The country’s 20 most magical restaurants, from the tip of Vancouver Island to the edge of Newfoundland
By CHRIS NUTTALL-SMITH
Photography by JOHN CULLEN
Chris Nuttall-Smith travelled cross-country to find Canada’s most delicious places to eat. Here, he describes how he did it.
As the dining business began to settle early this year into a new post-pandemic normal, I set out on an epic, 50-restaurant, coast-to-coast eating jag for Maclean’s, gorging my way from Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland, to Ucluelet, B.C. The intention: to take the temperature of the country’s re-made dining landscape—and to uncover Canada’s most spectacular restaurants along the way.
In making my best list, I ate in buzzing taco shops and boisterous ramen-yas, Tamil snack counters, pasta joints and an Indigenous pop-up. I tried luxe, high-French restaurants and dosa houses, dim sum and seafood and Nigerian cooking specialists, wine bars, Middle Eastern, South American and Southeast Asian spots, and an extremely earnest tasting-menu place where they make the bathroom’s hand soap from used coffee grounds and cooking grease. (Please: don’t ever.) No matter where I ate, I watched for warm service, reasonable value, spectacular cooking and, as always, a sense of genuineness and joy. And the good news? I found them in almost every city I visited.
Read Chris’s entire essay here.
Chris Nuttall-Smith is a former food critic for Toronto Life and the Globe and Mail, and a Top Chef Canada resident judge. In addition to all that, he’s a skilled home cook and recently published his first book, Cook It Wild: Sensational Prep-Ahead Meals for Camping, Cabins and the Great Outdoors.
RESTAURANT PEARL MORISSETTE, Niagara, Ontario
ONE2 SNACKS, Scarborough, Ontario
FISHMAN LOBSTER CLUBHOUSE, Scarborough, Ontario
GURU LUKSHMI, Mississauga, Ontario
The chefs at Mon Lapin make near-daily trips to Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market, where they draw inspiration for dishes like roast chicken marinated in sourdough starter (top) and raw scallops with brown butter and camomile bouillon (above left)
The chefs at Mon Lapin make near-daily trips to Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market, where they draw inspiration for dishes like roast chicken marinated in sourdough starter (top) and raw scallops with brown butter and camomile bouillon (middle)
My friends and I were waffling, and our server knew it. It’s not that we weren’t hungry or thirsty or delighted to be there. There just wasn’t anything we didn’t want to eat and drink. The server smiled. She’d seen this before. “Do you want us to make up a little menu for you guys?” she asked. And so began one of the most flat-out delicious nights I’ve ever spent in a restaurant—or as I’ve come to see it since, a fairly typical evening at Mon Lapin. The polished and original and casually, consistently joyful restaurant and wine bar near Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market is, for my money, one of the greatest places to eat not just in Canada, but anywhere on the planet. It’s the place I dream about when I dream about going out for a meal.
“Mon Lapin is the place I dream about when I dream about going out for a meal”
The room, with its whitewashed walls and welcoming, candlelit party feel, is owned and run by a group of all-star Joe Beef alumni. Co-chefs Jessica Noël and Marc-Olivier Frappier cook with curiosity and verve and breathtaking skill. They soak whole, deboned chickens in liquid sourdough starter so the pan-roasted meat comes out crackle-crusted and tender and complexly fruity-tangy. They’re served with wine-steamed clams, or lobster jus, or chanterelle mushrooms—or the night we had one, under a lusty sauce I can only describe as “liquid chicken liver mousse.” The six of us kept looking wide-eyed around the table: can you believe how delicious this is? They do sublime chopped razor clams with white asparagus and homemade mayo, and cheesy, oven-hot gougères spiked with smoked Quebec eel, the bacon of the sea. Another hit: sliced raw fluke under hot brown butter, with tiny sungold tomatoes put up a few months before. There are diamond-like translucent hunks strewn around the plate: tomato brine jelly. As you eat, the dish melts into a summery fog. The theme behind it all is lively, seasonal, emphatically market-driven cooking; the chefs stroll over to Jean-Talon Market for groceries and inspiration nearly every day.
The wine service, run by sommeliers and co-owners Vanya Filipovic and Alex Landry, is every bit as brilliant. Mon Lapin might have the most inviting and treasure-packed natural wine list I’ve found outside of France, and it’s carefully managed so the bottles emerge from the restaurant’s cellar only once they’re drinking at their peak. And yet it never feels like the staff are trying to sell you something, or worse, to snow you; they don’t do fancy wine jargon or engage in ostentatious sommellerie. Late this winter, I walked in alone and sat at the bar. I didn’t hesitate this time to let them decide for me. A few dishes in, Alex Landry came by with a wine from near Shawinigan, Quebec. It was called Le Soir des Poubelles: Garbage Night. It’s probably worth noting I was love-drunk already. I’d just been thinking about how easily the restaurant sets the standard for modern, Canadian dining—how widely influential (and inimitable) Mon Lapin has become. When I asked about that wine, Landry told a short and charming story about its name, how the winemakers only saw their neighbours when they put out the garbage, so garbage night became a time to celebrate. But what stuck most was how proud and happy he seemed to be pouring the stuff. Like so much else I’d had here over a couple of visits, it was juicy, ethereal, beautifully refreshing, the very best thing I could imagine drinking in that moment. Then a cook turned up and set down another plate.
Co-owners Warren Barr and Lily Verney-Downey serve up delightful surprises, like a dessert of currant blossom and white chocolate ganache, citrus sponge and strawberry-kazu sorbet
The pre-dinner snacks are the first sign this place is special. There’s a miniature hot dog of grilled Humboldt squid under a frizz of fried shallots—three little bites of delicious disorientation. There’s a tiny roasted potato slathered in house HP sauce and speared on a stick, and a hunk of smoked, candied steelhead wrapped into paper like a corner-store caramel. It’s maybe the best piece of candy I’ve had in my adult life. “Don’t eat the paper,” the server says. The snacks at Pluvio, like so much of what they do here, are lighthearted and gorgeous and completely unexpected.
This clearly isn’t your usual tourist town spot. The 26-seat restaurant, on Vancouver Island’s surf-swept outer west coast, is owned by Lily Verney-Downey and Warren Barr. She runs the room, with its caring and smartly calibrated service; he’s the chef. Their ethos is to always overdeliver. Where most people move to places like this to slow down and relax, these two are among the hardest-working restaurateurs I’ve found. Barr and his kitchen make almost everything from scratch: their own miso, fish sauce, butter and wild rice soy sauce. They bake their own sourdough and smoke their own fish and painstakingly fashion tamale dough from whole-kernel B.C. corn. And their sourcing is basically a love letter to Vancouver Island. (A standout: the wild blackberry vermouth from Cowichan Valley.)
Even more importantly, they know that most customers don’t come to restaurants to hear ingredient lists or manifestos—they come to have fun. That understated brilliance shines through everything they touch. There was chopped albacore tuna when I went there recently: not some tweezery haute-tartare, but a build-your-own-adventure board, complete with lettuce leaves for wrapping, house-made (of course) potato matchsticks, a tiny bottle of Barr’s excellent homemade habanero sauce, and an unspeakably tasty lime-leaf sauce. There were perfect B.C. spot prawns grilled over charcoal, with crisp corn fritters made from that B.C. corn dough. There were waffles piled high with cheese and truffles, so wildly delicious-smelling that heads turned en masse as they travelled through the room.
For dessert, they brought a white chocolate and apple tart. It came in a crackling shell as thin as crepe paper, like so much of the kitchen’s work, a tour-de-force. When dinner was finished, Verney-Downey presented a carved wooden box. Inside was a parting sweet, what a fussier place might have called a mignardise. Here, it came as a treasure hunt—a box full of seashells, with a homemade chocolate truffle hidden in their midst. I popped it into my mouth and beamed.
