19 of Toronto Life’s favourite places to eat in 2016

19 of Toronto Life’s favourite places to eat in 2016

It's been a good year for food—and it's not over yet

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Adamson Barbecue
176 Wicksteed Ave., 647-559-2080, adamsonbarbecue.com

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Adam Skelly’s barbecue is so mind-blowingly good that it’s worth venturing into the wilds of a Leaside industrial park for. The cavernous concrete space is a smokehouse pure and simple, with rolls of paper towel on the tables and a menu penned on butcher paper taped to the wall. Everything here takes a spin in the Oyler1300, a massive wood-burning smoker: brisket, already on the cusp of disintegration, melts in your mouth, and pork ribs flecked with caraway seeds are perfectly pink inside. Sides are as nature and the Deep South intended: kitchen-sink potato salad, creamy slaw and rich beans flavoured with beef tallow. There are no spoons in the collection of plastic cutlery—instead, the slices of Wonder Bread served with each platter are meant for soaking up escaped sauces.

We are open tonight! Join us for a refreshing cocktail and dinner!

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Ardo
243 King St. E., 647-347-8930, ardorestaurant.com

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Chef Roberto Marotta’s Sicilian-inspired dishes offer a level of sophistication that puts this new St. Lawrence spot above many of the city’s trattorias. Acciughe—punchy white anchovies and roasted red peppers on crunchy herb butter–soaked crostini—are a perfect two-bite snack (or spuntini, as the Sicilians would have it), and sourdough starter makes an exceptionally puffy pizza crust. It’s a welcome change from the Neapolitan tyranny.

Bar Begonia
252 Dupont St., 647-352-3337, barbegonia.com

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Anthony Rose, the boss behind some of Toronto’s trendiest restaurants, has opened another crowd-pleaser on Dupont. This time, it’s a bistro stacked with terrifically simple French staples designed for grazing alongside draft manhattans or bargain bordeaux. Classic steak tartare, popping with tangy capers and bright yolk, is just trashy enough when scooped onto house-made waffle chips. Portuguese salt-cod fritters, golden and dipped in lemony harissa mayo, deserve a second order, while a single serving of the foie gras with buttery toast soldiers is so rich that one plate of the stuff is enough for the whole table. The noisy room, decorated on the cheap with drawings of Rose’s nude lady lover and an ersatz Basquiat, evokes a dated brasserie in an unhip Paris arrondissement—in the best possible way.

The Berlin
45 King St. W., Kitchener 519-208-8555, theberlinkw.ca

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Surrounded by farms in the centre of Kitchener, chef Jonathan Gushue has easy access to the freshest ingredients for his always-changing menu: grilled treviso with munster d’Alsace, plump raisins and dried fruits in an earl grey vinaigrette is sweet, bitter, pungent, and perfect with house-baked nut- and fruit-studded sourdough. Local rib-eye, cooked perfectly rare, sits on a mound of mixed wild mushrooms, a ruby-red cabbage purée, and a single dumpling filled with herbed quark (fresh cheese) and scallions. Pastry chef Eli Silverthorne’s creative desserts are impressive: lavender-inflected fermented honey ice cream and dark chocolate mousse are topped with airy chantilly cream, then finished off with bright-red pomegranate dust.

Redesign, rebuild, reclaim! Book with us online or on the phone! #Restaurant

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Cafetería
974 College St., 647-347-2855, playacabana.ca/cafeteria

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Every link in the Playa Cabana chain offers a slightly different variation on a common theme, so why should the latest outpost be any different? The distressed vintage decor is here, as are the subway tile, exposed brick and neon—even if it’s only one accent piece. Bartenders sling a wide range of Mexican-themed beer and cocktails, but smoky mescal, not tequila, is the booze of choice. Chalkboard menus list dishes heavy on house-ground corn accents, like tender pieces of goat on a deep-fried disc of masa. Chicken mole, the kitchen’s crown jewel, offers complex layers of acid, toast and spice; it’s just not worth the long wait it takes to arrive when service stalls. For dessert, pan de elote, a cornbread cake, is a warm slice of heaven that balances modest sweetness with oversized, crunchy grains of sugar and a buttery dollop of whipped cream.

