By MACRINA SMART
It has long been said that Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, each one boasting its own unique personality. From the academic atmosphere of the Annex to the vibrant licentiousness of the Church-Wellesley Village to the relaxed, small-town temperament of the Junction, Toronto is made up of much more than its downtown.
The city’s dining landscape is just as disparate. There are, of course, the many high-end hot spots in the core—from Canoe to Nota Bene to Momofuku Daisho—and the edgier west-end restaurants—Grand Electric, for example—favoured by our trendiest denizens; slightly further afield, however, you can still find great food, beautifully decorated spaces, and inviting service in Toronto’s more residential pockets. These smaller neighbourhood restaurants offer a warm welcome on a cold winter’s night, and often provide excellent value for your dinner dollar.
In Midtown, Simple Bistro is particularly close to my heart. Nestled amongst the independent shops, cafés and other small eateries on Mount Pleasant Road, it’s a restaurant that embraces a food-friendly philosophy in a refined yet eminently comfortable atmosphere. The friendly service adds a little extra flavour to your meal, which itself is composed of French-influenced food prepared by a humble and agreeable chef. Dishes, like fall-of-the-bone beef short ribs, wild Atlantic diver scallops and coq au vin, are skillfully executed. For dessert, sugar-coated beignets are as sweet as the staff who prepare and present them to you. The entire, carefully crafted menu is offered at a price point that encourages repeat visits; dine here often enough, and you become like a member of the bistro’s tight-knit family.
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Table 17 features a similarly welcoming, though somewhat more boisterous vibe in Leslieville, a gentrifying east-end ‘hood that is now home to many young families. Here, chef John Sinopoli doles out a seasonal carte of European-inspired fare (the duck confit in particular is full of flavour). Sundays, traditionally a slower day for most restaurants, are anything but at Table 17: its $32 three-course table d’hote menu makes end-of-weekend dining an easy and popular choice. The establishment’s bar scene also adds to its cachet, as residents gather to sip on bartender Mike Morrow’s cocktails, which are considered to be among the best in the city.
On the other side of town, the strip of Ossington Avenue between Queen and Dundas streets has become known for its numerous must-try restaurants and bars. Each has its own unique appeal, but arguably the area’s best boîte stands outside the main action. On an almost entirely residential stretch of Ossington north of Bloor, Actinolite recently became one of my favourite restaurants; I suspect many others have a similar opinion. The unassuming little dining room is both cheekily romantic—it glows with the light of candles set in tuna cans—and populist, thanks to an eclectic music selection. Chef Justin Cournoyer’s well-curated offerings are always attractive, regardless of your mood or the occasion. His locally focused dishes are semi-deconstructed takes on classics that will simultaneously satisfy and leave you wanting more.
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And that’s the bullseye for neighbourhood restaurants, isn’t it? Perhaps their culinary ambitions have been dialed back a little, and maybe their dining rooms haven’t been stuffed with furniture sourced by the most sought-after designers, but most of the time that doesn’t matter to diners. Most of the time we just want to feel welcomed—with good, honest food and friendly service—and welcome to return. Most of the time we just want to feel at home.
Featured in this article:>> Simple Bistro, 619 Mount Pleasant Rd., 416-483-8933; simplebistro.com, map and reviews
>> Table 17, 782 Queen St. E., 416-519-1851; table17.ca, map and reviews
>> Actinolite, 971 Ossington Ave., 416-962-8943; actinoliterestaurant.com, map and reviews