With the city’s food scene buzzing thanks to new openings at the Shangri-La Hotel, the Trump Tower, the Four Seasons, and more, hotel dining in Toronto is ushering in a new golden age.
The idea of hotel dining has changed dramatically in the last few years in Toronto. Like we’ve seen in other global destinations, many hotel restaurants are no longer a place for unadventurous tourists or the butt of bad banquet food jokes. To survive, hotels had to draw in the locals, the diners who’d fill the seats during low travel season as well as attract the well-researched traveller with a list of must-eat restos as seen on the Food Network.
An obvious example is the recent opening of David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants adjacent to the newly-built Shangri-La Hotel. With hour-long waits, cooks around the city clamouring to work there, and diners with chopsticks in one hand and a camera phone in the other, it was Toronto’s most anticipated restaurant opening in a very long time.
But Chang is not solely responsible for this renaissance. Donald Trump unabashedly staked his claim on Toronto’s Gordon Gekko-wannabes with Stock restaurant and Suits bar inside the Trump Tower. Another big-name New York chef, Daniel Boulud, is opening two restaurants at the rebuilt Four Seasons Hotel this month. The Ritz-Carlton hired local talent Tom Brodi to take the reins of Toca—until his departure earlier this year. And starting this new wave of luxe hotel restos was the Thompson Hotel back in 2010, which had New York chef Scot Conant unveil an outpost of his successful Italian restaurant Scarpetta.
Before this recent flurry of action, there were standbys like the Hilton (first opened in 1975 as an independent hotel before Hilton took over in ’87), the SoHo Metropolitan (opened in 2003), and the Toronto Don Valley Hotel (first opened in 1978 as a chain hotel). These places survived the city’s culinary climate change, during which many restos fell victim to economic crashes, health scares, and the rise of the hole-in-the-wall, 30-seat, no-reservation joints. And now they’re all stepping up with new menus, concepts, chefs, and an overhaul of their spaces to keep up with the increased competition. Welcome to the new age of hotel dining.
On University Avenue, just across from the days-old Momofuku (which is already home to a lineup at 7 p.m. on a Monday), the Hilton’s anchor restaurant Tundra is hosting a different crowd. While the Noodle Bar is full of young, tattooed patrons straight out of an issue of Nylon, the diners at Tundra are a tad older, and they exemplify the concept of business casual. But it’s just as boisterous here, and the food is decidedly delicious.
“It’s great to have all this competition from hotel restaurants across the city,” says Tundra executive chef Kevin Prendergast. “There’s interest in the new hotels, but some people will think about the places that have been around for a while. Word of mouth gets out and it helps everyone. It always helps to have more restaurants in the neighbourhood.”
Part of Tundra’s plan to get the word out was to undertake a major renovation for the first time since it opened in 2000. It was completed in August, and a bunch of food bloggers were invited to tweet up a storm at the relaunch party. The space is brighter, with light woods and large light fixtures set to a morning glow. The dining room has 100 more seats, and the bar has been moved closer to the entrance, making Tundra the centrepiece of the reception area.
New menus have also been created to usher in the change. On the summer menu is a juicy brick Cornish hen with an unbelievably crispy skin seasoned with a spice mix of cumin, coriander, paprika, turmeric, cayenne, and oregano. It’s made even better when paired with roasted peaches and smoked apricot vinaigrette. Sadly, the dish is being swapped out to make way for the fall menu next week.
“Hotel dining has gone from the stuffier special occasion restaurant to a more free-standing restaurant,” says Prendergast, who’s been at Tundra for six years (before that, he worked at the Marriott Marquis in New York’s Times Square and the Fairmont Royal York). “We like to compare Tundra to other free-standing restaurants. That’s what we strive for, to just be on the same playing field.”
The SoHo Metropolitan is also taking cues from other restaurants, hosting its first-ever pop-up in September to welcome locals who had never visited its restaurants, particularly the esteemed Lai Wah Heen Chinese restaurant. For a few bucks a bite, people could try Lai Wah Heen’s famous dim sum.
Also, just last year the Metropolitan promoted sous-chef Vincent Leung to head the kitchen at Senses, the restaurant that helped launch the careers of Colborne Lane’s Claudio Aprile, Woodlot’s David Haman, and Momofuku Daisho’s Matt Blondin. Leung talked about creating a more approachable menu and gleaning inspiration from the city’s multicultural landscape (think braised short ribs with spatzle and kimchi) when he spoke with The Grid last November:
“Me coming on board and switching over meant simplifying the flavours,” he says. “The plating hasn’t been as intricate. I’d hate to use the term ‘less stuffy’—more like ‘easy-going.’”
Meanwhile, in the suburbs, the Toronto Don Valley Hotel started fresh with a grand reopening party last week after a $4 million renovation. It too stepped up its food program over the summer with a menu redesign by Food Network chef Anthony Sedlak, who unexpectedly passed away shortly after the announcement of his involvement. The hotel continued the revamp with new dishes reminiscent of the ones Sedlak sought to create, like a miso-roasted sable fish, a signature burger with horseradish mayo and smoked bacon on a brioche, and butter chicken with chilies, ginger, and lime.
Back at Tundra, the meal ends with Prendergast setting down a gorgeous dessert tray of macarons, citrus gels, a cloud of homemade marshmallow, and a shot glass of strawberry consume. He grabs a seat at the table, noting that the restaurant is busy as ever, and it feels kind of like the beginning of a new golden age for hotel dining.
“A long time ago, in the late-‘80s or ‘90s, all the best chefs were in hotels. Then they all left,” recalls Prendergast. “Now it’s irrelevant where you go for a great meal. It can be a hotel, or some place across the street. There are great restaurants popping up all across the city.”
So has he tried the nearby Noodle Bar?
“Not yet,” he quips. “I have a hard time lining up for anything.”