Taco Campechano is back and better than ever! Flank, chorizo and chicharron. #tacos #toronto #campechano

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Campechano
504 Adelaide St. W., 416-777-2800, campechano.ca

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At the latest entrant into Toronto’s casual-Mexican scene, fresh sea bass ceviche, swimming in citrus, honours tradition with its tongue-puckering brightness. The restaurant’s namesake taco, a mix of beef and too-tame chorizo, is elevated by a sprinkling of crunchy chicharrones. But as the city approaches peak taco, it takes something special to stand out. Here, it’s the tortillas made with imported corn that’s ground in-house. The vegetal notes in the delicate discs shine in the quesadillas, stuffed with beef or mushrooms and loads of oaxaca cheese. The lone dessert, a lightly spiced flan, exists at the delectable crossroads of cheesecake, butterscotch pudding and crème brulée.

El Rey
2A Kensington Ave., No phone, elreybar.com

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Mescal is the inspiration behind this new Mexican bar in Kensington—nearly 40 kinds are served in flights and blended into expensive cocktails. Clay copitas of the stuff cover the tables of the lantern-lit patio. The short menu, overseen by co-owner Grant van Gameren, makes an effort to transcend Tex-Mex clichés with traditional ingredients and preparations, yet the food isn’t too serious. The hulking guacamaya torta stuffs a chewy, avocado-slathered bun with luscious grilled pork shoulder, crunchy chicharron and cilantro, while the sope brings an earthy potato-corn shell filled with salty refried beans, spicy minced chorizo and mellow salsa—a sunny-side-up quail’s egg binds the whole mess. There are a few mehs amid the mmms, like a blue corn quesadilla that tastes of little more than bland tortilla and queso fresco. And the staff, though knowledgable, are so aloof they could be mistaken for a comedy troupe parodying attitudinal servers.

Greta Solomon’s Dining Room
1118 Queen St. E., 647-347-8640, facebook.com/gretasolomonsdiningroom

Owner Darlene Mitchell hails from Newfoundland—home of cod tongues and flipper pie—but the food she and chef James Vigil (Pangaea) serve in this tiny Leslieville room is unmistakably French. A pan-seared sea scallop, sourced from neighbouring Hooked, is flanked by crispy bits of oxtail, radish slices, plump raisins, turnip purée and pickled cauliflower, and piping-hot swiss chard gratin with bacon is sauced with creamy mornay and topped with ­gruyère. Ontario beef tenderloin is served on fingerling confit potatoes, and spectacular morels—done up in duck fat and ­demi-­glace—are dressed to impress in chive-studded béarnaise. The wine list is long and thoughtful for such a diminutive spot, and the desserts—like a ­deconstructed fruit tart wrapped in a shortbread collar with elderflower chantilly—equally so.

Harry’s Char Broil and Dining Lounge
160 Springhurst Ave., 416-532-2908, @harryscharbroiled

Harry’s has the cultivated appearance of a dive bar stuffed inside an all-day breakfast joint. The punk- and rockabilly-heavy soundtrack is too loud for real conversation, the bathrooms are borderline deplorable and it’s so dark that it’s almost impossible to see the food. In other words, it’s a whole lotta fun. What separates it from other greasy spoons happens behind the scenes. Grant van Gameren (Bar Isabel, Bar Raval, El Rey) and his team bought the 48-year-old Parkdale institution earlier this year, distinguishing the menu with a few sly flourishes. Chef Nate Young’s Red Burger—a spicy chorizo patty tucked into a Wonder Bread bun with a ring of grilled pineapple and a slice of oaxaca cheese—deserves city-wide acclaim. Cocktails are sturdy old-school classics, poured with just the right amount of slapdash enthusiasm. Have more than a couple and Harry’s hangover-curing breakfast menu might be of service the next morning.

Essentials – Kare Kare & lechon

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Lasa
634 St. Clair Ave. W., 647-343-1110, @lasabylamesa

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This converted grocery store gets packed with diners and takeout customers waiting for the kitchen’s stewed, fried or grilled dishes. Kare-kare—a stew of oxtail, eggplant and peanut sauce—is deliciously rich, and a simple plate of ultra-crispy fried chicken and rice is amped up with chili-seasoned skin and plenty of garlic infused into every grain. The restaurant’s lone dessert is no afterthought: made to order with freshly crushed ice, the sundae-like mountain of purple yam ice cream, candied fruit, coconut jelly and leche flan is topped with evaporated milk for an extra rich hit.

