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2013 Where to Dine Awards: Toronto’s Best Restaurants, Chosen by You

BY CRAIG MOY

The Ploughman's Platter at Farmhouse Tavern, Where to Dine Award winner in the Canadian/American category (photo: Paula Wilson)

The Ploughman’s Platter at Farmhouse Tavern, Where to Dine Award winner in the Canadian/American category (photo: Paula Wilson)

The winners of our annual, reader-selected Where to Dine Awards make excellent starting points for diving into the smorgasbord that is Toronto’s restaurant scene. Or delve even deeper by checking out our equally appetizing editor’s picks.

AMBIENCE
360 THE RESTAURANT AT THE CN TOWER
Those of us who live in Toronto can be indifferent toward the CN Tower; it’s simply the tallest of many tall buildings comprising the downtown skyline. Fortunately, visitors to our city tend to be less jaded than residents, and a trip up the tower is still a thrill—even more so when you make a reservation at 360, the revolving restaurant floating more than 350 metres above street level. As you can imagine, guests are treated to an incomparable view from their seats in the plush dining room, while the servers proffer a full range of seasonal Canadian dishes.

ASIAN
PEARL HARBOURFRONT CHINESE CUISINE
When it comes to high-quality Chinese restaurants, Toronto no longer has the market cornered. Connoisseurs are now just as likely to recommend a trip to the bedroom communities of Markham or Richmond Hill for premium Peking duck and barbecued pork. Perhaps this is another case of not appreciating what we’ve got, because whatever one might want from a Chinese meal, Pearl delivers it. A popular location for banquets, the upscale lakefront spot has honed its menu of more than 60 dim sum dishes—plus dozens of additional à la carte favourites—over the course of three decades.

Not a fan of siu mai and har gow? Authentic fare from elsewhere in Asia abounds. Try Sabai Sabai for contemporary Thai, Jabistro for supremely fresh sushi, or Swish by Han for Korean cooking with significant heat.

BRUNCH
EMMA’S COUNTRY KITCHEN
The recipe at this humble bakery and restaurant is simple: hearty fare prepared with, well, a lot of heart. Each weekend, hungry morning-after habitués break their fasts with classics done right: the “memories of the farm” French toast with fresh bread and seasonal Ontario fruit; the eggs benedict with house-cured bacon; the “I know what you did last night” burger, with just the right amount of everything you need to revive your body and spirit after, perhaps, an overly stimulating evening.

Arrive early to ensure you can grab one of the delicious donuts—and avoid the lineup, which tends to start forming around 10:30 a.m.

BUSINESS DINING
HARBOUR SIXTY
You won’t see many patrons without a jacket and tie at this classy steakhouse, an expense-account restaurant if there ever was one (and, let’s face it, probably more like a special-occasions-only spot for the rest of us). For power brokers, the premium prices are justified: there aren’t many better ways to close a deal than with some beluga caviar, prime cuts of meat and a choice vintage from the 1,100-label wine cellar.

CAFÉ (editor’s pick!)
SENSE APPEAL COFFEE ROASTERS

Forget Starbucks and Timmie’s; Toronto is flush with independent coffeehouses eager to show off their artisanal bona fides. You’ll be well served at any number of them, but for our money, Sense Appeal wins on points. Owner Peter Adamo roasts his own direct-sourced beans, and his baristas are always willing to offer tips on how best to enjoy their espressos and lattes. Ambitious breakfast and lunch options are hot commodities on weekdays, but make sure you’re able to take your order to go: the café is tiny and seating is severely limited.

CANADIAN/AMERICAN
FARMHOUSE TAVERN

The name implies a certain rustic charm and the decor—mismatched chairs, all sorts of antique knick-knacks—hardly belies the notion, but when it comes to food, this field-to-fork restaurant aims much higher than grandma’s roast beef and potatoes. Locally harvested ingredients dictate the dishes that comprise chef Alexander Molitz’s menu. The specifics change daily, but you’re likely to find lamb, a chuck-and-short rib burger, and a superior ploughman’s platter to be fairly consistently available. Farmhouse’s brunch is equally satisfying, and fully worth the time you’ll spend waiting for a table to become available.

