Chefs, bakers and hobbyists used their time in lockdown, and the power of Instagram, to pursue their kitchen passion projects

It’s been a year since anyone has eaten a juicy rib-eye or a bowl of impossibly fragrant Thai curry—or anything, for that matter—inside a packed Toronto restaurant, an experience once as central to life in this food-obsessed town as piling onto the streetcar at rush hour. (That, we don’t miss.) Since then, more than 10,000 restaurants have reportedly closed across Canada—hundreds in Toronto—taking countless jobs along with them. The rest continue to scrape by on a mix of takeout, delivery and outdoor dining, along with Covid relief funds and, if they’re lucky, flexible landlords.

But for all the red ink, the past year has also been one of mind-boggling reinvention and sweat-soaked resilience that deserve the highest of accolades. Take, for example, the bold chefs and restaurateurs plowing ahead with plans to open shiny new dining spaces, pandemic be damned, that will feel like a culinary windfall when it’s safe to once again welcome guests. Or the creative and delicious ways these restaurants, and others, have found to package the in-restaurant experience—from the food to the ambience—for home consumption, making our own four walls feel, if just for one meal, like the real deal.

But perhaps the most exciting development of this fraught period is the explosion of entrepreneurial passion projects that have popped up in virtually every corner of the city, with homebound cooks and bakers and enthusiasts of all culinary persuasions selling the food of their dreams with nothing more than an oven and an Instagram page. It all amounts to a reshaped culinary landscape that promises to steer our dining habits long after the pandemic fades and we all start obsessing over OpenTable bookings again. Here’s what that looks like right now.

More Toronto dining in 2021:

Brave New Restaurants
Opening a restaurant in a pandemic takes patience, plenty of PPE and, above all, guts. Here, our favourite newcomers

Takeout Experiences
This isn’t your average grab-and-go. These prix-fixe multi-course meals package up everything required to replicate the restaurant at home—almost

For enlightening Chinese feasts

With their plan to open a dine-in Chinese restaurant paused by the pandemic, chefs David Schwartz, Braden Chong and Keith Liu needed a way to keep honing their meticulously researched recipes. So they came up with a made-for-takeout concept called Sunny’s Chinese, serving dinners from the back of their would-be space near Avenue and Davenport every two weeks. Each meal is a feast built around a region, from Sichuan to Guangdong. Thoughtful tasting notes accompany the meal, outlining the techniques and ingredients used in dishes like the hidden chicken, which is crispy, spicy and buried under a mountain of aromatics, and practically humming with the tongue-tingling properties of Sichuan peppercorns—in Sunny’s parlance, a “vibrational mouthfeel.” Every meal is like an education, in the most delicious way possible. How to order: Sign up for the email newsletter at for dates and pickup information


For super-trendy birria tacos

The pandemic cost Aldo Lopez his job in construction, and his wife, Maria, lost her job in customer service. That’s when they decided to launch Tacos Maria Bonita, named for Aldo’s grandmothers, mother and, yes, wife. Operating out of a commercial kitchen in the west end, they specialize in Tijuana-style birria de res, the hearty Mexican stew currently on a popularity bender across North America. Lopez marinates beef for 24 hours in a blend of 18 chilies and spices, followed by an eight-hour simmer that yields an unctuous and ridiculously flavourful orange-tinted braising liquid called consomé. The meltingly tender meat is stuffed inside either plain tacos, mulitas (fried corn tortillas with cheese) or quesabirrias (a birria meat-filled quesadilla), and the move is to dunk those bad boys in a cup of the accompanying liquid. Tacos are sold by the kilo or half-kilo of meat, and come with all the fixings. How to order: Email tacosmariaboni[email protected] by Wednesday for weekend pickup at Jane Station


For oodles of handmade noodles

Jess Maiorano was cooking at Woodlot—making tortellini, tagliatelle and other classic pasta shapes she’d learned to make growing up—before the restaurant went dark at the start of the pandemic. Rather than hunt for a new gig right away, Maiorano kept on doing what she loves doing, and started Pasta Forever, selling her homemade pasta through Instagram under the name @pastaforeverto. The business took off, and the orders haven’t stopped. Maiorano experiments with variations rarely seen on restaurant menus, like rope-shaped lorighittas or candy-shaped caramelle pasta with roasted beets. Her online shop also features sauces and add-ons like dandelion walnut pesto, truffle butter and focaccia. How to order: Visit