Lala's Tortilla is textbook tasty. Anytime of the day. 📷 by @chefanthonywalsh.

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Leña
176 Yonge St., 416-507-3378, lenarestaurante.com

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Run by O&B and overseen by Canoe’s Anthony Walsh, Leña manages to out-glitz the Saks it’s housed in. Couples can start the night under the tear-drop chandelier of the Yonge-facing Beaux Arts bar, sipping vermouth and eating empanadas, before graduating to a blue velvet alcove in the upstairs dining room, where there’s a curious mix of blowouts, Brioni and tourists toting Uniqlo purchases. They need to work on the acoustics—it’s one of the loudest rooms in the city. Much of that is due to excitement over garlicky Ontario shrimp, chimichurri-painted strip loin with sweet yucca fries, or rustic rabbit and snails slow-braised in white wine and tomatoes. The wine list, beneficiary of O&B’s deep reserves, is evenly split between stars of South America and Spain, with quite a few available by the glass. Dessert demands churros, long, twisting and extra light, dunked in bowls of luscious Soma chocolate.

Today calls for an American Cheeseburger let's all hope for a respectful American Election outcome

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Maple Leaf Tavern
955 Gerrard St. E., 416-465-0955, mapleleaftavern.ca

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Once an east-end dive, the 106-year-old tavern has been given new life, thanks to a two-year, $2-million makeover designed to position it as a legitimate dining destination. Chef Jesse Vallins churns out what might be his best food to date, much of it from a wood-burning oven. The roasted vegetable salad with fried halloumi gives the kitchen a chance to grill up whatever’s in season, and the burger—a patty of ground strip loin topped with house-made cheese, garlic mayo and dill relish—could hold its own against any of the city’s best. Kegged rye and gingers (made with artisanal ginger beer, natch) are a fun touch.

Saturday lunch #midtown #indonesianfood Ron rocks!

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Noorden
2110 Yonge St., 416-488-2110, noordento.com

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The owners of Quince recently closed shop, and gave their white-linened Yonge and Eg room a cooler vibe and a gin list 42 bottles long. The menu focuses on Dutch staples with Indonesian flavours—a delicious hybrid born of the countries’ colonial history. War Fries are the poutine of the Netherlands: drenched in sweet peanut sauce, and dotted with mayo, scallions and bird’s eye chilies, they’re guilt-inducing excellence. Other plates—like a seared steelhead trout, and charred broccoli with preserved lemon and sambal metah, a tangy relish—are more refined, and consistently capture the punchiness, depth and freshness that makes Indo-fusion food so satisfying. Little touches, like house-made tonic, imported caramel sauce for the olie bollen (apple-currant fritters) and servers who deliver culinary history ­without being obnoxious, make guests feel like they’re still in fine-dining hands.

I could have this for breakfast!! @chefvbarry #eggyolkravioli #chefvictorbarry #pianopianotherestaurant

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Piano Piano
88 Harbord St., 416-929-7788, pianopianotherestaurant.com

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When Victor Barry opened a casual pizza place where Splendido was, his fan base was aghast. Where before there were heavy linens, candles and stately mirrors reflecting your quiet wealth back at you, now there’s a jarring, Tim Burton meets Nancy Reagan ’80s vibe of graphic white bistro chairs against black floors, heavy floral wallpaper and the wail of David Lee Roth alternating with Prince Paul. But the best part is the food. Soft and messy pizzas loaded with toppings like dandelion and bubbling scamorza, line-caught trout with its own roe and thick, bone-in veal chops are just some of the standout items. The star, however, is the stripped-down caesar salad: grilled sections of radicchio and romaine, crispy-fatty strips of roasted pork belly, chunks of buttery crouton, fresh white anchovy, a slick of garlicky dressing and a liberal dusting of parm. From bite to bite, it’s crunchy, smoky, salty and sweet—more of a marvel than any molecular gastronomy trick.

