Toronto, Canada: the people and places ushering in a new food identity

We head to Toronto and find a 21st-century city that's newly confident, with a drinking and dining scene to prove it

"The city gets stronger when everybody is speaking," comes through my headphones as I walk down Queen Street West towards my hotel in Toronto's arts district. The song is 'Lose You' by Drake – I've allowed myself a bit of admittedly trite indulgence, making my way back from a bar at getting-on-midnight to a soundtrack of his then-new album More Life.

The reason? Drake is possibly the city's most vocal exponent; a born-and-bred Torontonian who uses a truly global stage to extol the virtues of his hometown. He's arguably one of the biggest drivers of the Canadian city's ascent into a truly global force. And – so as not to go too far out of context – he also happens to own a restaurant here.

It's a good time to talk about Toronto. Because apart from Drake and The Weeknd's fierce loyalty to the city that birthed them (listen to most of their songs: harkbacks to Toronto – like The Weeknd's "used to roam on Queen, now I sing Queen Street anthems" from 'Tell Your Friends' – are evident in most of them), I'm catching it in a clear upswing. It recently overtook Chicago to become North America's fourth-largest city – below only New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City – with a population of more than three million. So, with that in mind, when we talk about Toronto, we're talking about a city with a newfound swagger; the verve and confidence that comes with getting past adolescence and rooting yourself in adulthood.

In restaurant terms, this is especially apparent. Aside from headline-grabbing openings like Drake's restaurant Fring's – presided over by the sons of one of the city's pre-eminent celebrity chefs, Susur Lee – and David Chang's Momofuku, there's a throng of restaurants hailing in a new style of cooking to the contemporary Toronto landscape.

The first thing I notice in the four or five days I spend here mapping out the state of the union in Toronto's restaurant scene is that you can't talk about the city's modern dining scene without talking about Jen Agg. Her first restaurant, The Black Hoof, is cited by almost everyone I talk to here as kicking off a wave of what I tend to call 'hipster fine dining' – dishes served up with poise and finesse, plated beautifully, but often stepping away from classic French structure to include flavours more commonly found in Northern Europe or North America.


Four corners of Toronto with their restaurant highlights

North-west: The Black Hoof, Trinity-Bellwoods

Where Dundas Street West crosses Trinity-Bellwoods Park, you'll find the restaurant that many claim has influenced contemporary dining in Toronto more than any other. It's clandestine – the awning simply says 'Charcuterie' – but walk in and you'll find inventive cured meat and offal dishes, with an emphasis on cocktails, too. Agg's bars Rhum Corner and Hoof Cocktail Bar are just around the corner.

928 Dundas St W;

North-east: ONE Restaurant, Yorkville

Among the high fashion and lavish hotels of Yorkville (which feels a little like Mayfair), Mark McEwan has built an empire out of cooking delicious food that's people-pleasing without being too simplistic. ONE Restaurant, set in the Hazelton Hotel, serves up a pan-North American menu, from Alberta wagyu sliders to beet with goat's cheese, octopus salad and beautiful steak tartare.

116 Yorkville Ave;

South-east: Nota Bene, Downtown

Stay on a bus rolling west to east down Queen Street for long enough and you'll see small-scale art galleries become gleaming office buildings. This is the closest thing Toronto has to the City of London, in the footprint of the CN Tower, and the sleek Nota Bene has been dishing up some of Downtown's best dishes since 2008. The crowd is reflective of the area, and the spacious interior and simple, light cooking make it a lunch-meeting hotspot.

180 Queen St W;

South-west: The Drake, Arts District

You'll find new takes on Canadian classics, obligatory fine coffee and Instagrammable plates of bircher muesli at brunchtime at The Drake, which is still cited as one of the hippest hotels in the city. Across its restaurants, you can grab breakfast, snacks and dinner, too, usually in the form of small plates from executive chef Ted Corrado. Cocktails are served at the rooftop Lounge bar.

1150 Queen St W;

While The Black Hoof has an emphasis on offal, Agg's new restaurant Grey Gardens has a sharp focus on seafood. Amid the bohemian buzz of Kensington Market, just off Chinatown, is a pared-down restaurant space, with a wraparound bar and open kitchen. The dishes coming out are evident both of the curiosity of Toronto's diners and the ambition of the chefs cooking here: creamy scallop served with funky hung yoghurt; albacore tuna, almost cured in texture and with plenty of umami punch, with samphire; and Agg's deft touch extends even to brisket with slaw – elevated here to simple perfection.

Coors Light is on the menu; a playful touch from a restaurant serving orange wine from Roussillon and owned by a former bartender Toronto's population might be growing exponentially, but its restaurant scene is still close-knit. Most of the chefs leading the way in its dining scene, I find out, have some connection to Agg. Grant van Gameren, for example – Agg's former business partner, who left The Black Hoof and has built a restaurant empire in parallel with hers since. Bar Isabel, El Rey and in particular Bar Raval are talked about as some of the best places for food in the city, serving up a modern Torontonian take on classic Spanish tapas and pintxos.