For a pair of top-chef smash burgers

It’s the slimmest of silver linings, but so many of Toronto’s culinary pros have been pushed toward new passion projects by the pandemic. Count Matty Matheson and Victor Barry among them—they both independently decided now was the moment to create their perfect grill-pressed smash burger. Matty’s Patty’s Burger Club (left), which opened across from Trinity Bellwoods in October, features lacy-edged brisket and chuck patties with American cheese and a choice of sauces on sesame-studded buns. Victory Burger, which operates out of Piano Piano’s Harbord and Mount Pleasant kitchens, starts with a house-baked Japanese milk bun to cradle its patties, adding cheddar, pickles, onion and Victory sauce. They’re two approaches to the same endgame: full-bellied burger bliss. How to order:;


For a festive taste of West Africa

Victor Ugwueke learned to cook at his family’s restaurant in Lagos, and dreamed of running his own West African joint. Cut loose by the pandemic from his job as head chef at Tabule, he saw his moment. He’s taken over the kitchen at Bloor West’s Caravan Cafe and Tea House, where he cooks classic and contemporary Nigerian dishes on Thursday to Sunday nights. Afrobeat Kitchen’s specialty is party jollof, the country’s iconic rice dish cooked with lemongrass, star anise, a sofrito reduction, a lingering undertone of smoked crayfish and a choice of spiced chicken, prawns or beef, served with fried plantains and vegetables. Colourful, smoky and spicy all at once, party is right. How to order: Pickup or delivery via Ritual, SkipTheDishes and Uber Eats


For the closely guarded butter chicken recipe

Before the pandemic hit, Becca Pereira was juggling two receptionist jobs. She got laid off, but her newfound downtime gave her a chance to explore an old, hand-written book of family recipes. In October, she started selling her homestyle Indian cooking out of the Depanneur, a Dufferin Grove commissary kitchen, and Spice Girl Eats was born. Pereira’s rotating menus are a tour through her spice collection, which includes blends passed down from her great-grandmother. Her butter chicken is the dish that keeps people coming back: it’s tangier and lighter than most restaurant varieties, and it’s paired with sourdough naan (made by Pereira’s sister) topped with garlic butter and Maldon salt. How to order: Pre-order on Friday at


For fat Italian hoagies served out of a temporarily shuttered west-end bar

Former Chantecler chef Jesse Mutch always wanted to cook food influenced by his grandmother, Flora. He started Flora’s Deli, a sandwich pop-up with pals Thomas Conrad and Ailbhe McMahon over the summer, then turned the slumbering Mahjong Bar at Dundas and Dovercourt into a home base of sorts—a makeshift Italian deli. Mutch draws on childhood favourites from Flora’s table. One of three main items on the menu is the Cantina, a deceptively simple layering of mortadella, smoked turkey and hot Calabrese salami sharpened by giardiniera and deepened with Calabrian oregano, prized for its intense flavour. Also on the menu: Flora’s famous meatballs. How to order: For Wednesday to Sunday pickup, call 416-732-7922; delivery via Uber Eats


For multi-layered slabs of lasagna

Osteria Rialto executive chef Basilio Pesce was known for his hefty, ridiculously cheesy lasagna from his days at Parkdale’s Porzia. So during the pandemic, he started Porzia’s Lasagne to give the dish new life, selling trays of the stuff from Osteria Rialto’s Bloor and Ossington kitchen every Friday. Ingredients are everything. San Marzanos, the gold standard of canned tomatoes, are the base of both the meatless and bolognese sauces. The pasta, rolled fresh the day it’s sold, is made from bright-yellow-yolked Conestoga eggs and a mix of 00 and semolina flour. He rolls the sheets as thin as he can and squeezes about a dozen layers of pasta, sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and pecorino into a tray, totalling nearly four golden-brown pounds each. How to order: Pre-order Mondays at 11 a.m. at


For family-style Filipino feasts

At the end of 2020, Keanu Francisco, sous chef at King West restaurant Sara, was rattled by the state of the industry and considering a career change. Cooking at home one day, he made his mother’s kare-kare, a Filipino peanut and beef stew, on a whim. He posted further experiments with Filipino food on Instagram, and, based on the enthusiastic feedback, Kusinera—a pop-up on the last Sunday and Monday of each month—was born. The name means “female cook” in Tagalog, and the project is a homage to influential women in his life—especially his mother. His ensaymada tops soft, sweet bread with condensed milk, smoked cheddar and mozzarella for a taste of cheesy heaven; his tocino, a sweet pork shoulder, is vivid red with annatto and cures for three days. And a kamayan feast, the colourful, family-style medley of garlic fried rice, BBQ pork, crispy shrimp, lemongrass chicken and coconut curry—all served on a banana leaf—is in the works. How to order: Follow @kusineratoronto on Instagram


