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Toronto Food Scene : Your Pros & Cons

As the light of a new year shines upon us, let's take stock what makes
the Toronto Food Scene great and not so great.

This may sound like a monumental task, but how would you describe the
Toronto food scene's Pros / Cons to a food savvy first time visitor ?

If I may offer up a small amuse-bouche :

PROS: Diverse Neighborhood pockets producing Amazing authentic ethnic foods. I really think we take this for granted, only a handful of cities can boast such a selection.

CONS: Limited cheeses, butter, and fresh quality bread. Lack of Street
Food.

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  1. Pros: Better choices emerging and overall food quality improving.

    Cons: Lousy service...still.

    1. After travelling almost non-stop for the past 2 years, I appreciate Toronto a lot more!

      PROS - We do mid-range pretty well, IMO. Pretty diverse offerings, a chatty community, and things change relatively often so it's not hard to network and find new gems to try on a regular basis. I wish there were more 'underground'-esque dinners, food trucks, and other creative outlets - but I don't think we do a bad job overall so I'll slide this into the PRO column. Lastly, I appreciate the quick-and-healthy options that we have!

      CONS - I agree about the bread and dairy...but by North American standards, I don't think we're doing so bad. On a global scale - we need improvement. I feel like the great vs. not-so-great ratio has been slipping (but I've been pretty out of touch, compared to before, so that's definitely debatable).

      3 Replies
          1. re: ekim256

            Thanks :-)

            The board looks soooo different now!

          2. Pros: Generally fabulous restaurants. I've been all over and Toronto's is still my fave food scene.

            Cons: Generally awful service: indifferent, uncaring, inattentive, bored, and inept. Not universally, but certainly generally.

            1. Pro - Low range (<$10) is also very good. Emergence of really good BBQ and Pizza (finally !!).
              Con - Obscene price of wine (not to mention the selection).

              1. Pro's: Neighbourhood places doing a better job of respecting and servicing their neighbours.

                Con's: Bread, bread, and bread. God, can't we get more than a couple of places that know how to bake.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Googs

                  AND that actually sell freshly made bread. Passing off a loaf for dinner use that has set out since 3am seems to be the norm.

                  I truly believe that if someone opens a real quality bakery, the response will be overwhelming. Any other volunteers for investment backing ?

                  1. re: PoppiYYZ

                    I'm so lucky that my local is Montmartre where most days I have to wait for the bread to cool before I bag it.

                  2. re: Googs

                    I think the problem with bakeries in Toronto is that many who end up doing things like organic ingredients, specialty flours, flour ground on premises and with bakers who really know how to bake, end up going out of business because people won't pay higher prices for quality bread. There was a guy on Bayview south of Eglinton who tried it about 5 years ago and he ended up going out of business because of lack of demand. Toronto can only support a few really great bakeries because of this.

                    1. re: Flexitarian

                      Maybe more places should follow the Woodlot model - bakery by day, restaurant by night. That way, bread isn't the only source of income (and it gets used in the restaurant). Speaking of which, while limited in its options, Woodlot produces darn good bread.

                  3. Pros: Great/cheap pig. Very many local beers. Relatively short lines, even at popular spots. I don't have to wear a suit, even to our fanciest restaurants.
                    Cons: The dead zones - while areas like Kensington or College just keep getting better, many neighborhoods are choked with chains and show no signs of improvement.
                    The lack/price of game meats. The LCBO.

                    1. PROS: Diversity in types of cuisine seems to be growing, good low-mid priced options, good discussions about the food scene, especially here!

                      CONS: No amazing Moroccan or Burmese food, no area where a tourist can stay and walk to many amazing restautants within 10-15 minutes of their hotel (I'm thinking of the French Quarter in New Orleans), too many Italian restaurants!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: TeacherFoodie

                        oh yeah, i really wish we had some good burmese options -- cambodian too!

