Years ago I lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. One of the many things I was stunned by during my time in New York was just how many people I met who were later (reluctantly) revealed to be Canadian. These Canadians, contrary to reports, weren’t any more polite, kind, generous or humble than the Americans I knew. They were sort of regular people, interchangeable with the US-born.
I asked one of my closer friends about the disparity between my expectations and lived experience of Canadians and she told me, with a laugh, that I still didn’t quite get it. According to her, Canadians are actually huge jerks and this is especially true to Canadian expats. Canadians possessed a merely passively aggressive, but nonetheless insular, nationalism and not the benign laissez faire attitude that we in the United States had come to assume. When further pressed, she told me that, at the heart of it, was a simple truth that incessantly irked her fellow Canadians: That if you’re big in Montreal, you’re only big in Quebec. If you’re big in Toronto, you’re only big in Canada. But if you’re big in New York, you’re big in the World. That’s why she was in New York and, by her own account, her fellow Canadians resented her for it.
She would later portray the situation more simply with a joke:
Two crabbers were coming in on their boats, each with their day’s catch. One was from Maine, John, and the other, Eric, from New Brunswick. As they were chatting, John noticed that one of the crabs was about to fall out of Eric’s bucket.
“You’d better watch your crabs, Eric! One is about to get away!” John said in a hurry.
“Don’t worry,” Eric calmly replied. “They’re Canadian crabs. The other boys will just pull him back in.”
In all of my subsequent travels in Canada, I could never shake my friend’s cathartic wisdom; it truly colored my later experiences. Canada, while certainly nice with much natural beauty, culture and kindness on offer to a conscientious traveler, is nonetheless not world-class. Case in point: The Cuisine. You can actually taste the insularity in the food, originating in a culture that is not in any practical dialog with the world, but rather merely talking to itself.
But all of this is not to say there isn’t delightful food to be had here. In place of American culinary innovation and our rigorous attention to detail is a certain rustic and casual nonchalance. While it can be illustrative of a lot of the differences between the two countries, it’s nonetheless endearing. If all of this sounds condescending, by the way, it’s because it is.
Condescension aside, these concepts are best on display in Toronto, an oddly Asian-dominated city with nearly half the population originating from China and India alone. Toronto’s restaurant scene reflects its demographics with just about every genre and subgenre of Asian traditional cuisine, efficiently produced to feed the masses. And, furthermore, since Torontonians have historically been able to find culinary novelty at every corner ethnic haunt, they have come to expect it. Food fads and trendy cuisines find their way into (and out of) the hearts of locals faster than you can notice.
It’s these two vibes that nourish and grow the Toronto restaurant scene, simultaneously feeding one another but nonetheless in constant tension. It’s true that there are attempts to innovate classics like Chinese dumplings or Northwest Indian curries, but the results are mere shadows of their conventionally prepared peers. Concisely put, if and when Torontonians fail, it’s because they stand on no one’s shoulders at all.
Even so, it does make for a kind of liveliness that locals are quite proud of and I was honestly honored to experience. What follows, for your use, are my favorites by category.
Description: The dimly-lit Vancouver-based chain offers brilliantly-executed, simple but modern Japanese cuisine with a well-curated menu of sake, beer and spirits with which to pair it.
Address: 1314 Queen St W, Toronto
Telephone: (647) 351-1314
Description: Pleasant, family restaurant serving traditional Chinese dumplings, all made to order from scratch. That includes rolling out the wrappers from various housemade doughs, packing them with filling and cooking, all within eyeshot of the dining room.
Address: 421 Spadina Ave, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 217-2008
Tianjin Dumplings Restaurant
Description: An extensive list of country-style Northern Chinese dumplings served in a hole-in-the-wall setting where no one speaks English including the wait staff. Service is surprisingly kind, if overly efficient.
Address: 4192 Sheppard Ave E, Scarborough
Telephone: (647) 352-7988
Description: Traditional Sri Lankan street food served by a warm family of immigrants. A rare and delicious find that is worth the trip to an innocuous strip mall, far from the city center. The front of the restaurant is devoted to take-away snacks while in the back room they specializes in various lacey and crisp hoppers and hefty but delicious lamprais.
Address: 880 Ellesmere Rd, Scarborough
Telephone: (416) 299-4311
Description: Hipsters serving craft cocktails in an unpretensious setting with an equal focus on classics and innovative spins.
Address: 923 Dundas St W, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 792-7511
Description: Gaudi-inspired decor, hearty and tasty tapas, knowledgeable staff and an extensive list of sherries and vermuts make for a brilliant Spanish dining experience, among the highest fidelity in North America.
Address: 505 College St, Toronto
Telephone: (647) 344-8001
Description: Innovative takes on classic Haitian creole cuisine paired with rum cocktails, great music and the best service that I’ve experienced in Toronto. The huge rum library alone is worth a visit.
Address: 926 Dundas St W, Toronto
Telephone: (647) 346-9356
Rush Lane & Co.
Description: Globally inspired cocktails and bites, executed with rare thought and care to the tune of indie hip hop.
Address: 563 Queen St W, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 551-7540
Description: Modern Japanese cafe serving Tokyo-style takes on French pastries, baked in-house and executed with all the Japanese attention to detail you’d expect. Best espresso in Toronto.
Address: 4-160 Baldwin St, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 792-0404
Future Bakery & Cafe
Description: Southern European pastries and breads, baked fresh daily and offered at surprisingly reasonable prices.
Address: 95 Front St E, Toronto (located on the basement floor of Saint Lawrence Market)
Telephone: (416) 366-7259
Description: Japanese-style “million-layer” crepe cakes with delicious and subtle filings including cherry blossom, matcha and Earl Grey tea.
Address: 161 Baldwin, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 977-1922
Tsujiri Tea House
Description: The famous Taiwanese-owned, Japanese-style matcha house serving the highest quality desserts including their famous cakes and soft serve ice cream. Only location in the Western Hemisphere.
Address: 147 Dundas Street, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 351-7899
Momofuku Milk Bar
Description: Toronto branch of the famous New York City bakery serving innovative soft serve and some of the best pastries in existence, flown in from the New York headquarters.
Address: 190 University Ave, Toronto
Telephone: (647) 253-6225
Bang Bang Ice Cream & Bakery
Description: Uber high quality, Asian-inspired ice cream flavors paired with various baked goods, including multiple flavors of cookies, cakes and waffles. Fatboy Asian fever dream.
Address: 93A Ossington Ave, Toronto
Telephone: (416) 274-1743