For pizza so good it helped this couple bootstrap a bona fide east-end pizzeria

Before the pandemic, husband-and-wife team Luke Pollard and Brianna Murray ran a construction and design company. They were also long-time pizza aficionados. Pollard spent years perfecting his ultra-light, crispy crust—he ferments it for more than three days—and the pair hosted pizza nights for friends every weekend. When Covid hit and their day job slowed down, they started One Night Only, selling pizza once a week from the back porch of their Riverdale home. Word of mouth took over from there, leading to thousands of hungry DMs, and—every home cook’s dream—enough momentum to open a brick-and-mortar shop on Pape south of the Danforth. How to order: Find details at @onenightonlypizza on Instagram


For homestyle Polish-Jewish comfort food Godfrey’s Supper Club

Chef Shauna Godfrey left her job as Momofuku Kōjin sous chef in February 2020, intending to travel before looking for a new job in the city. Her plans didn’t quite pan out for the usual 2020 reasons, so she decided to launch her own takeout business. Godfrey’s Supper Club is all about Polish-Jewish comfort food. Her rotating Thursday menus feature four generous courses, like fall-off-the-bone short ribs, a golden beet salad, a razor-thin potato leek gratin, and walnut coffee cake—all with homey, nourishing vibes inspired by the food she grew up on. Golden, just-sweet-enough challah buns—from a recipe by Godfrey’s 91-year-old grandmother—are a mainstay. Alongside a weekly set menu, Godfrey sells fridge and freezer staples in her “blue dot” menu, with items like cabbage rolls, house-made hot mustard and even bake-at-home buns. How to order: Pre-orders open Sundays at for Thursday pickup near Christie and Dupont or Yonge and York Mills


For kid-friendly dinners

Dustin Gallagher, the executive chef of 416 Snack Bar, and his partner, artist Flo Leung, initially conceived of their combined kitchen and art studio near Queen and Brock as a place to host private dinners. The pandemic had other ideas, so Gallagher and Leung decided instead to offer rotating takeout menus every couple of weeks. Each of the Noble House menus is centred around a different theme, like a French-forward homage to Julia Child or a family-style Italian-American dinner, which featured an enormous tray of cheesy baked ziti, eight giant meatballs, chili-flecked rapini and add-ons like chili oil, pesto and crispy fried shallots. The generously portioned meals are consciously kid-friendly and fit to feed an entire family—even one with mismatched tastes. How to order: Via for pickup Wednesday through Saturday


For fried chicken from a former Cambodian joint

Before everything went sideways last March, the Tuk Tuk Canteen team decided to reinvent their dine-in Cambodian restaurant, south of Bloor on Roncesvalles, as fried chicken counter Ding-A-Wing. “The branding, recipes and logistics were already planned,” says chef-owner Mike Tan. “Luck is when timing meets being prepared.” Tan’s ultra-crispy buttermilk fried chicken, brined in lemon, smoked paprika and thyme, confirms the pivot was smart in more ways than one. The bestseller is the fried chicken sandwich slathered in honey-dill sauce with pickles and cabbage slaw on a Martin’s potato roll. It’s best with a side of the eternally crispy thick-cut fries spiced with cayenne salt. How to order: Delivery and pickup via


For a futuristic twist on a Middle Eastern restaurant

Before the pandemic struck, Mohamad Fakih of Paramount Fine Foods was already planning to open a casual restaurant inspired by mid-century automats. By the time Box’d opened at King and Yonge in July, the idea of a digitized dining experience completely free of human contact, with orders placed online and collected from a wall of sanitized cubbies, felt extremely prescient—a business model for the Covid age. Rest assured, there are actual chefs working behind the wall of cubbies, making tasty black truffle hummus bowls and Moroccan couscous paired with your choice of tofu or lamb. How to order: Visit to schedule a pickup


For painstaking sourdough baked goods

Breadhead, a sourdough-forward bakery project, was newly out-of-work baker Lucy Kirby’s solution not only to pandemic fatigue, but the yeast shortage from the earliest days of lockdown. Relying instead on natural leavening gave her baked goods a deeper, more complex flavour. Her home-based business quickly gained enough momentum to take over a commercial kitchen in the east end before moving into White Squirrel Coffee Shop at Queen and Strachan in February. Kirby’s pillowy doughnuts, tangy cinnamon buns, flaky croissants and crackly chocolate-chip cookies are all imbued with sourdough starter. The bakery also specializes in cakes, like whimsical tie-dye vanilla, and rich, golden Basque cheesecake. How to order: Pre-order for Friday-to-Sunday pickup or delivery at

More on Toronto dining during the pandemic:

Brave New Restaurants
Opening a restaurant in a pandemic takes patience, plenty of PPE and, above all, guts. Here, our favourite newcomers

Takeout Experiences
This isn’t your average grab-and-go. These prix-fixe multi-course meals package up everything required to replicate the restaurant at home—almost

This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.