Family-style dinner The Queen and Beaver 35 Elm St., 647-347-2712
The Sunday feasting menu at Elm Street’s authentic British pub is aptly named: for $22 a person, chef Andrew Carter will brine a loin of Ontario pork for two days before slowly roasting it and presenting it whole, bones included, for the head of the table to slice and serve. A bevy of seasonal sides—like golden beets, roasted root veg, mashed potatoes, heirloom carrots and green beans—is included, along with homemade apple sauce. Reservations are required by Thursday to give the kitchen time to prepare. Minimum five people.
Raw fish fix Agave y Aguacate 214 Augusta Ave., 647-208-3091
Some of the best street food in the city comes courtesy of Agave y Aguacate’s smooth-talking, fedora-sporting chef Francisco Alejandri. With only a bar fridge and a few burners in a makeshift Kensington Market food court, he turns out fresh and tangy ceviche tostadas worthy of any well-established restaurant. A freshly fried corn tortilla is piled three inches high with avocado (scooped out of its skin while you wait) and limed-soaked white fish finely chopped and tossed with tomatoes, carrot, cilantro and hot habanero peppers. It comes on a kitschy gingham-lined paper plate with a promise from Alejandri: “Believe me, you’re going to love this”—and he’s right. $7.50.
Timbit alternative Little Nicky’s 375 Queen St. W., 416-260-0500
If you grew up going to the CNE, chances are your brain’s pleasure centre is rigged to explode at the whiff of a frying mini doughnut. At the Amélie-esque café just off Queen West’s shopping stretch, the baristas beat the batter by hand and feed it into a device called the Donut Robot, which pumps out the bite-sized comfort bombs to order. Served lip-searingly hot, perfectly doughy in the middle and coated in crunchy white sugar and cinnamon, they’re the highest-intensity hit of nostalgia you’ll find for less than a fiver. $4 per dozen.
Locavore dinner Zócalo 1426 Bloor St. W., 647-342-1567
Over the last few years, we’ve grown used to dropping $150 on virtuous Ontario-grown dinners. In the Junction Triangle, there’s a genuine hole in the wall (easily missed signage, 30-odd seats, decor resembling your great-aunt Gladys’s parlour) serving creative dishes that top out at $13. The latest menu proffers all manner of mid-winter comforts. The best pick is a massive stew pot of pork-and-prune meatballs with braised cabbage. On the side, there’s oven-fresh buttermilk apple cornbread (you’ll be slapping away your tablemates’ hands, so order an extra helping), mushroom-walnut pâté and whipped garlic confit. It’s the kind of humble, filling food that almost makes you glad
Southern feast Acadia 50C Clinton St., 416-792-6002
Okay, it isn’t super cheap, but hear us out. At Acadia, the most ambitious restaurant to open last year, the precise (i.e., control-freaky) chef Matt Blondin serves a six-dish tasting menu that shows off his singular lowcountry-as-high-culinary-art style of cooking. Blondin prepares a collection of southern staples such as cornbread, shrimp and grits, dirty rice balls and short ribs using more unusual ingredients (chow chow, Louisiana mirlitons, molecularly manipulated buttermilk powder) than you can Google between courses. It’s an ingenious mix of comfort, luxury and lightness, and much more affordable than ordering à la carte. $69.
Pre-theatre prix fixe Nota Bene 180 Queen St. W., 416-977-6400
Dinner in the theatre district usually means wolfing down tourist-priced bistro food while making multiple requests for the outsized bill before curtain. Nota Bene, the plush and professional Asian-Italian restaurant, cuts down on the rush and the bill with a three-course prix fixe on performance evenings at the Four Seasons Centre from 5 to 6:30 p.m. The courses are designed thoughtfully so you can mix the exotic (goji berry–dotted hot-and-sour soup) with the refined (seared Mediterranean sea bass) with the upscale-campy (a caramel-and-Kahlua-drizzled brownie). Plus, servers of superhuman efficiency mean you have time to enjoy it. $42.
Barbecue for two Barque Smokehouse 299 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-532-7700
Of the many barbecue joints to open in Toronto in the last few years, Barque is the most stylish, forgoing plastic bibs and crusty hot sauce bottles for flattering lighting and a sommelier-designed wine list. Pitmaster David Neinstein proves almost everything is better after a few hours over smouldering cherry and apple wood—lemons, bourbon, pineapple, asparagus and,of course, meat. The sampler plate for two brings plenty of it for a bargain. Diners select three of five options: a half-rack of peppery baby back ribs or beef ribs, a stack of fork-tender brisket, smoked sausages, or two fat chicken thighs glazed in sweet, vinegary red barbecue sauce. Our three favourite sides (from a choice of seven) add smoky refinement to the feast: smoked beets with chèvre on mustard greens, smoked root vegetables with sage-tinged butter, and gnocchi in smoked tomato sauce. $40.
