A Treat For Your Tastebuds: Toronto Foodie Tour
Toronto has been experiencing a food Renaissance, with new and innovative eateries serving up everything from street cuisine to gourmet dishes. Steven Hellmann, who provides samplings of Toronto's tastiest eats through his Foodies on Foot tours, says that Toronto's food scene has really come into its own over the last seven or eight years: "It's still kind of a baby, but it's steamrolling—with hundreds of restaurants opening up a year—and people have really opened up to it." Following the 501 Queen Streetcar route through five different neighborhoods and food stops, Foodies on Foot's 501 Streetcar Food Tour is a fun way to sample a variety of local street foods. It's no surprise then, that eating your way through Ontario's capital is a delightful (and delicious) way to experience the city.
The Epicurean Melting Pot
Toronto is one of the world's most multicultural cities. Its "local fare" is defined by variety, a direct representation of the melting pot that forms the city's identity. Hellmann, who has noshed at more than 1,600 food and drink locations across the province, describes the "flavour" of Toronto as "a blending of a lot of different cultures—and really about making simple foods that are accessible and easy to eat."
Matt Basile, whom Hellmann calls the "King of Street Food," is a prime example of this cultural synthesis. Basile launched his Fidel Gastro Street Food Company through pop-ups, but his food truck (christened Priscilla after Elvis Presley's wife) quickly gave way to the cooking channel show Rebel Without a Kitchen and a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Lisa Marie (after Elvis' daughter). The common denominator in all three is the constant evolution and complex creativity that yields dishes such as curry mac 'n' cheese and pork burgers served in pancake buns with a side of Pad Thai fries.
In a similar manner, Chef Craig Wong, whose family emigrated from Jamaica, plays off his Chinese heritage, Jamaican roots and frequent travels to create a distinctly Canadian style of Chinese food. At his restaurant Patois, one might enjoy such amalgams as Jerk Chicken Chowmein or Kimchi Potstickers "Pierogi" Style.
Comfort food is a staple genre in Toronto, ranging from Queen Margherita Pizza, which Hellmann calls "the best, most authentic Neapolitan-style pizza" to the "the beef brisket sandwich that I crave all the time," which is served up in a gas station that's been converted into a restaurant.
Hellmann explains that even though strict regulations keep food trucks at a minimum, "there are pop-up street food restaurants in just about every neighborhood." Fried foods inspired by the streets of Naples make up the menu at A3 Napoli's, while Delhi-style Kathi rolls are doled out at The Kathi Roll Express. Local marketplaces also provide homes to a number of street food-style eateries, including St. Lawrence Market's Crepe It Up Cafe and Carousel Bakery (with its famed Peameal Bacon Sandwich), and Market 707's TNT Roti and Gushi Japanese Street Food.
According to Hellmann, Toronto is more about street food and "simple pleasures" than it is about fine dining, but there are still plenty of excellent, elegant establishments for a more upscale meal. Hellmann's favorite is Aria, which he says "takes dining to another level. I haven't had one single dish from this [Italian] restaurant that hasn't wowed."
The Fairmont Royal York also provides a variety of unforgettable dining experiences. Epic showcases Ontario's growers with a menu based on seasonal, local ingredients. With its menu of burgers and poutines, Piper's Gastropub offers a more casual, yet still stylish, scene.
Plates to Share
This vast feast of flavours often makes it hard to choose just one dish. Thankfully, many restaurants offer small plates ideal for sharing. DaiLo serves up "New Asian Cuisine" (predominantly Chinese flavours cooked in a French tradition) in small sizes for sampling, such as Crispy Octopus Tacos and Singapore Curry Cauliflower. Bar Isabel does the same with its Spanish-style tapas.
With the aim of capturing Toronto's food culture, Peoples Eatery offers shareable platters and finger-centric snacks that encourage convivial, family-style dining—and sampling as many eclectic flavours, from Spanish Salad to Crispy Thai Pork, as possible.
Washing It All Down
Of course, it wouldn't be a foodie scene without creative liquid accompaniments. Toronto's cocktail culture is alive and well, with Hellmann noting that it "runs the gamut from high-end molecular gastronomy concoctions at Bar Chef to re-creations of classic cocktails at SpiritHouse." The Royal York's Library Bar combines a bit of everything, including a classic martini bar and Whiskey Library along with a menu of unique handcrafted cocktails.
Those who choose suds over spirits also have plenty to choose from in Toronto, where a mini craft brew empire has taken shape. The historic Distillery District now features shops and restaurants, but Mill Street Brewery, the first commercial micro-brewery to open in East Toronto in 100-plus years, carries on the neighborhood's tradition of beverage (and mirth) production. In keeping with the history theme, Black Creek Historic Brewery takes you back to 1860s Ontario with period techniques, tools, recipes and even costumes. Junction Craft Brewing features beers bearing train-themed names, while Bellwood Brewery anoints its bottles with artistic labels.
When it's time to satisfy your sweet tooth, Hellmann recommends Glory Hole Doughnuts, pastry dreams that come in unique flavours such as Vanilla Sesame and Hibiscus Rose. New on the sweet scene are creative Nugateau eclairs, which look like works of art and are flavoured simply (Vanilla Jasmine), intensely (dark chocolate mousse, whipped praline ganache and hazelnut praline grains) or savory (foie gras or smoked salmon). Bon Appetit!
See more of the Foodies on Foot experience in photographs here.
Suzanne Russo is a freelance writer and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her works has appeared in CNN Travel, GOOD, CBS Watch! and offMetro, among others. When she’s not seeking out eco-adventures, urban palimpsests and ghost stories, she is overseeing Lit Crawl National, a network of madcap literary pub crawls founded by San Francisco’s literary festival, Litquake.