Letter From the Editor: The triumphant return of dining out

Letter From the Editor: The triumphant return of dining out

Restaurants give us a chance to escape the daily grind and breathe in the energy of the city

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Picture this. You’ve spent years in the restaurant industry. It’s backbreaking labour, emotionally fraught, financially perilous. But you love the work, and after a few years you’ve scraped together some savings. With a deep breath, you decide to launch your own restaurant. It’ll be ambitious: a large space that spares no expense, with room for live entertainment and, if the mood strikes, a little impromptu dancing.

You order flooring from Italy, a custom ceiling from Mexico, gorgeous lighting from Germany. The credit card runs hot. But you can almost see the customers, sated and punch-drunk, in your space. You forge ahead, hiring a management team and reviewing resumés for servers.

Two months from opening day, the unthinkable happens: a virus sweeps in. Tools down, work stops. That flooring is trapped in a Tuscan warehouse. Talented chefs and servers abandon the industry, never to return. Bills mount. You apply for relief from the government, but because you haven’t yet opened you don’t qualify. Your dream is being slowly crushed, and you’re powerless to save it.

For two years, this nightmare scenario was a reality for business partners Robin Goodfellow and Amanda Bradley. And with each shutdown and new obstacle, the case for cutting and running became stronger. Yet they never considered it. “I could have left it all behind and become, I don’t know, a banker in Bracebridge…but why?” Goodfellow told me recently. He’s one of the finest bartenders in the city, and he’s been a driving force behind Bar Raval, Harry’s Charbroiled and PrettyUgly. In the restaurant business, he said, there are nights when the room hums at just the right frequency‚ when the chefs, servers, bartenders and customers are locked into the same perfect rhythm, and everything just clicks.

Photograph by Rick O'Brien

The idea of those perfect nights kept Bradley and Goodfellow going through each wave of Covid. And whether by luck, perseverance or madness, they opened the doors to Vela last summer. The space evokes a stylish hotel lobby bar—all shiny, sleek and low lit—with great food and sublime cocktails. When I walked in recently with some colleagues, I was instantly transported to the before times and, watching the beautiful people eat, drink and gossip, was reminded of the crucial role that places like Vela—big or small, elegant or casual—play in a city as dense as ours. They’re a kind of communal dinner table, an extension of our living spaces, where we catch up, commiserate, connect. Some of my favourite Toronto memories are of lingering over dessert with friends, nursing a healthy buzz, swapping apocryphal stories. Those nights out offer us a chance to escape the mundanity of the daily grind, to dress up or down, to breathe in the energy of the city. Put simply, restaurants make us feel alive.

And so it is with pride and joy that we launch our annual Where To Eat Now issue into the world. Compiled by my colleagues Alex Baldinger and Rebecca Fleming, and a talented contributor named Liza Agrba, the package highlights the very best in new dining, and it celebrates the bold, brave culinary creators (including Goodfellow and Bradley) who refused to give up even when the world seemed bleak. Restaurants are back. Here’s hoping they’re here to stay. We need them as much as they need us.

Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be found on Twitter at @malcjohnston