                      2. PROS: the number of Italian restaurants and food shops in Toronto. While I wish more of our Italian restaurants were top quality Italian fine dining restaurants serving classic dishes, there probably isn't enough of a market to support more Italian fine dining restaurants at the top level. I love the Italian food scene in Toronto.

                        CONS: I wish places serving fish tacos wouldn't use tilapia and basa so frequently.
                        I wish we had some German or Austrian restaurants on the subway line.
                        I wish the Hungarian shops and restaurants, besides the surviving Country Style, were still in business on Bloor between Spadina and Bathurst.
                        I wish there was a good non-chain coffee shop and/or patisserie that was open until midnight, somewhere on the subway line.
                        I wish there was a Greek restaurant that was similar to Milos.
                        I wish TO had a decent Russian restaurant (south of the 401).
                        I wish more better quality Indian restaurants were able to stay in business in TO.
                        I'm tired of poutine, cupcakes and food trucks.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: prima

                          Oh yes, but if an Italian restaurant DOES serve classic dishes (hello baked pasta) then they're damned for being too traditional, not creative enough. As if a great classic is easily made and can be captured within the confines of a decade. Let's face it. That level of subtlety is just too difficult to deliver daily for most. I'll have the cannelloni.

                          1. re: Googs

                            Absolutely, agree, Googs. I still miss seeing more veal dishes on menus at the more upscale Italian restaurants, I'm tired of seeing Caesar salad in Italian menus, and I wish there were some Italian restaurants that were at the Splendido or Scaramouche level, for special occasions. We do have lots of every day Italian options available.

                            I realize that if there was a market for that, we'd probably already have restaurants like that, and places like Coppi wouldn't be going the upscale rustic minimalist North Toronto trattoria route. Most people don't want to spend more than $30 on a main, and with rising food costs, it's impossible to serve a luxe Italian main for less than $30.

                            Re: cannelloni, I wish there were more economical/mid-range restaurants doing the trattoria/every day Italian well, all of the time, or at least most of the time. We've got some gems, but we've got a lot of meh out there, too. But then again, meh, especially if the location is convenient or the price is right, sells.

                            1. re: prima

                              The thing is they don't need to be upscale. They need to have a good, experienced chef. I mean decades of experience. The basic red sauce is much maligned, but a good one takes years to get just so. I'm seconds from saying "these kids today..."

                              I wish I could solve your Austrian/German problem, but being 3/5's of the way through my Subway Dash & Dine research, I can tell you I haven't found it yet.

                              1. re: Googs

                                Agree, they don't need to be upscale.

                                If we're having a trouble finding good red sauces, in a city with 100s of thousands of Canadians of Italian origin and hundreds of Italian restaurants, we're going to have any even bigger problem finding a good sauerbraten on the subway line. But we can always hope. ;-)

                        2. Pros: (as has been mentioned) diversity of choice, proximity to agriculture (though neither are certainly unique to toronto) and blah blah blah.

                          Cons: (also as mentioned) the KGBO!! MAN IT SUCKS! The fact that most of the new restaurants we get are derivative of a trend started in San Fran, New York or Vancouver. This is certainly not a test bed for new cuisine (for better or worse, sometimes you want an honest meal).

                          1. Wow - Very interesting indeed !

                            Common guys and gals, what are you most proud of and what are we missing the most ?

                            Charles, Duckdown, Davwud, Skyline, others, what do you think ?

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: PoppiYYZ

                              Bread... Effin' BREAD! We want a decent loaf!!! How snooty is that?

                              1. re: Googs

                                Breakfast Broetchen ! Baguette ! Croissant ! Reeeeal Moist Rye Bread !

                                Sorry, didnt mean to be cruel. I'm booking a flight tomorrow. ;-)

                            2. Wow! I don't understand the bread debate. I eat it fresh every day, from multiple sources and have never had an issue finding it. Yes, there are horrible places out there posing as valid sourses (Zane, anyone!!!) but we have to keep this in prespective; we're not France. I was in Nice in March and it was amazing that every block had a baker that you could go to at 7am and get a fresh bagette or croissant, just watch where you step (my biggest beef with France and if you've been anywhere in France you know what I mean.).

