Toronto chefs, restaurateurs and regulars pay tribute to the restaurants and bars we lost in 2020

Toronto chefs, restaurateurs and regulars pay tribute to the restaurants and bars we lost in 2020

2020 was a year filled with goodbyes: to our ways of life, to physical contact with friends and family, to pants with zippers, and to way too many of the bars and restaurants that make Toronto’s dining scene diverse and delicious. We asked local chefs, restaurateurs and longtime restaurant regulars to pay tribute to their favourite haunts, without which our city feels a little less vibrant.

Brothers jumped on the takeout train in the early days of the pandemic Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
Brothers (2016)

Jess Allen, TV host and writer
Brothers was the first place I would think of when someone asked for a recommendation. It was the place where I wanted to take people who mean something to me. There are special occasion restaurants and there are the go-to neighbourhood spots. I’m not sure how they did it, but Brothers was both. My partner, Simon, and I would go before a movie at the Manulife Centre or afterwards to talk about the movie over a glass of wine that I’d never heard of before. I brought my mom—who is not one for fussy, showy dining—for dinner at Brothers. Her giant pork chop came out on the bone and at one point I though she might just pick it up and start gnawing. The menu was constantly changing. I would be so sad to see something like the butter lettuce salad with crème fraiche dressing disappear, but then a different dish would come along that was just as delicious and memorable. The New York Times review called them iconoclasts, which says more about the state of dining because all Brothers wanted to do was take care of people. And boy, did they. Everything just felt instinctual and natural. It was all about the art of hospitality where you don’t notice the work, you just have an exceptional time.

Montecito (2014)

Shinan Govani, society scribe
Montecito is a good example of a particular brand of Toronto restaurants that is a little bit dormant for most of the year and then totally comes alive during TIFF. It had a lot of buzz even before it opened—with the Reitman connection, it was almost like a sister venue to the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the chef was Jonathan Waxman, who pretty much invented California cuisine. The restaurant was a representation of what the film festival has become over the last decade, which is less a local thing and more a Hollywood satellite. Right out of the gate they brought in big names. They hosted the opening night party for The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. In 2017 they did the party for I, Tonya, which had its world premiere in Toronto. The energy in the room that night was like they had just shuttled a rocket. And then there was the party for Our Brand In Crisis, where George Clooney spent something like five hours at the restaurant hanging out and having fun. Most of these TIFF events have become pretty paint-by-numbers: the celebrity makes their contractually required appearance and then they go back to their penthouse. Clooney is known for being a guy who likes to party but for a relatively new restaurant, that kind of publicity is priceless. I think I left before he did!

The Beaver (2006)

Alana Nogueda, owner of The Shameful Tiki
I moved to Toronto from Las Vegas in 2009 and there weren’t a lot of queer spaces then, especially outside of the Village. The Beaver was one of those places where there was always something going on—live karaoke nights or drag performances. My partner did burlesque shows there so I would often go by after closing up my bar, which was just down the street, to watch her and have an extra-large negroni. I know they served food—they were famous for their buck-a-shuck oyster nights—but it was never really about the food, so much as the people that gathered there. I had a Christmas get-together there one year with a bunch of my friends, and in typical Beaver fashion, we all ended up in the back room singing with a bunch of strangers who became friends. As a queer owner of a bar, I can say that there aren’t a lot of such places, especially not like the Beaver which was intended as a place for queer people, even though it was welcoming to everyone. It really is a huge loss.

Cold Tea’s back patio Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
Cold Tea (2010)

Cory Vitiello, chef
Cold Tea was a neighbourhood bar, but it was also a real gathering spot for people in the restaurant industry. In a very competitive industry Cold Tea was somewhere chefs, servers, line cooks and dishwashers could come together and have a chance to actually sit down and talk, rather than just seeing each other in passing. I think of all the ideas for pop-ups and collaborations that were hatched over a few drinks there. Everything about the place was so welcoming and warm—it really captured that Kensington feel of being a bit of a hole in the wall, but also really curated. To get to it, you had to go down a hallway of an old strip mall and then through a door that looked  like the entrance to a public urinal—but it opened up to the most awesome place. I would go by after work a lot, but the big thing were the Sunday barbecues on the back patio in the summer when the grills were fired up and everyone was drinking beer out of plastic cups. These are hard times for everyone in the industry, but to see Cold Tea close really feels like the end of an era.

Kit Kat Italian Italian Bar (1989)

David Mirvish, theatre impresario
Kit Kat was a pioneer in the Theatre District. There are a lot of other restaurants that have come and gone along that strip of King West, but Kit Kat was a constant. Before it was Kit Kat, it was a variety store—I think owner Al Carbone used to sell hot dogs outside. Eventually it became the place where people would go for a meal before the theatre. For me, it was where deals were made and where successes were celebrated. My father used to take all of his actors there before my time—his picture is on the wall among many other notable patrons. When Sting was in Toronto for The Last Ship, he had lunch and dinner at Kit Kat. There were a lot of really talented chefs who worked there over the years, but Al was the one who created the environment. He remembered the names of everyone he met; he was always so friendly but never intrusive. He would even stay open a little late so that performers could stop in to eat after performances. With a lot of our productions, actors had to move to Toronto for a few weeks. They needed somewhere to call home and Kit Kat was that spot—it was almost like a clubhouse. I have so many fond memories and it’s so sad to see it go.