Gourmet lunch Sense Appeal 96 Spadina Ave., 416-907-8524
This is the kind of café you wish were in the bottom of your office building. Last fall, owner Peter Adamo built a miniscule open kitchen (three cooks fill it with organized chaos) in his espresso shop and began to make delicious lunches that are far more ambitious than the IKEA-chair-and-paper-napkin setting they’re served in. He uses seasonal veggies and mostly organic meats in creative specials like Nunavut caribou chili and Ontario bison French onion soup. Salads and sandwiches are excellent value. The organic chicken tagliata salad comes with a huge, juicy breast on pancetta-laced wilted radicchio and sautéed mushrooms, with ripe tomato and buffalo mozzarella on the side. All for $11, roughly the cost of a mechanically cut, microwave chicken–topped salad at the Subway just up the street.
Craft beer Bar Volo 587 Yonge St., 416-928-0008
Toronto’s much-heralded craft beer revolution has a much-less-heralded downside: shelling out seven or eight bucks for a pint. Which is why Bar Volo, an early evangelist for tasty brews in the city, is packed every week for its $5 Monday night pints. Discerning hop-heads will want to consult the bar’s Tumblr, where staff post blurry snaps of the daily list of drafts and casks, all from small regional brewers.
Korean tofu soup Tofu Village 681 Bloor St. W., 647-345-3836
A bowl of the steaming and pleasantly spicy soon tofu soup at this bright and cheerful Koreatown favourite is a middle finger raised to winter. The complimentary sides (kimchee, sweet potatoes, bean sprouts and more tofu) and stone pot of purple rice will do their part to fill you up, but the main attraction is the ethereally silky cubes of fresh tofu. $6.95.
Souvlaki Folia Grill 1031 Pape Ave., 416-424-2800
Toronto is home to many Greek fast-food restaurants, but Pape’s Folia Grill is the rare one that rises high above the standard. A skewer of pork souvlaki, seared to order, is made with the fatty, flavourful belly meat and perfectly seasoned. It costs less than a toonie, making it a perfect solution to those after-work but pre-dinner hunger pangs. $1.95.
Noodles Kenzo Ramen 372 Bloor St. W., 416-921-6787
Inside a bowl of tonkotsu ramen, thinly shaved slices of fatty, almost-sweet roast pork fight for space with crunchy sprouts, green onions, baby bok choi, a perfectly cooked egg and, of course, mounds of chewy, slurpy alkaline noodles, all bathing in a preposterously meaty and milky pork bone broth. $10.
Cantina platter Milagro 5 Mercer St., 416-850-2855 (plus two other GTA locations)
Milagro is one of Toronto’s best Mexican restaurants—and unfortunately also the most expensive. But for a relatively cheap $67, three or four people can fill themselves up on the cantina platter, which allows you to build your own tacos with fresh corn tortillas and three kinds of pulled meat: banana leaf–roasted lamb barbacoa, spicy chicken tingas and pork carnitas. There’s also Mexican rice, fried plantains, refried beans and stewed potatoes with corn and poblano chilies. An extra $33 brings a bucket of six cold bottles of Dos Equis.
Bubbly Villa Sandi Prosecco LCBO
Sure, prosecco may lack the luminescence of fine champagne, but it’s light, lively, blessedly cheap and finally shucking its reputation as the exclusive tipple of Paris Hilton. The LBCO’s selection includes Villa Sandi, a charming sparkler with exceptionally fresh flavours of apple, white almond and shortbread. With the money you save, you can afford to buy an extra bottle for your hair-of-the-dog brunch the next day (it goes perfectly with fruit and croissants). $13.85.
By Andrew D’Cruz, Matthew Hague, Rachel Heinrichs, Emily Landau, David Lawrason, Jason McBride, Mark Pupo, Peter Saltsman and Courtney Shea. (Images: Queen and Beaver and Little Nicky’s by Ryan Szulc; Agave y Aguacate and Barque Smokehouse by Jess Baumung; Craft Beer by Igor Yu)