                              This brings me to what the biggest con is in Toronto; Our insecurity. We're not NYC, London, HK, Toyko. Get over it. We're Toronto!!!!! You want us to have the 1000's of years of history these other places have, but we don't. We have what we have and stop comparing to other cities, don't apologise because we're not them.......and our food truck scene sucks, but you can't tell that by looking at the mayor.

                              13 Replies
                              1. re: eppicurious

                                Not EV-en Paris. If I can wake up to a decent espresso and croissant anywhere, even the dingiest neighbourhood, in Montreal, why can't I do that in Toronto? Why do I have to take 2 buses for one and forget about the other?

                                1. re: eppicurious

                                  Why does TO need food trucks, let alone a food truck scene? TO food trucks help make Toronto 'Toronto, the Poseur'.

                                    1. re: PoppiYYZ

                                      Street food yes, fossil fuel suckers no.

                                      1. re: PoppiYYZ

                                        Maybe you need (Edit: more) street food. I don't think TO as a city needs (Edit: more) street food.

                                        We already have plenty of economical food available in the food courts, Indian lunch buffets and PATH. Food trucks are fine for a city like LA, a city that's spread out, and a city where people are outdoors yearround, but food trucks aren't ideal for a city with slush and snow like Toronto. Food trucks are arguably less environmentally friendly than a regular restaurant would be, when one considers it uses more energy to cook outdoors in a truck than cooking indoors would require,it takes longer to cook anything in a colder environment, the truck has to be heated at least some of the time in the winter, gas is required to drive the not exactly fuel efficient truck around, and most of the food is going to be served in disposable wrappers or on disposable plates with disposable cutlery.

                                        1. re: prima

                                          Before you condemn street food, which I respect your right to do so, please try the food and and talk to Marianne at Marianne's Snack Shack on University directly in front of Mt Sinai Hospital. If anyone is democratizing good food and showing there's a better wagon to get on, it's her.

                                          Were you formerly known as phoenikia?

                                          1. re: Googs

                                            I'm not anti-street food, Googs.

                                            I don't like food trucks, and I don't think Toronto needs (Edit: more) street food sold from food trucks. I'm not suggesting we get rid of the hot dog carts around town, the chip wagons near City Hall or the ice cream truck that parks near the ROM in the summer. I've even recommended specific hot dog carts on this Board in the past.

                                            I'm suggesting we don't need poutine, dosa or dessert trucks burning up gas to stay warm on our streets in the middle of our now somewhat milder than they used to be Canadian winters.

                                            I don't think believing Toronto doesn't need more street food is the same thing as condemning street food. And I don't think wishing Toronto had more street food options is the same thing as Toronto needing street food.

                                            While it would be nice if we could find good croissants, espresso, red sauce, etc. with less effort, it's not like TO is in dire need of anything foodwise. We've got lots of food options. It's not like we're living behind the Iron Curtain.

                                            I haven't been to Marianne's Snack Shack. I'm glad to hear she's serving good food. I don't tend to eat in that part of the city often, but I'll keep it in mind.

                                            1. re: prima

                                              LOL. Sorry, the "more" was missing in your earlier response. Agreed, we don't need to spew more fossil fuels to further the foodie cause. We just need the vendors we already have to reflect the diversity of the city they serve. The trucks don't even do that. They just intensify the food court penetration.

                                              If you're in the area, please do say hello to Marianne. Don't make a special trip. Do see what a street vendor who gives a damn can do.

                                              Soooo.. Were you formerly known as phoenikia?

                                              1. re: Googs

                                                Yep, that would be me.
                                                I'll say hi to Marianne if/when I visit. It's nice to hear something good is available near the hospital. It seemed Swiss Chalet and Tim Horton's were the only economical options when I visited someone at a hospital near Mt Sinai a couple years ago.

                                                1. re: prima

                                                  Holy COW, I loved your writing.

