When Guu’s Church Street location opened in winter 2008, patrons regularly waited over an hour to get a taste of the unique Japanese pub-style food and enjoy the raucous atmosphere. Four years later, however, Toronto’s restaurateurs are finally catching up to the demand from the city’s izakaya-loving masses. Here’s a list of options you have available next time you’re looking for a restaurant where the entire staff will yell at you when you enter the front door.
The izakaya that started it all, Guu on Church street remains as busy as ever, packed to the gills with Ryerson students on any given night. Remarkably, the place has managed to keep the same frenetic energy it had when it first opened, and has gotten so popular it’s spawned a second location, as well as a much-lauded ramen joint (Kinton Ramen in Baldwin Village).
398 Church St., 416-977-0999, guu-izakaya.com/toronto.
Guu’s Annex location answered the prayers of those tired of waiting on the lacklustre stretch of Church. The energy of Sakabar is similar to the flagship location, as is the décor (lots of natural wood, communal tables, Edison bulbs), though this outpost has a zashiki room, where patrons can sit on the floor in a more intimate setting, the menu is slightly different, with specials like tongue tacos, and there’s an extensive sake menu by the glass.
559 Bloor St. W., 647-343-1101, guu-izakaya.com/sakabar.
Don Don Izakaya
While by no means tame, Don Don feels decidedly less chaotic than Guu, though the novelty and kitsch factor (and I use those words affectionately) remain high: the picture menu is the size of a novella, the walls are made from bamboo stalks, and much of the food is over the top, like the warayaki-style sashimi, which is flamboyantly smoked using the flames from burning hay. Still, thanks to the banging drum, and the yelling-in-unison Japanese servers, this place has managed to achieve owner Tony Wong’s objective of overloading diners’ senses.
130 Dundas St. W., 416-492-5292, dondonizakaya.com.
Open for just a few weeks now, Little Italy’s outpost of the popular Vancouver chain offers a less manic izakaya experience than its competitors. The room is still loud and lively, and the servers still energetic, but there is a subtlety to the eatery that’s missing elsewhere: the space, low-lit and decked out in natural wood, feels slightly more refined, and the menu, which comes printed on three narrow pieces of paper, is a welcome change from a book of pictures. The food is still playful and fusion-y and great for sharing and the beer seems to never stop flowing.
602 College St., 647-748-4272, hapaizakaya.com.
Koyoi Izakaya (2 Irwin Ave., near Yonge and Wellesley), Fin Izakaya (55 Eglinton Ave., near Yonge and Eglinton), and Chou Izakaya (556 Church St., near Church and Wellesley) may not have the same energy as the city’s more well loved izakayas (and certainly don’t get the same level of fanfare), but all seem to have found favour with the online community, and will make do in a pinch if you’re craving some karaage chicken.
But wait, there’s more:
Japanese chain Nejibee Izakaya (which is known for Teppanyaki-style dishes) made waves last May when it announced a forthcoming Toronto outpost at 24 Wellesley, but since those early reports, which promised an imminent opening, no new information has been given since.
A location of the much-loved Vancouver restaurant Kingyo Izakaya also announced plans to open a Toronto restaurant back in March, and recently announced it found a Cabbagetown location (51B Winchester St.). It should be open by December.
Need definitive proof that izakaya popularity is now at fever pitch? Look no further than the recently opened Ninki Izakaya (133 Richmond St. W.), which is probably better described as a run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant. The space is large, and decked in much of the same way as Guu (lots of natural wood, kanji symbols on the walls) but the liveliness is missing, the menu is full of sushi, and the beer list is small, as is the selection of sake. Maybe this signals a change in vernacular where isakaya is used unthinkingly for Japanese restaurants the way bistro is for French eateries.—Jacob Rutka
Photo: Tony Bock/Toronto Star