The beauty is on the plate at Simon Mathys’s relaxed Montreal restaurant, as in a dish of tomato topped with Montreal smoked meat fat, herbs and edible flowers (Photograph: Philippe Richelet)
The room, though friendly, comfortable and filled with happy locals from Montreal’s Rosemont neighbourhood, was built on the cheap; the feel of the place, in the words of one review, is “convivial et sans fla-fla,” which is pretty much right. As for the address, Mastard is on a street of rowhouses, across from a schoolyard, a not unpleasant hike from Montreal’s Fabre metro stop, just a few steps past a long-vacant Dollar Bonheur. “Yeah, no, it’s not a cool area,” chef Simon Mathys says. The luxuries here come on the plates. Mathys, a soft-spoken star on the province’s culinary scene, turns out playful, original, often exhilarating cooking at the year-and-a-half-old restaurant, which he owns with his girlfriend, Viki Brisson-Sylvestre. And he’s making a point of doing that at prices almost any food lover can afford.
Mastard serves a five-course, ever-changing menu. There might be a humble piece of Gaspé Arctic char: ruby pink, perfectly cooked, on an emerald pool of parsley sauce and creamy-centred white beans, dotted with pop-popping beads of mullet roe. It’s a visual stunner, entrancing as a Chopard display, and delicious enough that I had to pause to gather myself between bites. Mathys naps it all under a ham hock–flavoured hollandaise, a minor miracle among many the night I went. Or maybe it’s the breakfast radishes in a springtime stew that’s both fresh and decadent, and utterly transportive. Or the simple high-summer tomato slabs he dresses with herbs and verdant-tasting camelina oil, with a savoury assist from hot Montreal smoked meat fat. What they all have in common are the focused, original, only-in-Quebec flavours, and the familiar comfort his cooking delivers in spite of their high-cuisine roots.
Mastard’s wine list, refreshingly, is every bit as thoughtful, full of natural esoterica from better-value makers; the pairings are just $50, and the bottles top out around $120. That’s around the price where wine lists at many places of Mastard’s culinary calibre just begin to hit their stride. “I don’t want people to come once a year or once every five years to celebrate,” Mathys says. “I want you to be back in a month.”
Most of the produce on chefs Eric Robertson and Daniel Hadida’s menu comes from their own backyard. Recently, they did a celeriac dish with whole-grain sake lees, rice and caviar, served with a mussel sauce.
Daniel Hadida and Eric Robertson first opened their ambitious Niagara wine-region restaurant in November of 2017. Through that fall and winter and the better part of a year, the chefs routinely drove delivery runs between shifts at the stoves. Hadida ran east out to Pearson Airport every Thursday to collect Newfoundland urchins and snow crabs and B.C. geoduck clams. Robertson took care of Pearl Morissette’s longer-haul produce. When he wasn’t roaring deep southwest into Ontario’s farm country, he got his mom to help out; she’d pull up to their kitchen in her Honda Civic, its trunk overflowing with organic veg. They were farming too, and dry-aging meats, working with a full-time forager, and putting up bushel-loads of produce. Robertson and Hadida had both come up through top kitchens in Europe; they didn’t see why the ingredients in their restaurant shouldn’t be every bit as good. But what stood out even beyond their ambition was the extraordinariness of those co-chefs’ food. And what stands out to me today, nearly six years (and another seven or eight visits) since they opened, is how the experience and unhurried deliciousness of eating there gets markedly better every single time.
Hadida and Robertson lean heavily on their own gardens’ veg and berries and herbs these days (they grow the vast bulk of the restaurant’s produce on-site), along with local meats and Canadian fish, and vinegars made from the property’s stone fruit and grapes. So maybe there’s a puff pastry tart near the start of dinner, with pickled peaches and beets, with caviar and scallop roe pâté, so strange in its voluptuous balance of rich and earthy, maritime and bright, that it’s a little like hearing an unknown language. It’s so exquisite, too, that you discover you’re fluent straight out of the gate. Maybe there’s Dungeness crab with pickled pears, or dry-aged pork and white beans cooked along with slices of ham that’s been curing for nearly four years, so the beans are almost as soft and rich and gently funky as bites of triple-cream brie.
The natural wines and wine service are excellent, though the restaurant’s non-alcoholic juice pairings, made entirely from local-grown herbs, vegetables, roots and fruit, are a genuine revelation. The feel of the room, with its views out across the gardens, is high-pastoral elegance: it’s light and comfortable and deeply professional, with forager-gardener Deirdre Fraser’s herb and flower arrangements radiating humble beauty throughout the space. The desserts are every bit as standout as the mains—the chefs also run a bakeshop in nearby Jordan Village, with an all-star team of pastry hands at its helm.
In spite of the place’s constant evolution and improvement, Hadida and Robertson still drive deliveries a lot of weeks, though they’ve got a lot more cooks to help out these days. What’s also stayed the same is the joy of a lunch or dinner there, and the feeling that Pearl Morissette, already by any measure one of the very best spots to eat in Canada, has plenty of room yet to keep on maturing—that it hasn’t even begun to hit its stride.
The must-try at this contemporary Chinese spot is the signature—and enormous—pickled cabbage soup, loaded with wide cellophane noodles, tofu cubes and a whole B.C. rockfish cut into hunks
When the soup arrives, we all lean way back. The bowl is enormous, billowing, the size of a cauldron, filled with thick golden broth and wide cellophane noodles, with cabbage and cubes of tofu, plus a whole B.C. rockfish cut into hunks, its tail riding high up the rim. It smells sweet and fresh and beguilingly sour, not of lemon, exactly, but something close. And the scent of Szechuan peppercorns, with their red berry buzz, seems to hang above it all, loose in the steam like charged electrons. “Oh my God,” one of my lunchmates exhales. For the next transcendent, 20-odd minutes, none of us is really able to speak.
The soup, from chef Bo Li, is the go-to order in his modern Szechuan and Cantonese seafood spot, where the specialty is super-fresh wild B.C. fish. The restaurant, in a busy commercial plaza in booming Richmond, feels alive and fun, with open roof trusses and chandeliers made to look like fishnets; it’s filled most hours with young Chinese speakers. That soup is a riff of sorts on Szechuan suan cai yu, or pickled cabbage soup. Li’s version is a master class in finesse—it’s massively tasty, but somehow delicate enough to let the flavour of the fish shine through. Li, originally from northeast China, came to Canada for university, but discovered he wasn’t the academic type. So he signed up for culinary school in Winnipeg, cooking French and Italian for academic credit while working nights at an enormous Chinese buffet. He opened a sushi spot after graduating, then moved to South Vancouver, where he ran a Chinese grill for six or seven years. “I have a lot of different influences,” he says. No kidding, pal.
His non-soup menu is pretty sensational too. There are baked Pacific beach oysters the size of your hand, and geoduck clams that come sliced into opalescent discs and frazzled in a stream of hot oil. He does superb wok-fried Manila clams, and spot prawns in season. In all of it, like that soup of his, the seafood is the star. (Also, do not sleep on the pitchers of dried black plum juice they bring to drink; it’s seasoned with licorice and Chinese brown sugar, fantastically quenching stuff.) We finished with a jumbo lobster that had been wok-fried with aromatics and Chinese wine, then steamed over a lotus leaf and sticky rice. Even as we all collapsed in sighs, there was another flavour I couldn’t place, that had somehow brought that dish into an even higher realm. “Butter,” Li told me later. “It’s not typical.” In Chinese wok-fried lobster? It certainly is not. “But without butter you’re kind of missing something, right?”