I don't eat at Bar Raval, but elsewhere I see the tradition of small plates planting a flag in Toronto, nowhere more so than 416 Snack Bar. I walk into the tiny venue, past a trio playing jazz in one corner to a bar centred around a small open kitchen. I order wine by the glass alongside plates of fusion food, including, cheekily, a 'deconstructed' caesar salad that got some of the city's more vocal social media users into a bit of a frenzy when it was put on the menu.

And I find out the night after, at Peoples Eatery (owned by the same group), this fusion isn't just a culinary decision – it's influenced by Toronto's eclectic mix of ethnic identities and neighbourhoods. There's Chinese and Vietnamese flavours here, but there's also a killer potato latke with smoked trout, celebrating the area's Jewish heritage. Its website proclaims that it's a restaurant "about Toronto", rather than in it. As my friend Jon Sufrin, a food writer from the city, says (more eloquently than I could muster a few cocktails deep): "it pays homage to a Jewish past and an Asian present, and anticipates a multicultural future."

Areas are important when it comes to Toronto's eating map. Kensington Market, which I'd liken to Camden if I had to make a comparison, is just around the corner from the main part of Chinatown. I walk around the area with tour guide John Lee, who's been involved in the city's hospitality scene in various guises for all of his career. As Jon hinted at, the area was predominantly Jewish in the 1920s, before an influx of Chinese immigrants saw a contemporary Chinatown established in the area. There are Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, but there's still a huge synagogue here, too.

And history is also important. Toronto, and Canada generally, was by no means a food wasteland before this wave of chefs came through – to claim it's all pancakes and syrup is like saying American food is all burgers and barbecue, or British all fish and chips.

Nowhere is this more evident than at St Lawrence Market, which is even older than Canada itself. I take a tour of the space with Kevin Durkee, another seasoned tour guide who operates the company Culinary Adventure Co. The market's exterior feels as old as can be expected in a country that's only just turned 150, but the interiors are part Borough Market, part Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, part food court. Kevin and I sample Toronto's signature dish, the peameal bacon sandwich, made with a brined pork loin rolled in cornmeal. Elsewhere there are artisans making charcuterie, mustard, cheeses and shucking oysters.

In many ways, my hotel, The Drake, has acted as a go-between from Toronto's past to its present and future. Smack-bang in the middle of the arts district, it's a natural site for forward-thinking food, and while there are Torontonians who think of it as a known quantity, especially in the wake of so many new openings, it has hosted pop-ups with the likes of Dan Barber in the last few years, and has also opened a country-house-style operation, The Drake Devonshire, out of town in Prince Edward County. Elsewhere, chefs like the aforementioned Susur Lee, as well as restaurateur Mark McEwan, were holding down the gastronomic fort in the 1990s and 2000s, making sure fine dining was available in Toronto to those who sought it.

In terms of the new-wave Torontonian restaurateurs and chefs, many, like Jen Agg, are chameleonic, too. As I mentioned, Agg was a bartender before she turned her hand to owning restaurants.

Meanwhile, the third driving force in the restaurant revolution, after Agg and the 416 and Peoples Eatery owners, is Brandon Olson. It's at his restaurant La Banane – in the part of town that portrays the changing landscape most clearly, the formerly run-down Ossington Avenue, now a site for hipster fashion stores and new-school restaurants – that I see the clearest evidence yet of how much ground Toronto has made up, and of how much it might still do.

Olson is a renowned chocolatier who has since turned his hand to restaurants. Dinner is an absolute triumph – contemporary takes on French dishes like white asparagus with mussels and sauce gribiche; scallops served simply alongside punchy vinaigrette; a rich, juicy white wine that comes from Faugères in the Languedoc but made by an Ottowan, Frédéric Brouca, who expatriated; flinty but floral vouvray from Bernard Fouquet. It's immaculately thought out; not too cheffy, but with a deft touch and ambitious flavours.

My experience of Toronto, historically, has been of a city that I love, but one that didn't always recognise its potential. Speaking to natives about it, I get the sense they share my view; that there's been an inferiority complex that comes with being talked about in the same terms as Chicago and Houston, but bound by a characteristically Canadian tendency for self-deprecation, while America, by contrast, hoots and hollers its own virtues.


Rooms at The Drake hotel start from £120 per night; Air Canada offers more non-stop daily flights from London Heathrow to Toronto than any other airline. Economy return fares start from £393 per person (March 2018). Price inclusive of taxes and subject to change. Find out more at or call 0800 6699 2222

I walk back to The Drake, down Ossington Avenue and right on Queen Street West, and I see a wall with huge, painted white letters typical of an arts district mural proclaiming, simply, YOU'VE CHANGED. I can't place the reference, but, a few sheets to the wind, I can't help thinking it's more telling than its block capitals suggest. It could be talking to the city itself. Toronto is changing, fast. The city is stronger when everybody is speaking. And in Toronto, in culinary terms and cultural ones, too, they're not just speaking; they're shouting. And with good reason.

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