COCKTAILS
ROOF LOUNGE AT THE PARK HYATT HOTEL

It’s no surprise to see this storied cocktail parlour at the top of our readers’ list of favourite sipping spots. Like your drinks straightforward and stiff? Put your trust in bartender Joe Gomes—he’s been mixing martinis and pouring out single malts here for more than 50 years. The 18th-floor lounge’s classic clubhouse-style environs ensure you can imbibe in comfort while gazing (over the rim of your glass) at the downtown hustle and bustle below.

FAMILY DINING
PICKLE BARREL

We know how difficult it is to decide what’s for dinner when dad wants a steak, mom’s on a health kick, and the kids only care about dessert. Fortunately, the Pickle Barrel accounts for even the pickiest of eaters with a lengthy menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner options. Conservative palates are catered to with the likes of striploin steak and English-style fish and chips, while the more adventurous might be tempted to order Cajun Atlantic salmon linguine or mussels-and-shrimp paella.

Atlantic fluke ceviche at Canoe, Fine Dining category winner (photo: Paula Wilson)

Atlantic fluke ceviche at Canoe, Fine Dining category winner (photo: Paula Wilson)

FINE DINING
CANOE

The jewel in the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant mini-empire is consistently named amongst the finest of the city’s fine dining institutions. It’s not difficult to see why: Canoe has cultivated its reputation over nearly two decades as a leading purveyor of innovative cuisine reflecting Canada’s diverse regional bounty. And though highly refined, chef John Horne’s seasonal menus are still reasonably accessible to “regular” diners. Wine lovers will be tempted to make the 54-storey-high trip just to sample from sommelier Will Predhomme’s very fine list.

FRENCH
AUBERGE DU POMMIER

On the site of two circa-1860s woodcutters cottages and not far from one of the city’s most posh neighbourhoods, Auberge du Pommier is more than worth the trip to north Toronto—for its historic setting, white glove service, and most of all for award-winning chef Marc St. Jacques’ contemporary preparations of Gallic classics.

HOTEL DINING
THE DRAKE HOTEL

The Madonna—or maybe the David Bowie—of hotels, the Drake seems to be forever tweaking its image, often to great effect. No doubt Torontonians and travellers alike have been impressed by this creative ambition, particularly when it’s come to the property’s eating and drinking spaces. Among the recent changes have been a total revamp of the hotel’s main dining room and lounge and the hiring of noted chef Ted Corrado to oversee a constantly evolving menu. What hasn’t changed, thankfully, is the high quality of the food, and the energetic vibe that makes the west-end hotel feel like the true centre of Toronto.

So popular is the Drake that it recently opened a standalone resto, Drake One Fifty, far from its traditional locus of influence. See our coverage of the new Financial District hot spot here.

INTERNATIONAL
THE SULTAN’S TENT

A destination in the tourist-friendly St. Lawrence Market area (the food palace is just a block away), the Sultan’s Tent has long been popular for its bazaar-meets-Bedouin camp atmosphere and authentic North African cuisine. Great for groups, the rear dining room serves up Moroccan cuisine as part of a four-course prix fixe, and accents your meal with twice-nightly belly dancing shows. Tastefully adorned front-of-house Café Moroc has similar fare available à la carte.

ITALIAN
PIZZERIA LIBRETTO

One of the catalysts of Toronto’s late-2000’s Neapolitan pizza craze, this restaurant—originating on the hip Ossington strip, and now with a second location of the Danforth—remains a must-visit for casual Italian cooking. The wood-fired pies are clearly a major highlight, though a well-curated list of eminently quaffable wines is equally deserving of praise.

OUTDOOR DINING (editor’s pick!)
BIG CROW

An assemblage of grills and picnic tables behind premium diner Rose & Sons, Big Crow is a backyard barbecue joint in the most literal sense. The smoky setting, evocative of summer cookouts and winter camping (the restaurant is indeed open in the cooler months), will have your whole group salivating for the likes of baby back ribs and honey-butter sauced rabbit. House-made ice cream sandwiches make for a delectable end to your feast, no matter the temperature outside.

