BY CRAIG MOY
Last year, whenever Darcy MacDonell was asked for his thoughts on the next big Toronto restaurant trend, he says his reply was a simple one: restaurant closures.
The owner of the acclaimed Farmhouse Tavern felt that the robust local dining scene was ready for a softening, that the supply of prime dining rooms was beginning to overtake demand.
Thus far in 2014, his prediction hasn’t quite come to fruition. In fact, something of the opposite seems to have occurred: this past spring saw a slew of openings, particularly of new spaces from already established restaurateurs—like MacDonell’s own Farmer’s Daughter. Just a block away from its progenitor, Farmer’s Daughter is, by design, much different. Where the former has a country-style, antique-stuffed ambience and meat-focused menu, the latter is sleek and chic, with a dinner service that’s a bit more sea- and soul food.
“I wanted Farmer’s Daughter to be very distinct on purpose,” says MacDonell, “so that ideally, if you come here on Thursday night for dinner, you’ll still go there [to Farmhouse] on Sunday for brunch, and then you’ll come back here for brunch in two weeks, and go there for dinner a week after that.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is the business model: MacDonell’s new spot sources from many of the same suppliers, maintains the same hours, and seeks to set the same high standard of food and service.
Downtown, chef Trevor Wilkinson took a similar approach when, in April, he and business partner Mike Yaworski opened The Tavern by Trevor. A hybrid dive bar and casual fine-dining restaurant, its menu is a sort of pub-patterned version of what Wilkinson serves at his existing Trevor Kitchen and Bar: cosmopolitan dishes—from tempura shrimp with spicy mayo to bison and pork tourtiere—that nonetheless reflect the chef’s classical French cooking background.
Of course it’s not just independent restaurant owners and chefs who’ve been widening their reach. Also in this year’s batch of successful spin-offs is Bar Buca, an all-day café, small-plates spot and cocktail parlour operated by the King Street Food Company, which owns the original Buca plus other fine restaurants. And far-reaching lifestyle group Ink Entertainment added Mediterranean hot spot Byblos to a portfolio that already boasts other high-concept eateries, nightclubs, a music festival and even a condo development.
Take your established brand (including, if you’re lucky, a well-known chef) and apply its standards to a savvy reworking of your prevailing concept—or a completely different one, if you’re feeling bold. That’s the basic formula, and it seems to be working. Not only at the above restaurants, but also at the likes of County Cocktail and Snack Bar—an east-end tweak of Queen West gathering place The County General—and Peoples Eatery, an Israel-meets-China nosh spot from the owners of 416 Snack Bar and chef Dustin Gallagher.
And yet, despite the territory being at least semi-charted, these offshoot restaurants do offer new experiences, both for diners and owners.
“I’ve opened quite a few restaurants and built quite a few new kitchens,” says Wilkinson, “but every space is different; there are always little things that are unique to the space or to the clientele that you have to keep working on.”
More than branding, more than interior design or the familiarity (or uniqueness) of a menu, it’s that constant drive to improve the dining experience that’s likely to keep these restaurants thriving—and the Toronto food scene growing—in the years to come.