Here are some of the more unique things that I would take friends from out-of-town, depending on their background & preferences.
- Fine Dining - I would recommend Canoe, not just for the food but also the atmosphere & view of the restaurant. There are many talented local chef with great restaurants, like Wine Bar, Trevor, George, Thuet, Didier, etc.
- Casual Dining - I would second Black Hoof & jump on the charcuterie trend. Great place for brunch as well. Maybe follow that walking over to the Ossington strip for a drink at one of the bars & absorb the atmosphere a bit. The mirror of the Ossington strip on the east end of downtown would be the Riverdale/Leslieville area. I haven't been to Ruby Watchco yet but that's on top of my to-do list now. Lots of other good pics like Edward Levesque, Tomi Kro in the area too.
- Brunch - Speaking of brunch at Black Hoof / Hoof Cafe, Toronto is getting some very good choices for brunch. My favorite aside from Hoof Cafe would be Saving Grace in the same neighborhood. Petit Dejeuner, Easy are also good picks. And bakeries like Bonjour Brioche, Pain Perdu and even my neighborhood favorite Wagamama are all good places for some breakfast or snack. There also many good baristas in town if you are looking for some good espresso based drinks. Ezra's Pound, The Common, Mercury, Cherry Bomb are all good choices. (Bulldog & Manic are 2 famous places that have good coffee but I personally am not keen about them for other reasons.) For some people watching, I would recommend Dark Horse in Chinatown.
- Market / Food Court - St Lawrence Market is voted one of the top 10 markets in the world, so definitely a place to visit. I particularly like it on Saturday with the "farmers" market in the north building. But for truly unique farmers market experience, Wychwood Barn, Brick Works & Dufferin Grove are my pick for the summer when they are open.
- Poutine? - Many of my US friends like to go for poutine when they are in Toronto. Not as good as some of the ones east of Toronto, but better than none for them. Poutini is good, but Smoke's has more locations.
- Ethnic - Toronto is a large multi-cultural center, and there are lots of ethnic neighborhoods with high quality food. For example, for Chinese food, if you are from a place with not much authentic Chinese food (which having travelled through North America would include everywhere - NYC, SF, even Vancouver), I would suggest going uptown to Markham / Richmond Hill. You can find cuisine from pretty much every corner of China, and their quality are very acceptable. For lunch, maybe some dim sum at Royal Tea House or hand-made noodles at Sun's Kitchen then grab a bubble tea at Food Jungle while browsing Pacific Mall. Similarly, you can find a lot of other ethnic cuisines around the city - Jamaican roti at Island Food, tandoori at Lahore, stir-fry bacon belly at Jin Mirak, kitfo at Lalibela, bagel at St Urbain or Bagel World, etc etc etc. But also something hard to fit into a 2-day schedule.
Maybe more info about your preference, budget & what neighborhoods you will be in would help plan the menu.
907 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON M6J1V9, CA
54th Floor TD Bank Tower, 66 Wellington, Toronto, ON M5K 1H6, CA
869 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON M6G, CA
1365 Gerrard St E, Toronto, ON M4L1Z3, CA
1182 King St W, Toronto, ON M6K1E6, CA
Jinmirak Korean & Japanese Restaurant
708 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON M6G1L4, CA
4300 Steeles Ave E, Markham, ON L3R0Y5, CA
10 Apple Creek Blvd, Markham, ON L3R 5Z1, CA
Sun's Kitchen Ltd
4300 Steeles Ave E, Markham, ON L3R0Y5, CA
The Black Hoof
928 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON M6J, CA
1112 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M6J, CA
Ruby Watch Co.
730 Queen St E, Toronto, ON M4M, CA
I host people from NY pretty regularly and one thing they always comment on is the prevalence of charcuterie here. So I think a trip to the Black Hoof is in order. If there's a wait for the table hit their sister establishment Hoof Cafe for a few drinks (the bacon manhattan is nice) and bar snacks while you wait.
As well, Caplansky's for smoked meat would be interesting to compare to NY pastrami. Caplansky's has been written up extensively in the US press and just last week was mentioned in a NYT piece about artisanal delis, so if you're a fan of deli I'd check it out.
As far as a splurge meal goes I would certainly recommend hitting somewhere that serves "Canadian cuisine" ie. proteins like caribou or elk or whatever that you won't see as much, if at all, in the US. Canoe would be amazing but it is very expensive...Globe Bistro is a cheaper option, I would call ahead and check the menu first though. Oh, and you could also eat horse, something most of my adventurous US friends like to try, at the aforementioned Black Hoof.
And I think that St. Lawrence Market for a peameal bacon sandwich is, like it or not locals, a quintessential Toronto experience. While you're there you should definitely buy some mustards at Kozlick's to take home.
For Canadian cuisine you might look at Canoe or Globe Bistro (or its sister, Globe Earth). Canoe is a splurge, and the atmosphere is a bit corporate, but the food is interesting and the view is spectacular. Globe is smaller, less fiscally threatening, and in a nice neighbourhood for post-dinner strolling (very accessible by TTC). Local Kitchen and Wine Bar (previously mentioned) and Wine Bar (a different place in the St. Lawrence area) also have a focus on local ingredients.
The St. Lawrence is fun if you have time for gadding about. I don't think the peameal sandwiches are all that, but they're definitely a Canadian thing and my American boyfriend loooves them.
