An influx of out-of-town talent sparked a homegrown food movement in Canada’s most diverse city. Matheson, local chef and host of Viceland’s Dead Set On Life, beats his chest for Toronto’s free-wheeling restaurants.
Everyone talks about Montreal, and, yes, that identity is so strong—so French, so Quebecois. But what makes Toronto interesting is that we don’t have that kind of clear-cut culture. Our ethnic food is fantastic: Our Chinatown up in Markham is incredible, and we have amazing Vietnamese, Jamaican, Trinidadian and East Indian influences here.
But, in a way, being a melting pot also makes us a blank canvas, and that frees up Toronto chefs to just be whomever they want to be.
I think that really accelerated when the big-boy chefs started coming into the city. David Chang, Jonathan Waxman and Daniel Boulud all expanded here, and even Eataly is on its way. Our hometown players responded by really stepping up for their turf.
I think about Guy Rawlings at Montgomery’s (996 Queen St.) doing hyperlocal, 100 percent Ontario-born food, putting his heart and his province on his sleeve. Or Brandon Olsen’s La Banane (227 Ossington Ave.), where you can listen to disco and wear a hoodie, but you can also go big with a raw bar platter or trout en croute. Brandon also owns the chocolate company CXBO (193 Baldwin St.), and he makes the most Instagrammed dessert in the city, a Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg, which you smash open.
On the other end you have Harry’s Charbroiled (160 Springhurst Ave.), this legit 1970s dive that the restaurateur Grant Van Gameren took over with chef Nate Young. It’s the kind of place you go to sip juice cups full of vodka and slam corned beef hash.
But the most original restaurant in Toronto right now has to be Pinky’s Ca Phe (53 Clinton St.). The chef, Leemo Han, is Korean, but he’s basically running a Vietnamese Chez Panisse here. The restaurant is in a house, with all these little rooms packed with old, forgotten plants rescued from estate sales, and Leemo is out back manning a bunch of barrel drum grills like something out of Apocalypse Now. You could put a million big-dog marketing people on the case and never come up with something like that. That’s just Toronto. —as told to Jordana Rothman