For the past six years, the city’s food boom has been a decidedly west-end thing. But with big-name restaurants and chefs flocking east, the balance is poised to shift.
I’m a west-ender, born and raised. The first time I ever ate at a restaurant in Leslieville also happened to be the morning after my second date with the woman who would become my wife. I offered to cook her stuffed French toast, but she thought that sounded disgusting and suggested that we drive out to this new neighbourhood she’d heard about and get brunch there. We ended up at Edward Levesque’s Kitchen, a pioneering restaurant in Leslieville’s then burgeoning dining scene, where my future wife looked at the menu and told the waiter, “I’ll have the stuffed French toast,” without batting an eyelash.
In the eight years since we broke our first stuffed, fried bread together, I’ve eaten more meals in foreign countries than I have east of the Don River. Though the area has developed, sprouted new condominiums, and attracted bidding wars for little semis off of the main drag from Broadview to Greenwood, the east-end restaurant scene never drew us across town at night. Primarily, that’s because the west side has undergone an enormous boom of dining strips—along Harbord, Queen West, Dundas West, Ossington, Roncesvalles, and Dupont—that still shows no sign of stopping. It’s as though the city west of Spadina has served as an incubator for our contemporary dining experience: the highly experimental world of competitive young chefs looking to raise the bar with each casual fine-dining restaurant they fling open with their tattooed forearms. For as long as I can remember, but especially the past six years, the west side of downtown has been the beating heart of food innovation in Toronto.
Lately, however, the balance seems poised to shift as some of the city’s most successful restaurants launch outposts in the east end. You could argue the drift started when Ossington’s Pizzeria Libretto, the beachhead of the Neapolitan pizza trend in Toronto, opened a bustling Danforth location in late 2011, drawn by a restaurant row crying out for variety. Just recently, The County Cocktail and Snack Bar—an offshoot of Queen West’s The County General—hung its shingle in Riverside. La Carnita, College Street’s beloved party taqueria, has announced it will open a location in the Beaches this summer, and chef Matt Dean Pettit, owner of the rapidly expanding Ossington and Queen West seafood empire Rock Lobster, just announced his plans to open a three-patio Leslieville location at Queen and Jones in the next few weeks. This comes only a few months after Pettit tested out the neighbourhood with Boots & Bourbon, his take on a traditional saloon, at Queen and Broadview. Even Chinatown’s Mother’s Dumplings has expanded to the Danforth. Meanwhile, ambitious, exciting new destination restaurants such as Skin + Bones and Bero have opened on Queen East, and more are coming. Two weeks ago, it was announced that longstanding strip club Jilly’s, on the corner of Queen and Broadview, will close and the marquee building will be revamped in the next year—likely to house one or more eateries. It is as if someone flipped a switch on the east end, declaring its restaurant scene open for business.
This development is a natural byproduct of the recent dining boom, as the small independent restaurateurs who have made a name for themselves with one downtown location look beyond their increasingly crowded (and expensive and competitive) backyards for growth. From the outside, restaurants are one of the best indicators of the changing demographics of a neighbourhood—they attract new residents and new residents attract them. But food scenes don’t happen by accident. They’re the result of a precise cocktail of, among other things, real-estate values and a young, adventurous clientele with disposable income who will reward chefs who experiment, turn up the music, and create. Despite the gentrification of a number of east-end neighbourhoods, that crucial incubator effect has so far eluded it. This momentum is something that cannot be planned or manufactured (just look at the struggling dining scenes in Potemkin Liberty Village and the Distillery District). But the east side of downtown is now reaching a crucial tipping point of affordable rent, new residents, and a sort of herd mentality. Restaurants see safety in numbers, and as more open east of the Don, more will follow. In theory, it’s the perfect breeding ground for the city’s next great food scene.
It’s no accident that the coolest new restaurants are never in Forest Hill or Rosedale. Money, it turns out, doesn’t always buy taste. “There’s a synergy between a neighbourhood and a dining experience,” says Zachary Hyde, a PhD student in sociology at the University of British Columbia who has researched this connection, especially with respect to gentrification and economics. Pay Forest Hill rents and you have to cater to a very wealthy, largely older clientele who know what they want and aren’t generally willing to step out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, the Annex, with its massive undergraduate student population, is awash in cheap, mediocre restaurants that have pretty much killed our taste for sushi.
As a rule, Hyde says, the best new restaurants tend to land in areas that are transitioning from low to middle income (i.e., Parkdale, Dundas West, Leslieville). These sorts of neighbourhoods attract young professionals, and are relatively central. But for chefs and owners, the move to a new area isn’t as simple as dropping an existing menu and colour scheme into a new location. Even within one city, tastes can vary dramatically, and the culture of dining out can differ from one enclave to the next, no matter how similar those areas appear.