                                                  1. re: prima

                                                    I've been on Jury Duty (it seems like) all of this year - same general area, and my go to place has been Village By The Grange Food Court. I used to work in the area maybe 15 years ago and most (all?) of the tenants seem new - and even McDonalds and Baskin Robbins have now invaded - but all the rest are non-chains. I avoided the steam tables, (my intestinal tract refuses these after an incident NOT in Toronto, years back) and still found made-to order meals for $5 - which is cheaper than many trucks.

                                                    1. re: estufarian

                                                      Village by the Grange has one of the best food courts in the city, IMO. I can't imagine why anyone would pick McDonalds there.

                                    2. This post will drive the gourmets crazy: sorry about that, but this place is fun. My husband once asked me where I wanted to have dinner on my birthday and I said "The Mandarin", which is a small local chain of Chinese buffets in Toronto and vicinity, so that's where we went for dinner and, PS, we lived in Chicago. The Mandarin is a NICE Chinese buffet with white tablecloths and flowers on the table, where you take Grandma for dinner, and the food is good. Last time I counted it had 48 hot Chinese entrees on the buffet, plus a Canadian buffet with roast prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, plus a grill buffet with little lamb chops and salmon filet, plus a salad buffet with shrimp ad lib, plus a dessert buffet with French pastry, plus 6 kinds of soup and 10 kinds of ice cream, and they had lately added a waffle bar. Their website has pictures. Have a nice trip.

                                      12 Replies
                                      1. re: Querencia

                                        Mother in Law l*o*v*e*s The Madralin. Personally I avoid AYCE, chafing dishes, and public buffets. Yuuuuuugh.

                                        1. re: Querencia

                                          mandarin is a place the people have to try once. i don't do the ayce thing or buffets...but when out of towners (especially with kids and seniors) it is a cheap easy way to satisfy most of their diverse eating habits. i just make sure i have a bottle of good stuff after....

                                          1. re: ingloriouseater

                                            The bottle, in this case, being Pepto Bismol?

                                            1. re: Michael N

                                              the bottle is usually some kind of hootch...more to deal with the swirling head from the time spent with the family-not the swirling stomach. i have a pretty strong constitution when it comes to food. i've had worse than mandarin can muster up.

                                              1. re: ingloriouseater

                                                I've had much worse than Mandarin. Glow at the Shops at Don Mills is worse than Mandarin. The Village Idiot Pub across from the AGO is worse than Mandarin.

                                                Mandarin is decent for a Chinese buffet. I get the feeling a lot of Mandarin haters have knocked it before they've tried it.

                                                1. re: prima

                                                  I think Mandarin is the best Chinese AYCE. But it gets hammered by dis-tractors on both ends....those that love Chinese food (because it fits under the dreaded "westernized" category) and many that simply hate Chinese food. However its popularity is obvious and imo is merited.

                                                  1. re: T Long

                                                    Also hammered by those who hate chains, and by those who hate buffets! ;-)

                                                    1. re: prima

                                                      Reflecting back to the OP, I think it speaks to the vibrancy (is that a word) of the Toronto food scene that a place like Mandarin can be revered by an out-of-towner from Chicago, and yet is sometimes a local punching bag.

                                                      1. re: prima

                                                        I don't mind chains, but my waistline just HATES buffets. I don't have a very effective off switch. My mom and I used to go to Mandarin at Eglinton & Birchmount regularly many years ago. We'd a la carte like the dainty little snoots that we were. I have no complaints or bad memories. I admit that now that I'm back in the old 'hood I'm a little gun shy about going again.

                                                    2. re: prima

                                                      Bashing Mandarin so predictable and boring.

                                                      Personally I don't see how you could go to the Yonge/Eg Mandarin and walk away with generally bad things to say.

