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Tour Toronto’s Dining Districts: A guided tour of Toronto’s most popular dining districts

Toronto is a city of insatiable diners constantly on the lookout for another great dish, another new and innovative dining experience, another inspired chef who makes us forget how to calculate calories and fat grams, who instead reminds us how truly wonderful the unqualified experience of well-made food can be. And as any foodie worth his or her sea salt knows, whether its Prairie-grain-crusted lamb rack served in haute cuisine style high atop the Mies van der Rohe–designed TD Centre, or a grilled cheese sandwich with fries in a funky diner on Queen Street West, great food is a luxury item accessible to every demographic.

This year, our annual Dining Guide takes you through the city’s most foodie-friendly areas, compiling a hit list of restaurants that define their districts, giving them colour and attitude, from Bay Street’s high rollers to the glamour girls of Yorkville.

Bon voyage and bon appétit!

THE DANFORTH/GREEKTOWN

A little bit old country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, Danforth Avenue is an eclectic, multiethnic community located in the city’s east end. Traditionally considered the place to find buttery Greek pastries and classic Hellenic cuisine—the 1960s saw a large community of Greek Canadians gravitate to the area—the Danforth’s Greek leanings are strong but are hardly uniform. You can enjoy kebabs or souvlaki in popular tavernas like Astoria, Christina’s, Ampeli (526 Danforth Ave., 416-465-4001) and Pappas Grill, or in more intimate family affairs Pantheon and Omonia (426 Danforth Ave., 416-465-2129). Slick lounges, Lolita’s Lust, Myth and Ouzeri offer Mediterranean-inspired dishes.

As anyone who lives there knows, however, the Danforth is much more than a Greek enclave. The street is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet offering Japanese, Organic, Thai, Spanish, Indian, Belgian and Latin options to tempt your palate.

Glamorous surroundings, accomplished service and refined fare make Belgian brasserie Café Brussel one of the area’s most appealing fine dining alternatives. Romantic and urbane, the interior extends a chic tribute to the heavy-lidded sophistication of the art deco era, while the menu consists of a diverse selection of moules marinière and frites, including moules diable (mussels in wine, cayenne, chilis, garlic, tomatoes and herbs) and moules saffron (mussels with saffron and cream). Equally decadent is the brasserie’s à la carte weekend brunch: fruit chocolate waffles accompanied by Veuve Clicquot (by the glass).

Part charming Irish watering hole, part casual dining room, Allen’s is the place where locals kick back for a pint of Guinness and a warm chicken curry in dark-wooded comfort. To the delight of many a weary wanderer, the bar also stocks more than 100 bottled beers and 300 whiskies from around the world.

Silk Road Café and Sher-E-Punjab are two of the area’s best ethnic restaurants. Small and efficient, Silk Road Café features a delicious menu of Chinese dishes such as fried calamari, spicy aubergine with chicken and shrimp, pork-filled dumplings and more. A veteran on the street for more than 25 years, Sher-E-Punjab satisfies with such Northern Indian dishes as butter chicken and shrimp curry.

But we’ve only scratched the strip’s surface. Here are a few more suggested stops to make on your tour of the Danforth: 97 Bistro Spanish Tapas Bar (97 Danforth Ave., 416-778-0007), Il Fornello (576 Danforth Ave., 416-466-2931), La Carreta, Lily Japanese (786 Broadview Ave., 416-465-9991) and Organic Buddha Café (443 Danforth Ave., 416-403-3338).

COLLEGE STREET/LITTLE ITALY

College Street cool is not simply alliterative ad copy. The small stretch of College Street West known as Little Italy is one of Toronto’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. An after-hours nightspot with a perennial late-night buzz, a social butterfly’s mecca chock full of glamorous lounges and restaurants, Little Italy also possesses a constellation of gastronomic stars.

Chef Brad Moore and sommelier Leslie Gibson’s Xacutti is a genuine rarity: a cosmopolitan space with soul. Crisp and ultramodern without being sterile, Xacutti has been College Street’s acclaimed it spot since its opening in March 2002. Xacutti‘s sophisticated interior is an appropriate backdrop to Moore’s delicate Indian and Western-inspired hybrid menu, which includes such mains as pan-roasted rock lobster tail with star anise champagne butter, cardamom-smoked spring lamb with ginger frites, and tamarind duck with jaggery syrup, buttermilk arugula pancakes and ginger greens.