Every meal at chefs Tobey Nemeth and Michael Caballo’s restaurant is a special occasion. The menu includes a mix of Spanish snacks and French-influenced fine dining, like lobster salpicón with white asparagus and lobster roe.
The walls of Tobey Nemeth and Michael Caballo’s Toronto restaurant are covered with menus from the planet’s greatest kitchens, mementoes of the eating trips they build their holidays and lives around. There’s Arzak and Meadowood, Boulud and Bocuse, Akelarre and L’Ambroisie, titans all of high cuisine. And there are also the slightly lesser-known places: the countryside mom and pops and templos del producto where the specialty is obtaining impossibly perfect ingredients, then serving them with uncommon grace and skill. Edulis, the couple’s intimate and incomparable 24-seat room, is a mix of those worlds: grand and somehow humble too, fancy but decidedly fun. Now 11 years old, it is also, to my mind, the most personal fine dining spot anywhere in Canada; their touch is on absolutely everything here.
Their specialty is a mix of vernacular Spanish drinking dishes and ultra-fresh seafood and vegetables, handled with restraint. Their menus often include a ridiculously indulgent standard of high-French cooking: black truffle soup under a dome of golden pastry, say, or an elaborate canard à la presse. All of it is served at a leisurely pace, ideally with very good wine. No one will ever attempt to turn your table here. They’ve been making their own Spanish-style conservas recently: P.E.I. bluefin belly and Newfoundland razor clams, grilled over hardwood and sealed in tins, in the style of one of their favourite places on the Cantabrian Sea. They stuff ultra-creamy cheeses with fresh black truffles and smoke bushel-loads of grown-to-order paprika chilis each fall to make Spanish-style pimenton, which they grind to order so it’s always fresh.
Nemeth and Caballo don’t merely run a restaurant; they live their lives in the pursuit of deliciousness. You can’t miss that level of commitment on their plates. The last time I ate there, for a late-winter lunch, we had wild sea bream dressed with chili and fennel, and a whip-crack tasty Galician empanada filled with bonito and peppers. There were mussels and pheasant, simple salad, and blanquette de veau, then Nemeth came around with a bottle of Spanish brandy to go with the quince and apple custard cake she’d just made. My lunchmate, a first-timer here (or anywhere like it), was bug-eyed and beaming, overwhelmed by the delirious excessiveness of it all. “I feel like I’m in their home,” he said.
Fuad Nirabie’s gorgeous dining room turns out plates inspired by his childhood memories, like a crunchy fattoush with more than 20 ingredients (above right); pistachio kibbeh with sheep’s milk yogurt; and a rainbow of dips like beet and eggplant mutabbal, hummus and mouhammara served with delicate saj bread (above left)
Fuad Nirabie’s gorgeous dining room turns out plates inspired by his childhood memories, like a crunchy fattoush with more than 20 ingredients (above); pistachio kibbeh with sheep’s milk yogurt; and a rainbow of dips like beet and eggplant mutabbal, hummus and mouhammara served with delicate saj bread (top)
Fuad Nirabie’s polished, spare-no-effort Syrian fine dining spot draws deeply on his childhood memories. There was the night in Homs when he was 12 years old and his aunt and mother and grandmother made a fattoush salad. He remembers noticing how finely they’d chopped its herbs and vegetables, so in each bite you got a taste of everything. He remembers thinking how much time and effort they committed to get it right. He remembers the taste of sheep’s milk yogurt and its importance in his family’s diet, and how whenever they travelled half an hour west, toward the Mediterranean, they didn’t eat lamb so much as fish. And he remembers, especially, the importance of little details, how in Syrian architecture, as in its cooking, the broad strokes didn’t matter as much as the fine ones; how often he’d enter a plain-looking home to find an exquisitely finished courtyard inside its walls.
Damas is Nirabie’s tribute to the richness of those memories. The room is all lush, polished wood and tile, and jewel-coloured lanterns, as in those hidden courtyards. It’s strikingly beautiful, filled from open to close with as diverse an array of diners—young and old, formal and family casual, Syrian and otherwise—as you’ll ever find in a fancy restaurant, patrolled by all-pro staff. As for Damas’s ingredients, Nirabie imports them directly, painstakingly, from Syria and its bordering diaspora communities: container-loads of spices and pistachios, chickpeas and pomegranate molasses and fermented Aleppo pepper paste. By partnering with a sheep and goat dairy in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, he developed Syrian-style cheese and yogurt that tasted just like home. To develop a steady supply of the right kind of purslane, a leafy herb in his kitchen’s fattoush, he spent four years working with a Montreal grower. That fattoush of his, a crunchy, juicy, sublimely balanced riot of chopped veg and herbs, citrusy sumac and pita—it has more than 20 ingredients, all of them minutely chopped—is quite possibly the single greatest salad I’ll ever eat. And Damas’s lamb- and beef -based kibbeh nayyeh tartare is many multiples more comforting and cosmopolitan and profoundly tasty than any French tartare. As with almost every bite I had here, to try it is to realize just how complex and historic and spectacular Syrian food can be.
Nirabie is both a self-taught chef and restaurateur, but he’s a master culinary researcher also; before he took up cooking, he spent the early 2000s as a film student, researching an as-yet-unmade feature film he hoped to build around the roots of regional Syrian food. Herbs, nuts, and exotic sours play key roles in almost every dish, frequently with labneh or good tahini for mellow creaminess. And it doesn’t hurt that Damas’s wine list is superb, or that nearly everything arrives on hammered silver plates. Nirabie is always developing new ideas—tastes that meld his own past with regional or historic takes on Syrian dishes. (A recent effort: he stuffed vine leaves with lamb and quince and other fruits, then charred them over the kitchen’s charcoal grill.) But then even a food as commonplace as chicken shish taouk eats here like a life event: Nirabie marinates it for days in fermented chili paste and spices and sheep’s milk yogurt, then grills the chicken over charcoal, so the brightly grassy tangy taste of the yogurt floats, almost like a breeze, above the savoury depths of grill smoke and char.
Chon, Tracy and Bryan Choy make Malaysian street food worthy of Kuala Lumpur
The first time I ever ate at this tiny, street-style Malaysian spot in Scarborough, I’d been out a few nights earlier at the many-million-dollar restaurant of a famous chef. That high-end downtown room was on all the fancy lists; the servers referred to their boss only in a reverent whisper. All I could think at One2 Snacks, as I slurped and swooned and stammered my way through the gloriously fragrant laksa noodle soup, was how the famous downtown chef had exactly nothing on Tracy and Chon and Bryan Choy.
The quietly incredible wife-husband-son trio opened on a shoestring in 2009; nothing on their menu cost more than $10. They’d never even worked as “proper” chefs—Tracy, who did the wok cooking, had trained as a typesetter back in Malaysia, and Chon, the laksa master, as a draftsman. Yet their dishes then, as today, remain some of the most delicious and skillful cooking I’ve had in Canada, made with an extraordinary measure of commitment and love. Their char kway teow, a wok-seared mix of fat yellow egg noodles, chicken, crunchy bean sprouts, scallions and dark Malaysian soy, is the greatest example I’ve found here of the power of wok hei, the sweetly smoky “breath of the wok” that comes only from timing and muscle memory and incredibly high heat. Or as a Malaysian friend of mine put it the other week, “This is on par with the best char kway teow in Kuala Lumpur.”
Wok hei, you learn at One2 Snacks, is as real and tangible an ingredient as eggs or shrimp. Their curry laksa, with its deeply orange-hued broth blushed red with chili paste, is a study in perfect balance: of sweetness and acidity, of spice and herbal lift and comforting, coconut milk richness.
