When cheap, casual dining blew up in 2008, we got used to eating out. (Real used to it.) But as rents soared and chefs became more ambitious about their culinary aspirations, a not-so-tasty thing happened: The bills got bigger while the portions got smaller. Now many of the city’s top chefs are putting what we always wanted back on the menu: value.
A few months ago, friends of mine went out to celebrate their anniversary at a popular new restaurant. Since they have two young kids, it’s pretty rare for them to get a night out alone, so they splurged for a babysitter and ordered a large tasting menu—10 courses—along with a bottle of wine. The bill ended up at over $300 with tax and tip, but because each course was really just a bite or two, they were still hungry at the end of the meal. So hungry, in fact, that they stopped at a diner on the way home, drowning their dissatisfaction in the most rewarding $10 cheeseburgers they’d ever eaten, while swearing they wouldn’t eat at another restaurant for a long, long time.
When they told this story, my wife and I just nodded along. Lately, the more the two of us dine out, the more I feel like Rodney Dangerfield in some ’80s movie, staring down at tiny, intricately composed, expensive plates of food and wondering why I didn’t just stay home and cook a steak for a third of the cost. Though value abounds in the city’s many ethnic restaurants, where the food is plentiful, flavourful, and well priced, it is becoming increasingly rare in the new chef-driven hot spots that have dominated our attention for the past decade.
When the revolution in casual, neighbourhood dining took hold in downtown Toronto around 2008, its promise was value-oriented for a recessionary time: By stripping away superfluous fine-dining embellishments such as linens, sommeliers, reservations, and ornate interiors, places like The Black Hoof, Delux, The Atlantic, and others would deliver a great meal at a price that justified eating out several times a week. In many ways it worked, spawning a culture of dining as entertainment that’s downright competitive, and giving birth to a dynamic, financially accessible restaurant scene across much of Toronto.
Now, as rents on Ossington and in Parkdale shoot through the roof, and chefs’ ambitions soar beyond comfort food to intricately plated, multi-course extravaganzas, the prices at these supposedly casual restaurants are edging closer to those of the fine-dining establishments they supposedly supplanted. There are few things I now dread more than a server saying, “We recommend three plates a person to really get the experience,” which basically means I’d better head to the ATM before the meal ends, because it’s going to cost me a whack of cash, they still don’t take VISA, and I’ll need some extra money to pick up a slice of pizza on the way home.
“When I eat something really tasty in Toronto, it’s very seldom that I can have another bite if I’m eating with other people,” says Grant van Gameren, the former chef at Enoteca Sociale and co-founder of The Black Hoof. “You can say they’re sharing plates, but can you actually share more than a bite?” In early March, van Gameren, a price-conscious diner himself, will open Crown Cooks, on College Street, just east of Ossington. Inspired by his recent travels to Spain and Italy, where an order of blood sausage yields a steaming plate of meat, and not “a tiny piece of it,” van Gameren is planning the Crown Cooks menu with value foremost in his mind.
There will be small $2 to $3 bar nibbles, such as a lardo crostini and a Serrano ham and cheese breadstick; meat and cheese plates for $4 to $7 that’ll be largely stripped of garnish, instead delivering more salumi or manchego; a large selection of medium-sized plates at $8 to $14, such as a steamed head of broccoli with parmesan and anchovies or a bowl of grilled sausages; larger entrees for sharing, like a whole roasted fish or a block of foie gras that’ll top out at $25; and large-format meals, such as a bollito misto of seven smoked meats, costing $75 but capable of feeding five people heartily.
“I try to offer perceived value,” says van Gameren, who hopes the menu will allow diners the option of having a beer and a decent snack for as little as $20, while offering the flexibility to splash out at $100 a person if they want to. “Perceived value is what draws people in, but actual value is what keeps them coming back,” he says. “No one likes to go to a place and feel ripped off.”