                                                      1. re: magic

                                                        There are times, depending on your mood and who you're with, when a buffet just seems right. You won't go to gourmet heaven, but you'll leave content, and replete. I get to the Mandarin outlet on Woodbine Ave. once or twice a year (in Toronto's northeast), and always leave satisfied, as do my assorted friends. Even better - though also slightly more expensive - is the new-ish Dragon Pearl, in a plaza on York Mills Rd. east of Leslie St. (across from the Prince Hotel). Well-run, and well-laid-out. It doesn't take long to figure out the tastiest dishes. The hand-pulled noodle soup, the salad bar (good seaweed salad), many of the Chinese steam-table dishes, even the sushi (if you're not too, too fussy) go above and beyond the call of duty. The ribs aren't up to much, but the roast beef is. First-rate service. Ten-dollars-off coupons mailed around the neighbourhood.. Add the senior discount, if you're over 65, and it can be a helluva deal. It won't beat most elaborate Las Vegas buffets, where I have attended now and then, but it's pretty good - for Toronto.

                                            2. I like pretty much all of the pros mentioned above.
                                              I will offer these though. It's not just a Toronto thing but I see it in my NA travels. The mom and pop places seem to be making a bit of a resurgence. Toronto seems to be embracing it. Also, I really think Niagara wines (especially white) are quite good. It's nice to have them on our door step and think we should take much more pride in them.

                                              As for con's the lack of good NA food places is a bit terrible. Can no one around here do/enjoy a good southern meat n 3?? Why is it still so difficult to find a good Latin grocery store. BBQ is better but still not great. Nothing good in the Cajun/Creole vein either.

                                              I'm a bit puzzled on the bread issue too. Perhaps this is a perspective thing. No, we don't have the bakeries of Paris but a lot of cities I go to in the US don't have nearly the level of bakeries that we do. I think we're fine bread wise. Maybe not great, but fine.

                                              And one last thing. No, we are not NYC, SF, HK or any other city, anywhere. We are what we are so enjoy it for what it is. Don't have vanilla for not being chocolate.

                                              DT

                                              10 Replies
                                              1. re: Davwud

                                                Nicely written, DT.

                                                By the way, I love the Portuguese breads available in TO.

                                                1. re: Davwud

                                                  That last part should read "Don't HATE vanilla for not being chocolate." I'm sure all y'all figured out what I was trying to say.

                                                  DT

                                                  1. re: Davwud

                                                    Thanks Davwud,

                                                    I was very interested in hearing your TO Pros & Cons. I can't think of one Meat N 3, that doesn't get 2/3 from a can. I found this indicated by the lack of worthy D, DIs, or Ds in last years DDDs Canada thread.

                                                    As far as your "No, we are not NYC, SF, HK or any other city, anywhere", this is sadly true, they all have good street food...
                                                    ;-)

                                                    PS A few great tips on an Erie-Pittsburgh thread that you might find useful the next time you are on that I79 stretch.

                                                    1. re: PoppiYYZ

                                                      This is interesting to me.

                                                      In NYC, over the past 20 years, I've eaten at the halal cart on 6th Ave once (tossing out most of the order), ordered one rice ball and a Manhattan Special from Papa Perrone's rice ball truck, ordered one decent coffee from a fancy coffee truck, purchased egg on a bun/donuts/bagels/hot nuts/coconut a few times times, and ordered maybe 2 hot dogs and a pretzel from a cart. While I haven't tried the trucks or carts that are raved about on the Manhattan Board, the limited street foods I have tried in NYC have rarely been as good as what I'd expect in a decent restaurant. I will say Papa Perrone's rice ball is better than most rice balls I've ordered in TO. I haven't ordered any street food in SF. I rarely have enough time to fit in the restaurants on my list when I visit NYC or SF, so street food hasn't been a priority for me. While I can see how street food would be amazing in India or Thailand, street food isn't something I'd consider seeking out in most North American cities, except for maybe the novelty factor. Of course, TO food truck events over the past few years have shown that food trucks are interesting to a lot of Toronto Chowhounds and other Toronto foodies.
                                                      It wouldn't occur to me that the street food/food trucks are what separate TO from NYC and SF for some Chowhounds. For me, it's the West Coast seafood and access to tasty Bay area-style Mexican food that separates us from SF, and mostly the high quality seafood, the variety of NYC-style pizzas, classic fine dining and innovative fine dining that separates us from NYC.

