The trendification of Chinatown: good news or bad for the city’s celebrated “ethnic buffet”?
Last week, the New York Times published a glowing tribute to Toronto and its ethnically diverse food scene. The first-person travelogue, titled “Sampling Toronto’s ethnic buffet,” described a rambling food tour through some of the city’s most prominent cultural enclaves. Author Francine Prose reminisced about snacking on dim sum at Lai Wah Heen, lamb kebabs at Lahore Tikka House and soon tofu at Tofu Village. She posited that Toronto has succeeded where dozens of American cities, including New York, have failed: it’s managed to find the ideal sweet spot between cultural assimilation and discord. “[T]he city succeeds at simultaneously dissolving the borders between disparate cultures,” she wrote, “and preserving what’s best and most valuable about each one.”
The story comes at an interesting time for Toronto, and particularly for Chinatown, the neighbourhood to which Prose devotes the majority of her 2,061 words. Chinatown is one of the last super-concentrated cultural zones in downtown Toronto. While other neighbourhoods’ names have become more titular than descriptive—Little Italy harbours few Italian bakeries, for instance, and Little Portugal’s churrascarias have been outnumbered by cocktail bars for years—Chinatown is the exception. It’s held out, more or less, against the assimilating forces that might have turned its dim sum halls into gourmet grocery stores.
That could all be changing, though. This spring, the team behind 416 Snack Bar is opening People’s Eatery, a multi-floor restaurant next door to Chinatown noodle shop Swatow. The focus of the menu will be Chinese and Jewish cuisine, as whimsically interpreted by former Acadia chef Dustin Gallagher. Around the same time, the brothers behind the Banh Mi Boys chain will be launching Lucky Red, a trendy Chinese bao joint next door to their parents’ traditional Vietnamese sub shop. As The Grid’s David Sax recently pointed out, these projects promise to bring new culinary variation to a neighbourhood whose restaurants, despite having inspired some of the city’s most resilient dining trends, have generally prized tradition over innovation.
Words like “innovation,” of course, exist in tension with other words—like “dilution” and, in some cases perhaps, “appropriation.” In a recent interview, Anthony Bourdain mused aloud about the ethical implications of chefs hijacking foreign recipes and cuisines. “Is it okay,” he wondered, “for a white guy to cook traditional northern Thai food and make money off it?”
The more basic fear is that the influx of trendy, expensive restaurants will eventually wash away the grit and authenticity that make Chinatown feel like an exciting place to visit and eat. This time, perhaps, we’ll overshoot the cultural mark the New York Times gives us credit for landing on.