Tim Horton's is Dunkin' Donuts for Canadians... proceed with caution.
I'm guessing you're from one of the 4 outer boroughs based on your posts. So Pizza Libretto may or may not live up to your standards if you've been to Manhattan places like Co., Una or even local favs like Grimaldi's.
Where will you be staying? Assuming you are downtown I would suggest:
St. Lawrence Market for a Peameal Bacon Sandwhich plus you can take a tour of the market
Lai Wah Heen for some excellent Cantonese Chinese fare - there is a markup but it certainly is good food, IMO.
Lee - Singapore slaw
Tim Horton's (they're everywhere) for a coffee and donut - this is as "common canadian" as it gets. It's cheap and won't take up much room in your stomach for "real foodie" fare.
Lai Wah Heen
108 Chestnut St, Toronto, ON M5G 1R3, CA
St. Lawrence Market
92 Front St E, Toronto, ON M5E, CA
Oh no! PLEASE don't go to Tim Horton's. I hate our nationality being associated with this brand - the tasteless, joltless coffee is an embarrassment, IMO, and something is off about the pastries - they all have a similar aftertaste, though I can't quite describe it.
There has been so much talk about the ballooning of independent cafes throughout the city that it might be a nice "local" experience to drop in. I'm partial to Ezra's Pound because it's my local, but the Hounds on this board have expressed their love for a good list of others, including B Espresso, Dark Horse, Bisogno, Louie's, Mercury, etc... Depending on your interest in pastries vs. snacks, espresso vs. drip, a more specific rec could be made... but please, please avoid Tim's, which is embarrassingly available more and more throughout the US including NYC. Am writing this from upstate New York, which looks ever more like my suburban home town as Tim's open on either side of the street. Not a local specialty, nor even a specialty at all...
238 Dupont St, Toronto, ON M5R1V7, CA
B Espresso Bar
111 Queen E, Toronto, ON M5C1S2, CA
I knew I would get flack for mentioning TH, which is fine. I should put it out there that I don't drink coffee. That being said for less than $3 there is very little cost to trying what millions line up for every morning in this country. You may hate it or love it, but it is very much a "canadian experience."
The OP did say "local specialties however common" I think TH defintely qualifies as both local and common. I'm sure he's sophisticated enough to understand that a coffee/donut chain isn't a five-star restaurant in Paris. Love it or not, it is most definitely Canadian, and if he wants something that the locals go in for, TH is defintely it. I work with lots of foreign visitors to Canada, and for the most part, they like it and it's part of their Canadian experience.
Apprentice, I was not trying to "give you flack," just trying to propose an alternative which I think characterizes Toronto better than Tim's.
If we're looking for typically Canadian rather than typically Torontonian, maybe. Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, once claimed that he sells real estate, not food. Tim's captures the same principle. It's cheap, it's everywhere, and so the masses eat it. Would you ever want to be given a McDo recommendation as typical American fare just because millions line up for it every day? No. I think most Americans interested in food are embarrassed to call McDo their own.
Our big cities, like Toronto, are not so reliant on Tim's. Where the suburbs have one at the end of every residential street, with lineups out the door of stores directly opposite each other, in Toronto we have these great options with unique "personalities" and coffee that actually tastes like something. So many media outlets have commented on the growth of the independent cafe in Toronto in recent months and years that the historical record will show we believe it to be a local phenomenon.
Tim's may be part of the drudgery of everyday life for many. I'd like to think that visitors to the city learn that we have more to offer.
I'd just like to get an explanation on what is so Canadian about it besides the name. Whoever said you need to be a five star in Paris to be chow worthy. Ive been in plenty of hole in the wall dumps that are far more worthy of a chow visit than a chain like Tim Hortons. Toronto has so much more to give and Tim Hortons can hardly be considered a "Toronto local specialty". The OP is visiting other places in Canada. He can go to TH there.
Ossington has a great strip of restaurants. I'd go to Foxley or Pizza Libretto. The ceviche at Foxley is to die for, and Pizza Libretto serves authentic Neopolitan pizza and the prices are right and vibe is busting and fun. It's a cab ride from downtown but totally worth it!
Another wonderful restaurant is Local Kitchen and Wine Bar on Queen St. at Roncesvalles. They serve rustic Italian food — the house smoked gnocchi is famous, as it the salumi platter. It feels very much like a neighbourhood spot, which I love. It's casual and cozy and energetic, and the prices are ridiculously reasonable for such exquisite food. Again, it's well worth the cab ride from downtown.
The best breakfast in the city, in my opinion, is also in the west end. Mitzi's, on Sorauren just north of Queen. Get the fishcakes if you are there during the week. The coffee is good and strong and the sourdough toast is so yummy — dripping with butter!
Keep in mind that all these spots are ALWAYS crowded (I'm not the only one who loves them!) so be prepared to wait for a table. At Foxley, Pizza Libretto and Local, you can give them your phone number and so you can go grab a drink somewhere while you wait for a table. (I like the Communist's Daughter on Dundas east of Ossington — it's tiny and divey and great.) At Mitzi's, you can have a mug of coffee and a spectacular muffin outside while you wait for your table. There's a little bench in the sun outside.
207 Ossington Ave, Toronto, ON M6J2Z8, CA