“The dishes at One2 Snacks are some of the most delicious and skillful cooking I’ve had in Canada, made with an extraordinary measure of commitment and love”
The mee goreng, meanwhile, wokked noodles with chili and shrimp paste, is all endorphin-tweaking burn and deep-marine funk, tempered with tomato sweetness. And for a super simple rice-starch-driven snack, I can’t think of much nicer than the thickly rolled rice noodle dish called chee cheong fun, or the grilled, banana leaf–wrapped coconut rice and shrimp sticks called pulut panggang. The kuih dadar crepes, for dessert, taste like stepping into a crowded night market; they’re flavoured with the green, sweet-herbal juice of tropical pandan leaves, and stuffed with slow cooked palm sugar and coconut mix.
Be advised, the pandemic was not good to the Choys: Chon went through a major medical scare, and the family has moved strictly to takeout. Your best bet, always, is to order in advance by email (though there’s no website, the email address and menu are reasonably easy to find via Yelp), and plan to eat on a patch of local green space or the hood of a car. What remains constant is how firmly the Choys’ cooking grabs you, how hard it is to form any outside thoughts as you’re eating their food. And though this makes exactly zero sense, nothing on the menu costs more than $10, even today.
8 Glen Watford Drive, Scarborough, Ontario
A trip to Matty Matheson’s Toronto restaurant is all about indulgence: a plate of rosy-rare 12-ounce prime rib, for example, with fluffy Yorkshire pudding and a smoky carrot–goat cheese tart (top right), or an order of caviar with crème fraîche, shallots, chives and potato chips (top left)
A trip to Matty Matheson’s Toronto restaurant is all about indulgence: a plate of rosy-rare 12-ounce prime rib, for example, with fluffy Yorkshire pudding and a smoky carrot–goat cheese tart (middle), or an order of caviar with crème fraîche, shallots, chives and potato chips (top)
Sure, it can be a challenge to reconcile the soaring, sculptural perfection of Matty Matheson’s latest Toronto “it” spot with its owner’s persona. While the maple-clad room, with its arched, slat-wood ceiling and wood-fired grill, has rightly been described as serene and transcendent, Matheson, the chef and actor-producer (in Disney+’s hit show The Bear, most recently) is still best known in many parts as a jolly buffoon with a heart of gold. He’s the sort of guy who’ll film a cooking show in a BDSM harness and dungeon mask; whose rise as a star on social media (1.2 million Instagram followers) has featured more naked toilet selfies than it’s advisable to count. Yet Matheson has always been a restaurant guy; he knows what’s great. And as this latest effort of his affirms, he’s infinitely smarter than his for-camera persona usually lets on.
Prime Seafood Palace, a hybrid steakhouse and seafood (and vegetable) spot on Queen Street West, is a masterpiece, the very rare restaurant that gets pretty much everything exactly right. The mood and the floor service, run by an all-pro team, are smart and genuine. There’s a pride of ownership here that you don’t find in 95 per cent of high-end spots. And the cooking, run by chef Coulson Armstrong, is the sort that stays with you, that you find yourself raving about weeks later, in the park or at the dentist’s—high-effort, technique-driven dishes that manage, in spite of all that, to taste like joyful abandon. So you can nerd out, if you must, at the kitchen’s culinary pyrotechnics, or just loll for an evening in a ridiculously delicious haze.
The seafood side of the menu is spectacular: the sea urchin toasts, for instance, that combine layers of brown butter–crisped milk bread with chopped tuna belly, Hokkaido urchin and peppery Ontario ginger. It’s all mineral depth and maritime richness, melded into time-stopping bliss. Or maybe it’s the “seafood boudin” sausage from a few months back, made with whipped scallops, shrimp and house-cured lardo. The mixture was packaged in a delicate cabbage wrapper, smoked over the grill so it was all savoury thrum and smoky char, brightened with sunny Japanese yuzu juice. The veg dishes, too, are every bit as inspired: the carrots, say, that are steamed then slowly grilled to nearly fudge and set with melty Grey Owl cheese into a profoundly buttery-flaky pastry crust. The beef here, whether the dry-aged prime rib or strip steak, gets softly poached in burbling beef fat before it’s grilled to a well-crusted sizzle over wood embers. It’s then brushed down with a supercharged take on bordelaise sauce.
All that deliciousness comes at a cost: Prime Seafood Palace is easily one of Canada’s priciest restaurants. (Those urchin toasts, which are meant to feed two people, went for $90 last time I checked.) But if you’re after a splash-out dinner, it’s also, to my mind, among the best places on the continent. And as a bonus, the Palace’s main floor restroom is a gorgeous space, with a marble-tiled skylight shaft that rises some 30 feet up. Which is to say that it’s perfect, if this is your thing, for a naked toilet selfie or two—and the management will have exactly zero right to complain.
Mallard Cottage, in a centuries-old clapboard house, pays tribute to the ingredients and traditions of Newfoundland. Its superb cod cheeks, for example, are marinated in buttermilk and dredged in corn flour.
The partridge chip at Mallard Cottage is a thing of magnificence. The meat itself is juicy and succulent, poached slowly in oil until it’s falling apart. It’s piled, just a bit of it, with a slice of foie gras onto a homemade potato chip. It’s crunchy and salty, voluptuously rich and just the slightest bit wild-tasting, a one-bite welcome gift before the real dinner starts. It’s also as local to Quidi Vidi, to this tiny, historic fishing and farming village at the edge of St. John’s, as you could possibly imagine. “The guy who shot that partridge,” chef Todd Perrin tells me later, in his thick island accent, “If you look out the window, you can see his house.”
Everything you see and eat here is somehow rooted in Quidi Vidi. Perrin’s spot, a one-of-a-kind Newfoundland dining institution and cultural centre of sorts, is built around a clapboard Irish cottage from the early 1800s—one of the oldest remaining structures in St. John’s. Perrin took it over in 2011, then built the adjoining kitchen and dining room. Nothing about it, whether the place or the cooking, is overly complicated; the specialty here is Newfoundland comfort food served with unobtrusive cheffy twists. There are cod cheeks and moose steaks, potatoes, partridge, mussels, chanterelles, scallops and cabbage. “That you can serve cod and potatoes in a small-f fine restaurant—that makes me incredibly proud,” Perrin says.
About that cod: it’s absurdly delicious. The cheeks get marinated in buttermilk, then dredged in corn flour batter and fried hot and fast. They come out molten and juicy, but still tasting like the world’s freshest fish; the deliciousness goes straight to your head. The cabbage was done tempura-style when I had it, crunchy, juicy, gorgeously seasoned. You might find carrots with romesco sauce, or spaghetti with rabbit puttanesca, or squash and brussels sprouts under a sweet-spicy hot-honey glaze. It’s simple stuff, all of it, and yet delicious enough to be a highlight of any trip.
Supply & Demand, a hybrid raw bar–bistro in Ottawa, is warm and fun, with great seafood and a sort-of-secret gin and tonic list. The house Caesar is practically a meal, topped with pepperoncini, pickled celery, an olive and an oyster, and the baked Alaska for two features spice cake, cream cheese gelato and haskap berries.
Supply & Demand is near the top of my list of fantasy neighbourhood restaurants—“fantasy” at least in some part because it’s nowhere near my actual home. And also because they do a meatball dish there that I can’t get out of my head. The meatballs are made not from beef or ground pork, but from fresh albacore tuna and good prosciutto, with chilis and lemon zest and gently cooked veg. They come on squid ink rigatoni, deep-ocean black, tossed with a sunshiney tomato and lobster sauce that pulses with freshness and depth. And how does it all taste? Like falling in love on a beach on the Aegean. Which is pretty good considering this was January when I had that dish, just off Wellington Street in Ottawa, and a solid minus a million or so outside.