Before chef Claudio Aprile opened the third location of his Origin restaurant in the Bayview Village mall last summer, he spent several months selling lunch from a pop-up stall in the mall to study his market. “With Origin [on King West], I never had to ask the question, ‘Will they like the content, like the music, and enjoy this food?’” Aprile says. “I just did it and it was successful. At Origin North, I’m sensitive to everything from music and light levels to the flavour profiles and the level of chilies. We have a children’s menu at Origin North, which we don’t have downtown.”
When Pizzeria Libretto partner and general manager James Cook opened up the second location at Danforth and Carlaw at the end of 2011, he was surprised at how family-focused locals were. At its Ossington location, exuberant crowds queue out the door, reluctantly abiding the restaurant’s strict no-reservations policy. But on the Danforth, things looked different. “We knew right from the start that the line-up of strollers out front was big,” Cook says, and they quickly had to make adjustments.
First, the no-reservations policy went out the window. “When you have a young child, it’s like a ticking time bomb, and you can’t be kept waiting. You have 45 minutes and that’s it before your child loses their cool.” Cook developed a children’s menu and instructed his staff to cater to parents’ needs as much as possible. “We wanted to make the guests with kids feel welcome, and not [like] a burden. If the kids are relaxed and enjoying themselves, the parents can have a glass of wine and kick back.”
Even though customers spend on average the same amount of money at each location, they dine very differently. At Libretto Ossington, people arrive in a steady stream, from opening until closing at 11 p.m., but on the Danforth, they turn up in frantic lunch and dinner rushes, often in large groups spanning three generations, and by 9 p.m. the place is dead.
On paper, an east-end neighbourhood like Leslieville looks pretty similar to a west-end one like Trinity Bellwoods, Little Italy, or Roncesvalles. It’s filled with a mixture of older homeowners, singles in new condominiums, lower-income residents in public housing, and young families in semis that cost anywhere from half a million dollars to just shy of a million. According to experts at Buzz Buzz Home, more than 1,000 new housing units (ranging from studios to townhouses) will have hit the market in or near Leslieville between 2012 and the end of this year. Cranes dot the skyline and bidding wars draw media attention—all signs of a restaurant market that will only grow in coming years.
There are coffee shops and mid-century modern furniture stores, often next to grimy dive bars and auto repair shops, just like in the west end. But beneath the surface, there’s a cultural difference that bubbles up. It’s hard to pin down, but it can probably best be summed up by one word: pace. “This neighbourhood seems almost [to have] a small-town vibe,” says Diana Sidiris, who opened a second location of her Middle Eastern restaurant, Tabülè, in Riverside last year (the original spot is at Yonge and Eglinton). “They’re definitely more laid back,” she says, noting that lunch customers in the east stay twice as long as in her location uptown. “We just had to slow our pace down.”*
Two months back, when Carlo Catallo opened The County Cocktail and Snack Bar, just a few doors down from Tabülè, what shocked him wasn’t the difference in foot traffic (outside of the weekends, Queen East sees a trickle compared to his Queen Street West restaurant), or the fact that clients wanted more classic rock (as opposed to the punk and alternative he plays at The County General), or even that customers there stay later and spend more money than in the west. It was the strong sense of hyper-local identity shared by residents in that part of the city. Catallo was chastised for referring to his location as “Leslieville,” or even “Riverdale,” when it was in fact “Riverside” (according to the many customers who corrected him), the boundaries of which change by a few blocks, depending on who you ask. The east end has a pride that manifests itself in everything from perfectly trimmed gardens to the support it lends local businesses. Tap into that and your restaurant can blossom.
As the dining scene on the east side evolves, and other restaurants seek a piece of the action, those contrasts may fade with time, as the collective energy of the east end’s dining scene feeds back to the west, and vice versa. Shant Mardirosian, owner of The Burger’s Priest, which began in the outer reaches of Leslieville and is now expanding around the GTA, detects diminishing divisions in neighbourhood dining cultures around the city, as our tastes become more universal. “It’s so weird,” he said recently. “The Food Network’s really done a number on everything.” Everyone, regardless of where they live in this city, now has access to the same restaurant reviews, food blogs, and shows. We are increasingly likely to drive to Brampton for dosas or to Scarborough for Hakka kebabs, or take the streetcar across town to share a flank steak feast at Ruby Watchco. We can increasingly get good, even great, food in almost any part of the city. Leslieville’s boom will spread north to Danforth East and east to the Beaches, just as Roncesvalles will bleed into the Junction and High Park. In the coming decades, when people ask where it’s good to eat in this city, we will be able to point in any direction, wherever we live, and say, “Take your pick.”
The Grid food columnist David Sax’s new book, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, hits stores May 27.
UPDATE, MAY 23, 2014: This quote has been modified to more accurately reflect the speaker’s intent.