Perceived value for diners isn’t a fixed number, but a moving target. When the bill arrives and you glance down at the damage, you quickly review the experience of the meal and know right away whether it was worth the money you’re about to fork over. If it is, you’re content. If it isn’t, you feel ripped off. Perceived value is informed as much by your economic and social background as the prices on the menu, which is why your grandmother considers any dinner over $20 to be highway robbery, while your lawyer can refer to a $200 tasting menu as “quite reasonable” without a whiff of irony.
Van Gameren’s partner in Crown Cooks is Max Rimaldi, co-owner of Enoteca Sociale and Pizzeria Libretto. Rimaldi, a veteran from St. Clair’s pizza and pasta value stalwart, Ferro, jokes that he started Libretto to have a place to eat in his own neighbourhood without irking his wife (who, like mine, rightly felt he was spending too much on dining out). So he opened a pizzeria that delivers the city’s best pies for the price of your average appetizer in most other Ossington restaurants, with a lunch deal ($15 for salad, pizza, and gelato) that’s the gold standard in value dining.
“People are craving that middle-of-the-road meal, for $30 to $40 a person,” says Rimaldi, who pursues only value-driven concepts, “ but [actually achieving that goal as a restaurateur] is an optical illusion. Everyone wants to get into that mid-priced category.” Few restaurants, he feels, are delivering on it. Instead, young chefs with great taste, but too little operational experience, are creating concepts that are too costly for the small spaces (30-40 seats) and neighbourhoods (still largely middle-income) they’re situated in. “We’re going to see a lot of closings,” Rimaldi predicts of 2013. “A lot of people opening restaurants today don’t ask why they’re doing it. Who is your customer? How much do they want to pay?”
“It’s really easy to put out tasty food at an affordable price,” says Leor Zimerman, the chef/owner of Quinta, a welcoming modern Portuguese bistro at Dundas and Dovercourt. “Three-quarters of the restaurants in this city do that. Just not the hip ones.” When he opened Quinta last summer, Zimmerman’s goal was to appeal to local residents with rustic food and good value. The portions at Quinta, like a heaping cataplana seafood stew, are very generous, and most mains cost less than $20. “I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they eat good food,” says Zimmerman, “and when they get the bill and say, ‘Hey, we could do this again.’”
Quinta, like most restaurants, operates on relatively slender profit margins, with the food cost of each dish making up roughly a third of its menu price. This doesn’t leave Zimmerman much wiggle room. “It’s tough,” he says, on a quiet night, after a party of 20 cancelled their reservation at the last minute, leaving him with a surplus of seats he wouldn’t fill and a costly fridge full of perishable ingredients, ticking like a time bomb. “I can put in an extra 12 to 14 hours a week, but I have a newborn at home. I’ve got to make a business that’ll succeed without me here 24/7. I don’t want to end up a divorced alcoholic because of this restaurant.”
This same quandary was the reason chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe attempted a switch in October from a five-nights-a-week-plus-weekend brunch à la carte menu at Parkdale’s Keriwa Cafe, to a Saturday night–only tasting table of 14 courses for $175, including tax and tip ($250 with wine). It was a daring gamble for a relatively young restaurant in an area where Rosedale diners still feel nervous about parking their BMWs.
“Honestly, it was just motivated by wanting to spend more time at home with my wife, who is pregnant,” says Bear Robe, who abandoned the experiment after several unsuccessful weeks. “It was a hard thing for people to swallow,” he admits, though Bear Robe feels his tasting menu still offered value. “When I go out for dinner, I could drop $10 on an excellent roti, or $600 on the tasting menu at New York’s Le Bernardin [one of the most expensive restaurants in North America]…. No matter how much you pay, if you walk away feeling like you got a bit more than what you paid for, then you’re happy.”
Hemant Bhagwani, owner of the various Amaya restaurants, which run from The Indian Room’s fine-dining flagship to nearly a dozen food court locations, sees the casual fine dining trend reaching its price limit. The industry, he claims, is down an average 20 per cent in the past six months, and times will likely stay lean well into 2013. When you walk by restaurants, the ones that tend to have lines out the door are places like Barque, Terroni, and 416 Snack Bar, while other, more refined spots are half-empty most weeknights.