Owner David Bowen’s Parisian salon, Brasserie Aix is another one of the street’s beguiling beauties with no end of star quality. Aix‘s enchanting Yabu Pushelberg-designed decor (the design firm is also responsible for the splendour of Bymark and Monsoon) ups the ante for restaurants aspiring to elite status throughout the city. The back dining room, framed by lush chartreuse draperies and accented by dusky rose walls is the brasserie’s glowing core and serves as a dramatic locale for classic French mains of entrecôte steak frites, and confit of duck leg with du Puy lentils.

Butt’r restaurant and lounge, a sumptuous candlelit affair also caters to the city’s glitterati with a mellow designer aesthetic and an eclectic menu.

An established local fave, Kalendar is a warm and winning boho eatery serving up hearty fresh-market comfort food. Kalendar’s specialty is scrolls—warm roasted vegetables like red pepper, artichokes and eggplant dressed with pesto or flavoured mayonnaise and wrapped in a tortilla.

Coco Lezzone Grill & Porto Bar is a romantic nightspot with walls the colour of melting butter and deep wine-red draperies. The Mediterranean/Italian/French-inspired restaurant serves up such mains as herb-crusted rack of lamb with port mint demi-glaze, and wild mushroom risotto with porcini, shiitake, field mushrooms and truffle oil.

Toronto Life food critic James Chatto ranks Chiado Portuguese fine dining restaurant as number four in his annual Top Ten best restaurants. Chatto praises the eatery for its refined style of service and Chef Manuel Vilela’s simple preparation. Vilela’s offerings include roasted boneless pheasant crusted with fresh herbs and garlic in a Madeira wine sauce and served on roasted garlic mashed potato, and lobster risotto with saffron and tomato.

Little Italy’s culinary secrets should be revealed corner by corner; here are a few more places to discover while you’re there: Bar Italia (582 College St., 416-535-3621), Bruyea Brothers, Café Societa, Gamelle, Grappa, La Forchetta, Leão D’Ouro, Pony (488 College St., 416-923-7665), Teatro and Tempo.

FINANCIAL DISTRICT

You have to pick up your walking pace and extend your credit card limit in the financial district in order to keep up with the frantic speed of fleet-footed investment bankers and stockbrokers as they hustle from power lunches to power dinners at a select circuit of high-end dining rooms.

Since opening last year, chef Mark McEwan’s (McEwan is also owner of uptown’s award-winning North 44°) Bymark, located on the ground floor of the TD Centre, has consistently managed to draw the city’s high rollers as well as please the fickle palates of the critics—James Chatto named Bymark Most Promising Newcomer in the April 2003 issue of Toronto Life. Bymark‘s menu features such mains as seared yellow fin tuna with savory crust, and perhaps the city’s priciest and most well-dressed burger—a grilled eight-ounce prime U.S. burger with molten brie de meaux cheese, grilled porcini mushrooms and rosemary onion rings ($33.95).

All it takes to experience the Canadian-inspired gourmet cuisine of high-powered haunt Canoe is an elevator ride up to the 54th floor of the TD Centre. One of esteemed restaurant group Oliver Bonacini’s most successful ventures, a lunch or dinner date at Canoe is a much-coveted status symbol. Chef Anthony Walsh’s menu changes with the seasons but may include such treats as roasted red deer loin with semolina pudding, and pan-roasted breast of Yamachiche pheasant with du Puy lentils and mulled cherries.

Aside from being one of the busiest complexes in the area, Commerce Court is also home to Jump and Far Niente. During the week, both restaurants are packed with suit-clad patrons enjoying a flexible definition of the term lunch hour. Serving an eclectic mix of North American fare, including roasted rack of lamb with Yukon gold pierogies, roasted Digby sea scallops on black jasmine rice, and spice-roasted jerk chicken breast with warm pineapple, Oliver Bonacini’s Jump is also one of the financial district’s most popular spots for after-work drinks.

Striving to recreate the sun-drenched calm of the Napa Valley amid Bay Street’s soaring skyscrapers, upscale Far Niente impresses with its professional and efficient service, savory and rich California-inspired cuisine and extensive wine list. Looking out for the health of their patrons, Far Niente also offers what they refer to as Living Well mains, entrées low in fats, cholesterol and calories.

Additional upscale dining destinations in the area: Courthouse Market Grille, Reds Bistro & Bar and Rosewater Supper Club.