                                                      1. re: prima

                                                        Pros: delicious and cheap Chinese, Viet and dumpling places. Best Chinese in North America for sure.
                                                        Cheap seafood - great that we can get crab and lobsters for such low prices.
                                                        Very adventurous foodies due to diversity of our city.
                                                        Lots of different food festivals.

                                                        Cons: Lack of street food. Street food in San Fran really is delicious. Especially the porchetta and pork knuckle place at Ferry Bldg.
                                                        Lack of good BBQ - spoiled by all our trips to Texas. Buster Rhinos and others in TO pale in comparison.
                                                        Lack of good Mexican as well.
                                                        Ramen places getting better but pricey for a bowl of noodle.
                                                        And need more Korean restos with great banchans like Cali and NYC.

                                                        1. re: caitlink

                                                          Thanks caitlink,

                                                          The BBQ scene here seems difficult to sore since we are getting primarily red sauced, as apposed to mustard, vinegar, or dry rub which many like. Might we be getting to BBQ critical mass and see an original Toronto style BBQ start up ? Maybe tender braised, sweet red sauced (with some maple syrup), and a touch of wood smoke...

                                                          Had that Porchetta sandwich in SF, but Meat and Bread in Vancouver is better IMHO. Man we should have such a place in TO !

                                                          Common everyone, what are your Pros/Cons ? Think Queen lyrics and sing with me "I want it all, and I want it ..." ;-)

                                                          1. re: prima

                                                            Street food is about convenience, not novelty or trendiness. A combo rice from a halal cart is easy to order if you're a cabbie or an office worker that wants to get a cheap, filling meal quickly. Certain carts got famous for being open all night for cabbies and hungry late night people and being tasty.

                                                            CONS: having to plan a trip to get certain kinds of food instead of it being nearby. Ex. good Jewish deli. Or any Jewish deli.

                                                            1. re: GoodGravy

                                                              I get that NYC street food (hot dogs, halal carts, donuts/bagels/eggs on a bun/hot nuts) is about convenience and filling up. In LA, regular taco trucks are about convenience and filling up.

                                                              IMO, gourmet food trucks (and any street food carts/trucks where the wait is longer than 10 minutes) are more about novelty and trendiness than they are about filling up.

                                                              1. re: prima

                                                                Thanks Prima,

                                                                Filling up ? Whether traveling to a different city, planning months ahead for a reservation, or standing 30 minutes in line with all those other excited "anticapants", it all about finding great food.

                                                                Great Street Food is usually about someone dedicated to one, or maybe a few, specialties. If they are successful, they have something going right. Freshly made, affordable, innovative, delicious (hot dogs/buns/etc aren't what I mean). Now imagine having a few dozen or few hundred such places. With our diversity, we should be nailing this.

                                                    2. Pros: Predictable
                                                      Cons: Predictable

                                                      1. If you try and rate yourself against everywhere else on Earth, you'll always come up short. Toronto has more than enough good food experiences to make us proud of what we have. If there's no 3 Michelin Stars in the city well, then I'm going to save a whole lot of money having 7 or 17 meals for the same price that I'll probably enjoy a lot more.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: hal2010

                                                          Thanks hal2010:

                                                          "Toronto has more than enough good food experiences"? Your Pros are ?

                                                          And some Cons ?

                                                        2. Pros:
                                                          - Variety of cuisines and range of prices. We have atleast one of every kind of food and you can dine on delicious stuff regardless of the budget.
                                                          - Places like TUM and the Stop and the other markets where newbies can launch their restaurants

                                                          Cons:
                                                          - Few quality seafood joints. Its getting better, but not there yet.
                                                          -Good mustard (not kozliks)