Bar Isabel, Where Toronto's editor's pick for best restaurant of 2013, serves up a variety of Spanish-influenced small plates (photo: Paula Wilson)

Bar Isabel, Where Toronto‘s editor’s pick for best restaurant of 2013, serves up a variety of Spanish-influenced small plates (photo: Paula Wilson)

OVERALL (editor’s pick!)
BAR ISABEL

We’re hardly the first, nor will we be the last to number this restaurant among Toronto’s absolute best. The brainchild of Grant van Gameren, whose virtuoso work with cured meats and offal at The Black Hoof marked him as one of our most exciting young chefs, Bar Isabel’s Spanish tavern setting—cozy, yet energetically convivial—is perfectly keyed to match the shareable, Mediterranean-inspired plates turned out by its kitchen. As you might expect, the salumi offerings are top notch, but don’t leave without ordering the grilled octopus for your table. Pressed for time? Step up to the bar for a quick snack and an artisan cocktail (or beer, or old-world wine). We guarantee you’ll soon be planning a return visit.

SERVICE
RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE

Boasting the choicest cuts of beef and a strong wine list—and imbued with a tastefully traditional atmosphere—Ruth’s Chris continues to prove that classic steakhouses can still thrive in a market increasingly dominated by taquerias and tapas joints. But it’s the restaurant’s service that really stands out. From your initial greeting to final bite you’ll be held in the highest regard. It’s a pleasant reminder that here, the bygone phrase still applies: the customer is king (or queen).

STEAK/SEAFOOD
HY’S

Like the other steakhouse on our winner’s list, Hy’s hits all the right notes when it comes to discreet service, fine wine and classic cocktails, and signature dishes like its “steak Neptune” (filet mignon with asparagus and blue crab meat), prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, and jumbo Atlantic lobster tail. We suspect, however, that the Financial District dining room’s elegant, candlelit ambience—complete with huge murals, glowing glass wine cabinets and plush seating—put it over the top in this highly competitive category.

TASTING MENU (editor’s pick!)
ACTINOLITE

The dictates of fiscal responsibility have kept your humble scribe from sampling some of the city’s top-tier luxury tasting menus. Fortunately, a number of excellent restaurants proffer their kitchen’s best at a more affordable price point. Actinolite is one such spot: an intimate, slightly-off-the-beaten-path dining room for which chef-owner Justin Cournoyer preps daily four- and seven-course prix fixes. His creative interpretations could include anything from sous vide chicken in a hay broth to fennel ice cream with butternut squash and candied moss. The available wine (and sometimes, beer) pairings do much to enhance the epicurean experience.

Equally excellent—and similarly accessible—tasting menus can be had at the likes of Edulis and Chantecler. Or if your bank account can handle it, don’t hesitate to splurge on the chef’s choices at the Momofuku Shoto, Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto and Yours Truly.

VEGETARIAN DINING
FRESH

Three downtown locations means that Fresh is an easy option for vegetarians, vegans and anyone who just wants to eat a little more healthily. Though especially popular with the lunchtime crowds, who get a boost from the big salads, veg-and-rice (or noodle) bowls and protein-packed burgers, these eateries are also great for a quick pick-me-up in the form of made-to-order smoothies and shakes. Gluten-sensitive diners are accommodated with more than two-dozen menu items.

WINE LIST
CRUSH WINE BAR

Oenophiles are a notoriously choosy lot, so it says something that this long-standing King West restaurant continues to be a popular destination for drinks. Managed by wine director Sarah Lyons and sommelier Tiffany Jamison-Horne, Crush’s lauded list of vintages counts more than 600 international labels including 60 by-the-glass options, a full third of which are from Ontario wineries. The food, of course, is designed with many of the wine cellar’s top bottles in mind.

Can’t decide what to drink? Crush is notable for its multiple wine flights, each of which allow you to sample three complementary vintages.

LES CLEFS D’OR GOLDEN PLATE AWARD
RICHMOND STATION

It takes a lot to impress members of Les Clefs d’Or. The city’s top hotel concierges pride themselves on offering the absolute best in customer service; when they recommend a restaurant, you know it’s bound to offer high-quality cuisine, inviting ambience and the utmost in client care. Richmond Station is this year’s total package. The downtown hot spot is consistently packed with patrons sipping cocktails at the bar, licking their chops at chef Carl Heinrich’s elevated farm-focused fare, or finishing off a glorious dessert by pastry chef Farzam Fallah. If you can, reserve a seat in front of the open kitchen, order the tasting menu, and enjoy an evening of gustatory delights.

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