It’s no secret that the city’s money men and women are tried-and-true carnivores. Classic steakhouses Hy’s, Bardi’s and the new deluxe edition of The Keg Steakhouse on York Street, manage to soothe the savage beast with steaks from filet mignon to rib eye, as well as fresh fish. And if it’s seafood you seek, then 30-year veteran Fisherman’s Wharf will gladly gratify your desire.

Housed in the historic 1873 Bank Building, the Irish Embassy imports Ireland’s cordiality, rich fare and belly-warming spirits to Toronto. Sit down to a hearty lamb burger or traditional Irish stew. Nearby P. J. O’Brien is another popular haunt.

It’s easy to figure out why Marché won WHERE‘s reader’s poll for Best International food (presented annually at our Most Memorable Meal Awards). Not only is it one of the busiest downtown dining spots, the large, colourful open space lets patrons order and pick up dishes from 12 themed pavilions serving a range of foods from seafood and grilled meat, to pizzas and pastries in an open-air European market–style setting.

Other suggestions: Kubo D/X, Shopsy’s, Szechuan, Szechuan, Tasting Rooms (100 King St. W., First Canadian Place, 416-362-2499) and Terroni.

BLOOR-YORKVILLE

Second only to upscale neighbourhoods Forest Hill and Rosedale for conspicuous bling-bling—Prada, Gucci, Hermés and Chanel all call Bloor-Yorkville home—the area also possesses a significant number of sparkling culinary gems that innately understand how to pamper their demanding clientele.

Lobby (192 Bloor St. W., 416-929-7169) is the latest ambitious addition, serving up a luxurious boutique-style aesthetic and mains of grilled yellow fin tuna steak with pineapple sake jus, and Nova Scotia lobster and pan-seared Quebec foie gras with champagne vanilla emulsion.

Open since 1987, Michael Carlevale’s elegant Italian eatery Prego Della Piazza draws an exclusive crowd. Such entrées as baked wild salmon on lemon-scented white bean and herb salad, half Cornish hen roasted with preserved lemon and served with braised escarole keep the fortunate patrons coming back year after year.

Sassafraz‘s bright yellow exterior and black and white striped canopy is a familiar sight to many a Yorkville maven. Its proximity to deluxe hotels the Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt and the Windsor Arms also makes it a popular celebrity stop. And if you don’t catch a glimpse of a famous face inside the airy, California dreaming interior, then you’ll have to make do with the gallery of photographs that line the walls. Robin Williams, U2’s Bono, Ben Affleck and Billy Dee Williams are just a few celebs who have left their mark at Sassafraz.

While surface glitter is key to success in Yorkville, the upscale commercial district also makes room for genuinely intimate and romantic hideaways Boba and Sotto Sotto Trattoria.

Husband and wife team Bob Berman and Barbara Gordon keep Avenue Road’s lovely Boba, now in its ninth year, consistently on top. Chef Bob Berman describes the fare as “modern North American, fresh market with global influences,” which translates into artfully presented rare grilled tuna fillet with coconut noodles, avocado and mango salsa, and Muscovy duck breast in tamarind sauce. Pastry chef Barbara Gordon puts out delicate desserts such as the lemon trio (lemon custard in a lemon crust, with lemon buttermilk pudding and lemon ice cream) and chocolate orange crème brulée.

Tucked into a small, unassuming basement space, Sotto Sotto Trattoria is great for a romantic date. The tiny trattoria’s dark terra-cotta-coloured walls, abundant greenery and flickering candlelight, coupled with its extensive and rich Italian menu—rigatoni quattro formaggio (parmigiano, gorgonzola, asiago and mascarpone cream), and many risotti offerings—make for a satisfying dining experience.

French bistro Arlequin, a much-favoured neighbourhood spot for years, has been reborn. Extensive renovations transformed the space from a casual luncheonette to an urbane Parisian eatery. New chef and owner Scott Saunderson’s menu features steak frites, crispy Provimi sweetbreads in bourbon jus, and cassoulet with venison sausage and shaved lamb shank.

At the corner of Bay and Bloor in the Manulife Centre, find Panorama Bar and Lounge and longstanding fave Bloor Street Diner. Tony tapas lounge Panorama permits a privileged view of the city from 51 floors up. Downstairs, the Bloor Street Diner is a great place to eat before catching a movie—the Varsity Cinema is on the third floor.