Outside Nish Dish’s Koreatown restaurant Photo by Caroline Aksich
Nish Dish (2017)

Joshna Maharaj, chef and food activist
With chef-owner Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, it was never just a plate of food. Don’t get me wrong, the food is really, really good—his elk stew is some of the best I’ve ever had, and he does this cranberry wild rice thing that is delicious. But Nish Dish was also about the story and sharing these cultural traditions through food. We boast a lot about how diverse Toronto is, and how easily we can get great food from the furthest corners of the planet made here at any time of day. But it’s been a real problem that Indigenous food has not had a place in our culinary landscape. Nish Dish was doing a lot to fill that hole by sharing Anishinaabe cuisine and education about Indigenous food sovereignty with Torontonians. Nish Dish was also a community hub and a gathering place. I remember going in there in the summer and having their sweetgrass cold tea, and thinking “How have I lived in this city for 20 years and this is the first time I’m trying this?” I am really thankful that a place like Nish Dish existed. Thank you, chef Johl. I hope you find another way to share your food with us again.

The Boat (1976)

Nick Liu, chef
I found out about The Boat when I was in my twenties. My cousin met his girlfriend—who is now his wife—at one of their dance nights. As far as really weird, quirky, totally unique places, I’m not sure there is a better example. You walk in and you’re like, “What is this place?” It’s a total dive and then you realize that it’s the interior of a ship—the planking, the porthole windows. They had Motown nights and guest deejays, but I loved the Yacht Rock nights. After days or weeks of non-stop work at whatever restaurant I was employed at, the Boat was where I would go to unwind, unload and dance for hours on end. Hundreds of people sweating together, pressed up against each other—it’s hard to imagine we’ll be doing that anytime soon. I hadn’t been in a couple of years, but it still hurts seeing establishments that are such a big part of the city close down. I know things will get better, but these kinds of places aren’t coming back.

Gandhi’s Roti (1995)

Roger Yang, restaurateur
Gandhi’s made amazing roti and the portions were ridiculously big. My go-to orders were the spinach and potato or the eggplant and potato. For a long time my office was in the neighbourhood, so Gandhi’s was part of my regular lunch rotation. It was just really delicious, fresh, affordable food that reflected the diversity of the city—Indian flavours with a Caribbean influence. Now we see  South Asian roti in Toronto a lot, but I think Gandhi’s was one of the first places to do that—at least that I know of. I will miss their food, but it’s more than that. Gandhi’s is indicative of the kinds of restaurants that are most vulnerable to the pandemic: small, family-run spots that make Toronto’s food scene what it is. They’re not flashy, they don’t get covered as much in the media, but they are beloved. When Gandhi’s announced they were closing, they sold out for days. Everyone wanted one last roti. Fortunately, the chef has taken over—it’s now called Roti Mahal—and the menu is mostly the same!

Chef Suzanne Barr’s massive, fluffy buckwheat flapjacks Photo by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott
True True Diner (2019)

Bashir Munye, chef and culinary instructor at George Brown
I loved True True because I’m a big fan of chef Suzanne Barr, but also because I live close by and it was exactly the kind of place I wanted in my neighbourhood. I would describe it as an urban chic, Afrocentric diner. The space was really bright and welcoming, the art and the décor included a lot of nods to Suzanne’s Caribbean heritage, and of course the food was spectacular. I would often stop in on my way to work for some cornbread and house-made spreads. If I was there for a meal it was always the peppa shrimp served with the heads on—if you know, you know—and that absolutely required getting the sauce all over your face. The restaurant’s name referenced True True Pizza, which used to be at the same location, but I think it also says a lot about Suzanne and the kind of environment she was creating. As a Black person, it is so refreshing to be in a space that feels like home—we really don’t have a lot of places like that in Toronto. It’s so sad to see a spot with so much promise close before it even had a chance to thrive.

Ruby Watchco (2008)

Jann Arden, entertainer
I first heard about Ruby Watchco because I was a big fan of chef Lynn Crawford’s show Pitchin’ In on the Food Network. She always made me laugh my ass off, so when I heard that she had a restaurant I just had to go. This was almost 10 years ago, before Leslieville was filled with restaurants. I remember seeing Lynn and it was like a fan girl moment. She was so gracious and lovely, and we’ve since become friends. Ruby Watchco was one of my favourite places to go any time I was in Toronto. I had dinner with Arlene Dickinson there, and another time with Marilyn Dennis—always at my favourite table in the corner. One time I brought the entire crew from one of my tours. There were around 30 of us. I asked chef Lynn to organize something special and I swear the food didn’t stop coming. Back when I was still drinking, Ruby Watchco was a dangerous place to go because my glass was never empty. These days, local and sustainable food is everywhere, but chef Lynn and chef Lora [Kirk] were early to that. Covid has been brutal for the restaurant industry, but I have no doubt that innovation will save us. It’s the same as any type of artistic work—and I’ve definitely experienced this in the music industry. There’s no point in wishing things would go back to how they were—creativity is about moving forward. I can’t wait to see what Lynn and Lora do next.

Cauliflower getting some special treatment at Woodlot Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
Woodlot (2010)

Anthony Rose, chef and restaurateur
Today, the whole idea of really delicious, simple ingredients is something we see at a lot of at top restaurants. But Woodlot was one of the first places to really embrace that—not just farm-to-table, but also doing fine dining in a relaxed environment. It was almost deceiving in the sense that the whole feel of Woodlot was so welcoming and cozy with so many nooks and crannies and that big wood-burning oven. The vibe was laissez faire, but then the food was totally meticulous. I live nearby, so I loved to stroll over and grab a seat on one of the stools. One of the things they were quite famous for was their duck cabbage roll, which was just ridiculous, and the terrines were another favourite. I know a lot of people call Woodlot the ultimate first date spot, but to me it was the place for a second date—when you know the person is worth the effort and you want to impress them. I regret not going more often before they closed. I really wish I could grab a stool one more time and order a martini. Or two.