The place is a raw bar and bistro with excellent cocktails and even a sort-of-secret gin and tonic list. It’s warm and fun, and the cooking is exceptional. It’s not cheap, but not expensive, and by all appearances, it’s run by genuinely good-hearted humans, too. Steve and Jen Wall are from Labrador and New Brunswick, respectively. They met in Ottawa, then married and had a couple of kids. Steve was the cook who never stopped pushing: he’d drive to New York on his days off to stage with the greats, sleeping in hostels and pulling in back home just in time for his shift. Jen was the front-of-house maestro. Supply & Demand has been rammed since they opened it in 2013.
This is a great place to order a tray of oysters, or a seafood crudo so smartly underdressed that you don’t have to use any imagination at all. The vegetables and salads are excellent, Italian-spirited, like a lot of Wall’s cooking. The pastas are made in-house, consistently superb. Another standout lately: the whorls of tonnarelli dressed with clams, and butter and lemon cooked down to citrusy caramel. It’s sour, sweet and silky-savoury, with confetti of toasted seaweed for crunch. (The pastas can come in half-portions, also—a customer-first amenity that’ll make any carb-loving diner’s heart sing.) The mains are blessedly simple and made with pride and, as for the desserts, they’re classics: Eton mess, say, or baked Alaska (you will know it by the whoosh of flames). It doesn’t have to be complicated, you know?
People come to Fishman Lobster Clubhouse as much for the spectacle as for the seafood, which generally comes in heaping towers of king crab, lobster and rice dotted with roe
Everyone becomes a paparazzo at Fishman Lobster Clubhouse. When you’re faced with seafood feasts this impressive, it doesn’t make sense to resist. Here’s a tower of lobster as high as your forehead, slowly spinning at the centre of the table, the Lazy Susan–bound belle of the crustaceous ball. There are stacks of king crab legs arranged like log cabins, next to batter-fried fish and lobster roe rice, next to enormous noodle platters and mountains of greens. Fishman Lobster Clubhouse is a celebration spot unlike any I know. It’s a big-box bacchanal of 600-odd seats (plus patio) and silver poly tablecloths, of steamed and wok-fried and broiled fresh seafood. It’s all birthday parties and business dinners, buds with beers and big spenders guzzling pomerol. It’s dates and bus tours and extended family meet-and-greets.
Raymond Xie and his relatives started the business in 2009, in a room the size of a convenience store. They’ve had to move to bigger premises twice so far. By 2017, says Xie, they sold so much shellfish that they built their own lobster depot out on the East Coast. The Cantonese-style cooking is cheap, for what it is. It comes fast, and it’s consistently, resoundingly, exceedingly good. Most tables order the lobster Hong Kong–style: in a gauzy batter made with five-spice (I’m guessing) and garlic (can’t miss it) and a hit of white sugar (I’d bet my house). It’s juicy and steamy and just lightly crunchy, with a touch of welcome sweetness and the slightest warmth from chili heat. They garnish the tower with iceberg lettuce hunks, which maybe seems strange until you pop one into your mouth. Or you can get the lobsters done, if you prefer, in any of four other ways; the same story goes for the crabs. The menu-wide throughline is how cleanly the ingredients sing, how everything tastes just like itself, but better. Even the chicken soup, the test of any kitchen, is richly concentrated and dark as Jurassic amber, powerfully tasty stuff.
The way to do the place is to bring a crowd. Four people is good, but 10 is the dream. If you do 10, the Lobster Mountain Family Dinner comes with 12 pounds of lobster and seven of crab, plus oysters and pork, beef and greens, with fried rice and three whole fried fish and an old college try at dessert. If it were me I’d get a bottle of whisky and beers for the table. Pomerol really isn’t seafood wine.
Chef Zachary Kolomeir (pictured above, on the right, with chef Liam Donato) specializes in a fancified take on Swiss Chalet rotisserie chicken as well as more creative plates, like poached shrimp with carrots and spicy butter
Zachary Kolomeir and Carmelina Imola’s west side Toronto spot is definitely a rotisserie chicken joint, what with its half- and whole-bird meal deals, complete with the gravy that tastes like a top chef’s take on Swiss Chalet. But there’s even more heart, I’d argue, in the kitchen’s work with humble vegetables, in the silky-savoury eggplant-garlic-anchovy “baba-cauda” (baba ghanoush plus bagna cauda, get it?) they served with crunchy radishes and leaves the last time I went. With its pewter-topped counter and romance lighting, Bernhardt’s is a cozy neighbourhood wine bar, also—one of the best places I’ve found for quick-fire games of “spot the first-time Tinder date.” (You will know them by their tentatively roaming hands.) And it’s also, unmistakably, a Montreal Jewish–style soul food kitchen; come for superlative steak tartare on latkes, and stay for the Shabbat-style lamb, as they call it, with white beans. (Like so many other stars of the Canadian culinary scene, Kolomeir and Imola both came out of Montreal’s Joe Beef group.)
Yet what I find myself returning to time and again is how effortlessly Bernhardt’s manages to be so many things, all held together by a single constant thread. The house specialty, no matter what you call it, is above-and-beyond delicious cooking served with warmth and charm, and at refreshingly mid-range prices, at least by Toronto standards. That lamb, to cite just one dish, was a thing of genius, the meat roasted slowly, then seared to a crisp. It came buried under a lemony-garlicky parsley drift, in a bowl of broth and bitter greens and creamy-textured beans. Or the fennel that Kolomeir’s kitchen braised one night to soft and sweet and just gently licoricey, with a butter sauce flavoured by Old Bay seasoning, and perfect, pink-blushed shrimp all around the bowl.
There’s homemade ice cream and sorbet for dessert, a magnificently springtimey rhubarb-vanilla twist last time I went. It was garnished with toasted sunflower seed praline—a novel combination but completely inspired. I’m pretty sure they don’t have that at Swiss Chalet.
Among the more irreverent menu items at this Calgary snack bar: a pizza topped with alfredo sauce, corn kernels and honey-butter potato chips
Jinhee Lee had spent most of a decade working her way up through Calgary’s restaurant scene when she went back home to Korea for a visit. After years of cooking fancy food, and no end of acclaim, she revelled at home in more casual tastes: Korean fried chicken, sweet bulgogi beef and soft serve ice cream. She realized how much she missed the comfort staples of her youth.
JinBar, a young, fresh-feeling restaurant that opened two years ago at the edge of Calgary’s Bridgeland neighbourhood, is her answer to those cravings. It’s just a casual fried chicken, cocktails and pizza joint if you don’t look too hard. Except the chicken comes as crisp and juicy as you might ever dream, redolent of its ginger and garlic marinade, and coated, if you’d like, in Korean chili glaze. She’s been serving it by the piece lately with crème fraîche and caviar—the most prodigally delicious use of both fried chicken and caviar you’re liable to taste any time soon. As for the pizza, Lee serves it distinctly Korean-style, topped with sweet bulgogi beef and fried buldak chicken, or a mix of kernel corn and the honey-butter potato chips they make in house—a taste you need to try only once to acquire.
“JinBar is just a casual fried chicken, cocktails and pizza joint if you don’t look too hard. Except the chicken comes as crisp and juicy as you might ever dream, redolent of its ginger and garlic marinade.”