More suggestions: Bistro 990, Cafe Nervosa, Holt’s Café, Opus Restaurant on Prince Arthur (37 Prince Arthur Ave., 416-921-3105), Pangaea, Le Trou Normand.

ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT

Bright lights, big portions. Taking their cue from the many entertainment venues—Roy Thomson Hall, Canon Theatre, Royal Alexandra Theatre, The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre and The Princess of Wales Theatre—that constitute the Entertainment District’s central appeal, area restaurants are similarly bold and flashy.

The Entertainment District’s celebrated triumvirate, Wayne Gretzky‘s, Planet Hollywood and Leoni’s Italian Kitchen are big draws, each one offering a unique, crowd-pleasing experience. Wayne Gretzky‘s provides the distinct pleasure of dining amid one-of-a-kind hockey memorabilia, Planet Hollywood offers a cinema-inspired dining environ, while Leoni’s is a lively, family-friendly locale serving up hearty Italian mains. Proximity to SkyDome and the Air Canada Centre also make Leoni’s a popular spot for carb-loading professional athletes and their families.

A tight-knit cluster of restaurants sit side by side along King Street West at Peter Street. On this brightly lit strip, find popular Fred’s Not Here, funky Kit Kat Italian Bar & Grill (297 King St. W., 416-977-4461), DiRoNA award-winning La Fenice and modern space Urban. Down the street, seafood haven Filet of Sole accommodates diners with an enormous fresh seafood menu that ranges from cod and shark to clams and oysters. Filet of Sole also has a clever “I Don’t Like Seafood” menu featuring such mains as premium select Sterling Silver beef, and grilled cowboy rib eye steak 20-ounce (bone-in).

Fans of Gourmet may want to stop in at the oyster house the magazine calls one of the world’s best. Fun and casual—the menu is written on a wooden plank—Rodney’s Oyster House offers a daily selection of fresh oysters from their own beds in P.E.I., growers in Canada and the United States, as well as a selection of mussels, shrimp, lobster, scallops and fresh fish.

With the relatively new addition of über-polished restaurants Crush Wine Bar, Brassaii, Blowfish, and YYZ, the Entertainment District has recently begun to give College street a run for its money in the glamour department.

A French bistro with an unabashed love of wine, Crush is a chic alternative offering such mains as wild mushroom risotto, halibut with crab crust, and steak frites. Cool and confident next-door neighbour Brassaii features an airy New York loft-style aesthetic and a comforting menu of beef short ribs with celeriac and potato purée, and Moroccan shellfish stew. Taking its cue from the artful presentation that characterizes Asian cuisine, Blowfish‘s interior is modish and self-possessed serving sushi and tempura and a full Asian-fusion menu that includes jasmine tea–smoked Atlantic salmon in sweet moromi marinade with plum sauce, and cold dishes of beef tataki with habanero-spiced ponzu sauce. Chef Chris Zielinski’s super slick YYZ proffers contemporary mains of roast grain-fed chicken breast with pasta, and grilled black Angus rib eye with gorgonzola polenta, pepper salad and roast garlic sauce.

Set atop the CN Tower, 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower is hard to miss and rightfully so. No stranger to distinction—it provides a view of Toronto from more than 1,000 metres up—in the prestigious 2004 Guide to Distinguished Restaurants in North America (DiRoNA), 360 received recognition for its spectacular view, classic fare and impressive wine cellar.

Two of Toronto’s most critically acclaimed restaurants, The Fifth and Susur, also lie in and around the bounds of the Entertainment District. Both offer gastronomes the rare opportunity of experiencing firsthand the creativity and passion of two of the city’s most revered chefs, Marc Thuet and Susur Lee. Numbers one and two, respectively, in James Chatto’s Top Ten, The Fifth garnered acclaim for its whimsical signature style and “splendid” chef, while Susur won praise for its chef’s virtuosic originality.

More Entertainment District favourites: Big Daddy’s Crab Shack & Oyster Bar, Diferent by Edo, Eau, Funé, ard Rock Cafe, Kama, ttle Anthony’s,The Pickle Barrel and Superior Restaurant.

QUEEN STREET WEST

Colourful and bold, the many restaurants of Queen Street West are as funky and ethnically diverse as the throng of people that tread its sidewalks.