Pinkerton Snack Bar
1026 Gerrard St. E., 416-855-1460, @pinkertonsnackbar

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With a room decked out in antiques, reclaimed wood and retro lighting, and a playlist of throwbacks, Pinkerton’s feels like a Parkdale transplant. It’s not difficult for two people to eat everything on the short menu here. Best bets are the Laotian-style beef tartare and the tuna tostada, a messy but delicious plate of raw albacore, crispy won tons, avocado crema, chilies and nori. Of the classic cocktails, the smooth and citrusy paper plane is exceptional.

Skyline in Snow

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Skyline Restaurant
1426 Queen St. W., 416-536-3682, @theskylinerestaurant

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The new owners of Parkdale’s lovably sketchy diner have kept it largely intact. The original red vinyl booths remain, the milk machine’s been retrofitted with beer taps that pour seven local brews (and Guinness) and the revamped menu still includes burgers, tuna melts and chicken souvlaki (except now, all meat is sourced from local farms). Best bets are the classics: the Skyline Special—a triple-decker club with house-made turkey salad and locally sourced bacon—tarts up, but still honours, the beloved original. Freshly baked pies (key lime, chocolate cream, lemon meringue) make for a sweet finish.

Channel your inner Costanza and take home some sexy BBQ for some sexy time. 📷@littleimmigrant #trustus #brisketduringsexisnotweird

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Smoke Signals
1242 Dundas St. W., 416-588-7408, smokesignalsbarbecue.ca

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This perennial pop-up has settled into a permanent home on Dundas West. Drawing on inspiration from across the southern U.S., pitmaster Nick Chen-Yin smokes up a BBQ Belt greatest hits menu: from South Carolina, smoky pulled pork dressed in a vinegary sauce; from Memphis, dry-rubbed pork ribs seasoned with paprika and pepper; and, from central Texas, jalapeño-cheddar sausages that snap like a bullwhip. Classic sides include creamy mac and cheese and savoury baked beans studded with the brisket’s burnt ends. Even if it’s not served directly from the bag, there’s still something shamefully delicious about a good Frito pie, as this smoked chili and crema version proves. To drink: barbecue-friendly beers—and bourbon, of course.

Torteria San Cosme
181 Baldwin St., 416-599-2855, sancosme.ca

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This Kensington sandwich shop, owned by Arturo Anhalt of the Milagro restaurants, specializes in tortas, the Mexican equivalent of a sub. Here, Anhalt strikes a balance between Mexican authenticity—which mostly takes the form of imported tamarind candies, Corona, sugary pop and furiously bubbly Topo Chico sparkling water—and loyalty to the neighbourhood. The tortas are made on plush buns baked across the street at Blackbird, and filled with steak or pulled pork from the neighbouring butcher Sanagan’s. The standouts are the Milanesa (a breaded chicken cutlet with slices of avocado, manchego cheese and a relatively mild chipotle mayo that’s easily corrected by one of the available choose-your-dosage hot sauces), and the Nopales (avocado, bouncy panela cheese, sautéed cactus, and a salsa of tomatillos and serrano chilies). There are churros for dessert, but, if you have room, go for a cob of corn they’ve coated, street-style, with crema and cotija cheese.

Breakfast patty melt. Need we say more? 🍳🍔😛

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White Lily Diner
678 Queen St. E., 416-901-7800, whitelilydiner.ca

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He’s got 20 years and six kitchens under his apron strings, but with his newest venture, chef Ben Denham is keeping it small and simple. The focus is on southern classics done up in surprising ways, and made with is local meats and produce. Golden rosti-like hash browns come topped with malt mayo and green onion, and charred broccoli, dusted with shaved aged ricotta, swims in a naughty-but-nice sausage gravy. Delicately smoked salmon and tuna arrive with greens and a surprisingly well-matched asiago and lemon dip. Of a list of four patty melts, the Reuben stacks house-made rye with (also house-made) sauerkraut, a pink-in-the-middle beef patty, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese. Desserts are all made on the premises, too: butter tarts hide maple- and bourbon-plumped raisins, and perfect yeast doughnuts, including one glazed with chocolate and finished with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt. Service is super-friendly and diner-fast.

Clarification

December 20, 2016

While this list originally included 20 of our favourite restaurants, unfortunately Bar Mar has closed.