From behind JinBar’s fast food facade, Lee also trades in more complex dishes. She makes sensational lemongrass curry sablefish, for instance, in a sweet, tangy beurre blanc built on lime juice and fish sauce. There’s slow-roasted pork belly with maple syrup and fried kimchi, too. For dessert, there are superb Korean doughnuts and profoundly creamy condensed milk ice cream, topped with brown sugar–sweetened tapioca pearls, served in antique China cups. It looks for all the world like your grandma’s ice cream and blueberries, except it isn’t even close to that, or to anything else in town.
Chef-owners Celeste Mah and Ross Larkin are bringing fresh flavours and techniques to Newfoundland cuisine, like cod steamed with ginger and leeks, topped with chili crisp and served with sides of soy-braised cabbage and jasmine rice
Ross Larkin always wanted to serve a moose donair: roasted moose meat piled into a pita with sweet-creamy-garlicky sauce. He first got the idea from a cook at Raymonds, the iconic St. John’s fine dining kitchen where he worked as chef de cuisine. Occasionally, they’d make a few donairs for a casual staff meal. But they’d never serve one to actual guests—not in a place as fine dining as that. The very idea became a running gag.
Then the pandemic hit and Raymonds closed. A year ago, Larkin and Celeste Mah, his wife, who is also a chef, opened their own spot. They promised themselves they’d serve the sort of food they liked to eat. That moose donair of their dreams went into heavy rotation, served on fresh-from-the-oven pitas, dressed with tart-sweet Newfoundland tomatoes they’d preserved. It was very much worth the wait. Portage’s specialty is foods from away, made for the most part from the island’s bounty. So there are breaded, fried nuggets sometimes, with honey mustard for dipping, but made from wild Newfoundland hare instead of mechanically separated chicken meat. Mah and Larkin season their cod with ginger and leeks, then steam it instead of baking or frying or searing in fat; they then dollop the delicate flesh with homemade chili crisp. “Most Newfoundlanders have never had steamed cod,” says Larkin. “They can’t believe what they’re tasting.” Neither, to be fair, could I. Mah, who grew up in East Vancouver, does excellent handmade Chinese dumplings, while the roast carrots come tossed with darkly puckery tamarind glaze.
What the couple’s cooking—dumplings, nuggets, tamarind carrots and the like—might never do is meet some big city visitors’ come from away preconceptions. “I can get this sort of food in Toronto,” I’ve heard more than one of them say. Well, yes you can, and also, you can’t: not made with cod this absurdly fresh, or ptarmigan or grouse. Not with just-picked cloudberries, or Torngat mountain char, or moose of any kind, unless you personally know the hunter. You can’t get it made with ingredients this incredible in a room this open-arms hospitable—jeez, the people are nice in Newfoundland—with a wine and drinks list this inviting and fairly priced. At just a year old, Portage is already essential Canadian eating, in one of the country’s most endlessly fascinating towns.
Guru Lukshmi’s massive dosas are stuffed with all sorts of tasty fillings, like spiced potatoes, Nutella and even M&Ms
The kitchen at this Mississauga classic specializes in vegetarian cooking from South India: tender rice-flour cakes; crisp, lentil-battered vada doughnuts; giant wheat dough puri puffballs; and the vegetable-topped, Kerala-style pancakes called uttapam, most of them served with an array of superb sauces and chutneys. But the attractions that draw no end of crowds—Guru Lukshmi is one of the suburbs’ toughest reservations—are the kitchen’s enormous, crepe-like dosas, filled with anything from ghee and herbs and chunky smashed potatoes to Nutella and M&Ms. Most of the dosas are made with tangy fermented rice and lentil batter and come burnished deep golden with clarified butter. You can go almost anywhere from that point: paper-thin or thick, pizza-style (literally; they’re topped with marinara and mozz) or kid-friendly (they do jelly roll dosas and straight-up ghee with icing sugar). You can get low-calorie (with cabbage and carrots), rava-style (made from semolina and rice batter) and even Jain (which exclude any vegetables that grow underground).
If it all seems like a lot, I’ve never regretted an order here; Guru Lukshmi, run by wife-husband-daughter trio Thana Lakshmi Guru, Kumar Gurutharan Nala and Nishaa Guru, is as consistent today as when the place first opened, albeit slightly farther north, in 2009. The room is modern and elegant and filled with South Asian families from across the GTA. And nothing costs more than around $17. The paper dosas—they look like edible airfoils—are superb here, butter-sweet and crisp as croissant shards and slightly tangy. The fillings are generally knockout good. Even the basic onion and potato is a thing of beauty, stained deep, flaxen yellow from ghee and turmeric, studded with curry leaves, cooked just enough so it’s nicely softened, but still with a hint of mellow oniony crunch and bite. The regular dosas are slightly thicker, and tangier, more about their batter than the butter. I love the spicy channa paneer (chickpea and cheese), and spinach numbers, though in truth, the chocolate and cashew version is pretty sensational too. To drink, the mango lassi and milk tea are good, but the cola-like (sort of) salted cumin soda, from Kashmir, is a fascinating—and at least to my taste, delicious—must-try.
Chef-owner Greg Dilabio hand-cranks some of Canada’s finest pasta, like a whorl of taglierini with tomato sauce and burrata flown in from Italy
If the phrase “pasta tasting menu” doesn’t grab you, maybe keep on shuffling, there’s nothing at all to see here. But if it does, well, wow, what a place: soft light, warm wood, just 22 seats, the chef right there at the pasta roller in the back of the dining room, sheeting, cutting, filling, saucing and lovingly plating his work, quite possibly the very best noodles of your life. Oca Pastificio opened on Commercial Drive late in 2019. The chef and co-owner, Greg Dilabio, learned to cook in Italy, then at Vancouver’s La Quercia. He wanted a place where he’d never get bored—where he’d be free to cook to the produce of the season, to his whims, to the day of the week.
There might be fat egg-dough tortelli filled with funky taleggio and sheep’s milk ricotta he brings in from Sardinia. They’re sweet and cheesy and mildly grassy, extravagantly rich (the addition of mascarpone doesn’t hurt) and as light-textured as fog, glossed in a simple almond and butter sauce. Or sugo di maiale—lights-out pork sauce, roughly—made from belly and shoulder and funky-peppery ’nduja, on shell-shaped conchiglie with exactly the right weight and chew. There’s often a gnocchi course, whether potato or polenta-based, whether with hazelnuts and gorgonzola or pesto. Whatever the sauce, Dilabio’s pasta always emerges as the star. You can order à la carte, if you’re the controlling type, but seriously, it’d be a waste. For that $70 tasting, you get salumi and salad, plus three or four plates of pasta, plus something simple and sweet for dessert. The trade-off is you can’t make reservations; you should plan to line up before 5 p.m. Is this policy necessary? Not even remotely. Is it annoying? Profoundly so. And still, I’d do it often, if begrudgingly, if I lived in town.
The pizzas at Elena P.S. range from traditional Neapolitan to off-the-wall quirky. The feel of the place, full of revellers gorging on pies and glugging natural wine in the shade of fruit trees, is as exciting as the menu.
Just around back of Elena, a superb but perennially busy pizza and pasta spot in Montreal’s St. Henri neighbourhood, you’ll find a little bar-à-vins and all-day lunch counter that spills out into a community park. It’s got a few different names, depending who you ask: “Coffee, Pizza, Wine,” and “Club Social P.S.,” or simply “Elena P.S.,” as in postscript, or afterthought. Whatever you call it, that indoor-outdoor space, with its backyard feel and friendly, U-shaped counter, is where the locals go. That counter shares the same cooks and kitchen as its big-sister restaurant, as well as much of the menu. But unlike at Elena, with its tough-to-get reservations, you don’t have to plan ahead. So you can show up at lunch, or mid-afternoon, or at 9 p.m. for a pizza and a salad, or for the cheese-pull fever dreams called suppli al telefono—”telephone lines”—along with a cup, or bottle, or, hell, why not, a magnum of natural wine. And you can eat and drink it all legally in a public green space as the rest of Canada still clutches at its pearls. “It started out as a best-kept secret,” says co-owner and sommelier Ryan Gray. “And now it’s the star of the show.”