The fragrant spices that define Indian cuisine are represented well on Queen Street by restaurants Babur, Little India and Trimurti. Thailand’s sweet heat is prevalent at Tiger Lily Noodle House (257 Queen St. W., 416-977-5499), Bangkok Paradise (506 Queen St. W., 416-504-3210) and the Queen Mother Cafe, while Tex-Mex staples can be had at Tortilla Flats.

Standouts, however, in Queen Street’s gastronomic League of Nations are Lalot Vietnamese restaurant and pan-Asian tea salon Red Tea Box. Just North of Queen and Bathurst streets, Lalot is tranquil and calm, offering a much needed respite from the hustle of Queen West. Dishes like crispy lobster and shrimp spring rolls, soft noodles with enoki mushrooms, spicy green beans with pickled ginger, and grilled beef have made many tried-and-true fans.

Right across the street, don’t forget to stop into hipster hangout Azul. The eclectic, Latin-inspired weekend brunch is extremely busy and for good reason. Sweet or savoury gonchee, Dutch toast (a spicy variation on the French), a double tortilla egg fold (a frittata folded inside a flour tortilla, inside a corn tortilla) and a selection of fresh juices, can’t be beat.

Tiny Red Tea Box is a Queen Street gem, offering teas, delicious desserts, flavourful pan-Asian lunch specials served in sleek bento boxes and the most delicious bowl of hot chocolate ever imagined. Because of its small size and popularity, however, patience is required.

Cafe Crêpe (246 Queen St. W., 416-260-1611) is a new addition to the strip. Directly opposite television mecca ChumCity, the crêperie features a takeout window, so you can pick up a sweet or savoury crêpe and eat it as you go.

Quaint French bistro Le Sélect Bistro is a longtime resident with a committed crowd of regulars. The rich woody interior is both classic and offbeat—breadbaskets dangle over diners as they indulge in the bistro’s classic fare and extensive selection of fine wines.

Usually at a loss for adequate repast, vegetarians and vegans are eternally grateful for the presence of restaurants Fresh By Juice For Life and Fressen. Fresh By has two Queen Street locations, the casual juicebar and eatery at Queen and Spadina, and the lovely zen-like restaurant at Queen and Crawford streets.

Elegant and tranquil, Fressen pointedly takes vegetarian food out of the gourmet gutter and serves up cornmeal-crusted mango tempeh, Moroccan stew, and black bean corn wrap in pretty surroundings.

Oyster Boy culls the best seafood from Canada’s East and West coasts. Find four to ten varieties of raw oysters on any given day, plus mussels, clams, bouillabaisse and a fresh catch of the day. A few doors down, find funky retro diner Swan.

Sample what NOW magazine declared the best croissant in the city at Queen West’s Clafouti and also check out the patisserie’s gourmet lunches.

More Queen Street suggestions: Amato Pizza (534 Queen St. W., 416-703-8989), Left Bank, Noce, Peter Pan, Rivoli (332 Queen St. W., 416-596-1908), Taro and Tequila Bookworm (490 Queen St. W., 416-504-7335).

HOTEL DINING

A select list of not-to-be-missed hotel restaurants.
Accents (Sutton Place)
Annona (Park Hyatt)
Café Victoria (Le Royal Meridien King Edward)
Café Nicole (Novotel Toronto Centre; 45 The Esplanade, 416-860-5151)
Courtyard Café (Windsor Arms)
Epic (Fairmont Royal York)
JW’s Steakhouse (Toronto Marriott)
Lai Wah Heen (Metropolitan Hotel)
Le Bifthèque (Sheraton Centre)
Morton’s of Chicago (Park Hyatt)
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (Hilton Toronto)
Signatures (Inter-Continental Toronto Centre)
Senses (Soho Metropolitan)
Toulà (Westin Harbour Castle)
Truffles (Four Seasons)
Tundra (Hilton Toronto)

BALDWIN STREET

Tucked behind the busy intersection of Dundas and McCaul Streets sits the culinary melting pot of Baldwin Street. Small and quaint, Baldwin Street boasts an inordinate number of international cuisines.

Take a detour down this lively sidestreet and find Bodega, Margarita’s, Yung Sing Pastry Shop (22 Baldwin St., 416-979-2832), Jodhpore Club (33 Baldwin St., 416-598-2502), Matahari Grill, Fujiyama Japanese Restaurant (49 Baldwin St., 416-596-1913) and John’s Italian Caffe (27 Baldwin St., 416-596-8848).—Flannery Dean

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