“I see a lot of places opening for six months and then they’re gone,” says Bhagwani, who opened an Amaya Express location on Ossington this year that is still finding its footing. “The expensive restaurants are coming, do well for six months to a year, and then they all go run around and change concepts. I feel that expensive restaurants have a limited age and time they can do well.”
Bhagwani has recently decreased the price of mains across the Amaya chain and introduced promotions, such as prix fixe menus on Mondays and Tuesdays at the redesigned Indian Room, even offering an all-you-can-eat option on Sunday nights at all locations for just $19.
The goal is volume, which is the key to success at places like Amaya’s Ossington neighbour, the Vietnamese stalwart Golden Turtle, where second-generation owner Linda Nguyen has kept the menu as inexpensive as possible. The average cheque is only $10 per person, but Golden Turtle does six full seatings a day, drawn from a base of largely repeat customers. “I don’t want a customer to walk in and see it glam and then say, ‘What am I paying for?’” says Nguyen, reflecting her feelings about many of the flashier restaurants on the Ossington strip. “Despite this new wave of places coming into the area [over the past few years], we’re thriving,” she adds, noting that the culture of the neighbourhood may still best fit a value-centric operation. “There’s a lot of great family-owned restaurants in the GTA that could work here.”
Up at Dupont and Davenport, chef Anthony Rose knows that if Rose and Sons, his new diner, is going to work, he has to hit the same winning value-driven formula as the iconic People’s Foods, whose space he took over after People’s owners closed shop, rather than ante up to another rent increase. With just 28 seats, he’s kept the food simple (patty melts, matzo ball soup, club sandwiches) and the turnover brisk.
“We need volume,” Rose says, during a busy lunch. “The food has to be delicious and the place has to be fun.” To keep prices reasonable (lunch dishes average $14, dinner $25), Rose has made sacrifices with some ingredients. “I mean, look at that chicken souvlaki!” he says, pointing to an order that just arrived at the next table. “It’s huge and it’s $12. The chicken isn’t organic, but I know where it came from and the pita is made from scratch. We’ll sell a shitload of them and people will come back for them. At People’s, they had a $15 chicken souvlaki plate and it walked out the door!”
On Queen Street West, at the small restaurant Chantecler, chef Jonathan Poon’s culinary ambitions have come up against the realities of diners’ financial expectations. Located just a few doors from Grand Electric, Chantecler’s menu is inevitably measured in terms of comparable value, even if Poon’s food (a highly composed mixture of local flavours with surprising Asian touches) is worlds apart from the tacos on offer down the street.
“Tacos become the unit of measurement [for customers],” says Poon. “You can see them thinking, ‘Man, we just paid $20 for that; we might as well get five tacos next door.’ It’s unfortunate, but from their perspective I understand. Who doesn’t like a good deal?”
This summer, in an attempt to drum up business on slow Sundays, Chantecler began offering a Chinese-style lettuce-wrap meal (featuring large portions of fermented black bean–braised beef and brown sugar and soy–smoked pork shoulder) for $21 per person, about the same price as the restaurant’s previous mains, but much more filling. It caught fire like a greasy stove.
Sundays now outpace every single other night of the week, in terms of both customers served and profitability. Because of this, Chantecler has now completely replaced its main menu with the lettuce dinner six nights a week, abandoning the à la carte offerings Poon worked so hard to create.
“Fortunately and unfortunately, it does very well for us economically,” Poon says. “I say ‘unfortunately’ [because] my passions don’t lie in unrefined cooking.” Poon will still offer a more ambitious tasting menu for just two tables on weekends. He imagines those will break even, but he’ll serve them in order to keep his staff and himself creatively motivated while the kitchen cranks out dozens of pork shoulders and shucks hundreds of oysters each night. “It’s a hard time for restaurants right now, and we’re going to be focusing on how to sustain the business more.”