The sourdough pizzas are superb. There are gorgeous, blister-crusted, Neapolitan-style classics, as well as off-the-wall but seriously inspired pies. The standout, however, is the cloud-light, crispy-bottomed and notably tangy-crusted number called industrie alla palla, topped with buttery creamy drifts of the house stracciatella cheese. The kitchen makes that stracciatella, somewhat scandalously, not from the usual mozzarella, but with Quebec cheddar cheese curds and cream. The ingredients, as you’d hope, are mostly organic and local, from small-scale farms; the pizza flour is milled not a 40-minute drive away. A lot of days, the feel of the operation is even more impressive than all that: the buzz of that park when it’s filled with revellers, gorging on pizzas and hoagies while shading under the pear trees, glugging wine from compostable cups. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with contentment—and sorry that other parks aren’t even one-tenth as nice.
Chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson specializes in precise, new-Nordic cooking influenced by his German-Canadian roots
Published, a cool and elegant new Nordic–inflected spot on Vancouver‘s Main Street, is best known, at least among the gastro-tourist set, as a destination for impossibly complex, multi-hour, 20-course tasting menus. As for how those menus are, I‘ve got no idea: through two trips west I never could manage to snag a booking. Yet most of the diners who walk through the restaurant‘s doors come for an à la carte experience—a pretty terrific way of eating here.
Chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson learned his craft in old-school kitchens in Germany and Vancouver, plus through a formative summer as a stagiaire at Noma in Copenhagen. That Nordic influence is unmistakeable in his work: the chef forages for mushrooms when he isn‘t fermenting, or smoking, or infusing ingredients, and his plating is so precise and deliberate, arranged as if down to the single atom, that you can only presume his kitchens buy their tweezers here by the case. Yet it‘s all married with ideas from Stieffenhofer-Brandson’s German-Canadian heritage, and with distinctively west-coast-Canadian ingredients that lend a lightness to much of what his kitchen does. So you might find German-style bone marrow dumpling soup on his menus, or lasagna that‘s made with kelp and clams, or a dish of poached spot prawns in green apple and cucumber broth. Those prawns in broth are as light and delicious as an orchard picnic, a standout through and through.
There were superb roast carrots when I went, with coffee and cashews and a sauce made from shallots, and a dish of scallops with citrus and a lusciously fragrant lime-leaf sauce. And there was smoked hay custard for dessert, so quintessentially new Nordic that I could almost hear Danish singing as I ate. Was it original? Not at all. But it absolutely was a thing of beauty, served in a cloud as wide as a soup bowl, with a meringue made from camomile and a scoop of apple granita, cold and gorgeous and clean.
River Café’s ingredients come from local farms, ranches and dairies. Among the highlights: smoked sablefish from Kyuquot Sound with salt-baked celery root (above left) and keta salmon with caviar, cucumber and dill oil (above right).
River Café’s ingredients come from local farms, ranches and dairies. Among the highlights: smoked sablefish from Kyuquot Sound with salt-baked celery root (middle) and keta salmon with caviar, cucumber and dill oil (above).
This Calgary landmark is set in a manicured island-park in the middle of the Bow River, which burbles past here, Tanqueray blue. And the inside space, with its A River Runs Through It decor, has more than enough character to compete. There are fly rods and wicker fish creels and other assorted ephemera everywhere. A birchbark canoe hangs within a roll cast’s reach of the restaurant’s centrepiece, an enormous riverstone hearth, which was crackling, when I visited, with genuine hardwood logs. If all that feels a few dancing animatronic bears removed from theme-park territory, well, sure, I can see that. But I have to admit I was also completely charmed.
The cooking, from executive chef Scott MacKenzie, is all about the sourcing. River Café’s menu is peppered with the names of local farms and ranches and small-scale cheese dairies; the restaurant was a pioneer of local, thoughtful sourcing, not merely in Alberta, but Canada as a whole. So the parsnips that come puréed with the B.C. sumac–dusted Yukon Arctic char were grown at Poplar Bluff, while the lamb shoulder served with the Leffers carrots and Highwood Crossing rye crumble was raised (where else?) at Lambtastic Farms. It’s all handled smartly, if conservatively, from what I tried; the ingredients do the talking here. The wine list, from long-time sommelier Bruce Soley, goes deep. The restaurant has one of the better cellars in Canada, and with terrific finds for budgets from the mid-$40s mark to $5,500.
Chris Nuttall-Smith visited more than 50 restaurants across Canada to compile his best list. Along the way, he discovered how many things have changed in the dining industry—starting with the price of eating out
Nuttall-Smith and friends feast on Hong Kong–style lobster at Fishman Lobster Clubhouse, a Chinese party spot in Scarborough, Ontario
The stop-start reopening of 2022 took all of a heartbeat to become what I can only think of today as the great Canadian dining frenzy—a record-smashing rush of packed rooms and ravenous patrons unleashing our pent-up appetites.
As the dining business began to settle early this year into a new post-pandemic normal, I set out on an epic, 50-restaurant, coast-to-coast eating jag for Maclean’s, gorging my way from Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland, to Ucluelet, B.C. The intention: to take the temperature of the country’s remade dining landscape—and to uncover Canada’s most spectacular restaurants along the way.
At their best, the kitchens and dining rooms I visited ran at a consistently higher level than I’ve ever seen, offering sensational, can’t-do-this-at-home cooking and warm, joyful service. You could tell how happy (and relieved) the staff and owners were to be back.
Yet the industry we’ve returned to isn’t the same as before. For many welcome new developments, there have been trade-offs too. The most jarring of these has been the price of eating out. It might have been the $48-per-dozen local (and completely average) oysters in St. John’s that got me. Not just at one spot, but at almost every bar and restaurant where I could find them. Or the simple weeknight pasta dinner in Toronto with my wife and kid; with just a couple glasses of wine, it came to $170 after tax and tip. The price of a cocktail has edged toward $20 in a lot of restaurants. I saw no end of main courses for $40 and up in what used to be known, I guess quaintly, as “mid-range” spots.
That mid-range, suddenly more expensive almost across the board, has taken a hit in pricier centres, Toronto in particular. Independent, original, professionally run places where you could eat well on a weeknight without too much sticker shock used to be one of the city’s strengths. Now, squeezed by rising food, labour, construction, financing, maintenance and rent costs, a lot of those restaurants have either closed or raised their prices to what many diners consider special-occasion heights.
While some people may see those prices as straight-up gouging, in many cases it just isn’t that simple. “I can guarantee you that most of them are barely getting by,” one respected mid-range restaurant owner told me. Through much of the reopening, this restaurateur couldn’t find dishwashers for less than $30 per hour. And because so many veteran floor staff left the restaurant business during the pandemic, they had to train the basics to entire crews of first-time servers, who couldn’t work nearly as quickly or smoothly as the people they’d replaced. Even then, the business couldn’t find enough workers to run at full capacity. They’ve been turning away eager would-be customers while tables sit empty—a phenomenon I’ve witnessed over and over through the past year.
At the high end, where chefs used to hold their breath before charging more than $90 per person, $185 dinners now sell out in a flash. At Toronto’s much-lauded—and, if you’ve got the bankroll, genuinely excellent—Alo, you’re in for $300 a head now after tax and a 20 per cent tip, provided you can get a reservation. And that’s with only tap water to drink. As far as I can tell, the award for Canada’s priciest restaurant goes to Sushi Masaki Saito, in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, where the pre-drinks price of admission has climbed to $680 per head. Personally, I’d sooner jump on a plane to Japan.
On the plus side, at least some of those bigger dinner bills are paying for long-overdue changes across the industry: higher wages and once unheard-of benefits for many restaurant workers. The four-day workweek has become increasingly common, especially at upper mid-range and higher-end spots. Though 12- and 14-hour shifts are standard still, many cooks can now count on three days of built-in downtime. These aren’t fads. They’re transformational changes, professionalizing an industry that’s been built through much of its existence on staff burnout and turnover. It seems almost crazy to say this, but I’ve heard it from restaurant workers throughout the past year: it’s suddenly possible to work in restaurants and also have some sort of life.
“No matter where I travelled, I watched for restaurants that had warm service, reasonable value, spectacular cooking and, as always, a sense of genuineness and joy. And the good news? I found them in almost every city I visited.”
Bernhardt’s in Toronto, which specializes in rotisserie chicken and Montreal-Jewish soul food, is a great mid-range first-date spot
There are still plenty of affordable places, too, of course. Many of the best restaurants in Montreal remain eminently reasonable; the owners of Mastard, an ambitious neighbourhood spot I fell in love with, have made value for money a priority. In Montreal especially, it’s far from alone. For a lot of chefs there, being accessible to friends and neighbours is as important as getting a good sear on a piece of line-caught fish.
I found excellent mid-range options in Nova Scotia too, like Dartmouth’s superb, family-run Canteen. (When it’s available, the restaurant’s lobster and snow crab “crobster” sandwich might just be my vote for the single greatest sandwich on earth.) In Calgary, I found the excellent Ten Foot Henry, as well as Paper Lantern, a second-generation Vietnamese kitchen and lounge tucked away in Chinatown. As a bonus, Paper Lantern’s “better tiki” cocktails were brilliant: tiki-style, but made with rare smarts and balance, and without the usual sickly sweet. And even Calgary’s flashy (if underwhelming) new “high-end steakhouse,” called Major Tom, was priced more like a stealthy mid-range spot, with affordable options hidden between the menu’s attention-grabbing big-ticket spends.
I did double-takes at wine lists across Alberta and B.C. especially; compared to the rest of the country, drinking in restaurants out west can seem almost absurdly cheap. I routinely found good bottles in the mid-$40s range, even from fancy, best-of-class cellars like the one at Calgary’s River Café. At Arike, an ambitious Pacific Northwest– style Nigerian spot in Vancouver’s west end, the wine pairings to accompany chef Sam Olayinka’s one-of-a-kind $75 tasting menu sold, the last time I looked, for just $29.
It’s important to note, too, that even though the mid-range has faded in the priciest centres, it’s far from finished, as the success of standouts like Ottawa’s Supply & Demand and Toronto’s Bernhardt’s shows. And meantime, suburban restaurants—places like my top picks One2 Snacks and Guru Lukshmi—are more appealing than ever; they’ve been the mid-range (and lower-end) heroes all along.
Another major impact of the restaurant boom: reservations at the most popular places have become a blood sport. At Vancouver’s AnnaLena, to cite just one, you should be online at precisely 9 a.m. PST a full 30 days (no more, no less) before you hope to dine. At many other places, a two-week wait for non-prime nights and times has become the standard. The upshot? At a popular spot with a bit of hype behind it, you might be able to find a Tuesday evening table at 5 p.m.—if you’re the sort of person who thinks to book your Tuesday dinners several weeks in advance.
How people dine once they get through the doors has also undergone some dramatic changes, the most consequential of them the rapid adoption of tasting menus at the upper mid-range and high end. Even three or four years ago, tasting menus were generally seen as high-risk rarities, reserved for only the very best or most brazen places. (And also for sushi counters. Diners seem to love omakase sushi.) Today, they’re quickly becoming standard operating procedure, not merely among established, higher-end spots—Edulis and Alo in Toronto, St. Lawrence, Burdock, Kissa Tanto and Maenam in Vancouver, and too many more to name—but also for many untested chefs.
At their best, tasting menus are a brilliant way to eat out. Kitchens can focus on only their best work and ingredients, nimbly adjusting their menus day-to-day to feature new ideas and peak-season product, and serving them so a meal unfolds as a thoroughly considered—and most importantly, delicious—experience from beginning to end. (You’ll find the greatest of those places on my list.)
Yet the chefs and restaurants that manage to do that while truly putting the diner first remain a rarity. In spite of those menus’ surging popularity, their benefits most often accrue to the house. Tasting menus bring a rare degree of predictability to running a restaurant; it’s exponentially easier to control costs when you know in advance exactly what your customers are going to eat. And they also guarantee a minimum spend, so that diner who used to order a salad and an appetizer and a glass of tap water while—to put it bluntly—taking up a valuable seat, has no choice now but to drop $125 (or in many cases, far more) for the “menu degustation.”
That tasting-menu craze is also being driven by the dawn of tourism board–funded Michelin ratings in Vancouver and Toronto. It’s hard not to feel that many places are playing more to the inspectors’ fondness for static and perfectable multi-course menus and fancy decor than to legitimately seasonal, market-driven cooking, or, God forbid, what their customers want.
Another Michelin-related phenomenon I witnessed time and again on my travels: a notable rise in what I think of as the moneyed checklist star-chaser. They’re the seen-it-all, tried-it-all types who look utterly bored and disengaged as they work through their dinners, but nonetheless photograph or video almost every single bite. Increasingly, diners are required to pay in advance, too. As for cancellations (too bad, friend) and no-shows (for a full refund, please dial 1-800-SUCK-IT), they’re on their way to extinction.
When you add all those phenomena together—pre-paid bookings, the rise of tasting menus, cash-flush diners and the continued ascent of a social media–fuelled hype economy—they can do some immense good. These are the same innovations that allowed scores of pandemic-era pop-ups, takeout businesses and small-time foodpreneurs to thrive; since the great reopening, many young and lesser-known chefs without the old-style professional or economic capital have harnessed that model to build DIY hospitality careers. And especially at the higher end, eating out in fancy restaurants is supposed to be a luxury. Even many of the priciest places in Canada are still a steal when compared to international dining towns. Yet the big “if” behind so many of these changes is how well they’ll stick once the dining frenzy ends.
Pre-pandemic dining was mostly a buyer’s market, in which customers were always right and many restaurateurs kept a lid on prices by taking advantage of their staff. Through the post-pandemic reopening, the pendulum then swung hard the other way.
In making my best list, I stayed hyper-attuned to where individual contenders fell on that spectrum. I ate in buzzing taco shops and boisterous ramen-yas, Tamil snack counters, pasta joints and an Indigenous pop-up. I tried luxe, high-French restaurants and dosa houses, dim sum and seafood and Nigerian cooking specialists, wine bars, Middle Eastern, South American and Southeast Asian spots, and an extremely earnest tasting-menu place where they make the bathroom’s hand soap from used coffee grounds and cooking grease. (Please: don’t ever.) No matter where I travelled, I watched for restaurants that had warm service, reasonable value, spectacular cooking and, as always, a sense of genuineness and joy. And the good news? I found them in almost every city I visited.
I can’t help thinking we’ll be seeing many more of them too—that the great dining frenzy, and that perpetually swinging pendulum, might soon settle out at a comfortable mid-point, where for once, just maybe, everybody wins.