Why Toronto’s west side has more (and better) restaurants than the east

Why Toronto’s west side has more (and better) restaurants than the east

(Illustration: Brett Lamb)

Toronto’s first all-charcuterie restaurant wasn’t The Black Hoof on Dundas West. It was Pic Nic, and it quietly opened in the summer of 2008 on Queen East, just past Broadview. There were no crowds, no press, no buzz, no loud music—staff just sliced the meat and put it on a plate. It’s now closed.

The west side’s restaurant scene does receive a lot of attention, and it seems the spots in the east are often neglected. There are plenty of great places to eat on the east side, particularly as you head further into Scarborough—it just hasn’t exploded the way the west side has over the last five years. Why?

Demographics and development

For the purpose of kitchen inspections, Toronto Public Health divides the city into zones. The downtown zone (Parkside Ave. to Victoria Park Ave., and Eglinton Ave. to the waterfront) is split in two: west of the Don River and essentially south of Bloor there are a whopping 4,627 places that serve food including restaurants, bars, hotels and cafeterias. East of the river, and across a much larger area, there are only 2,544.

“Parkdale has a lot of 20-to-40-year-olds with disposable income,” suggests Stephen Murphy, a commercial real estate consultant who specializes in restaurants. “Hipsters, and people who go out more.” That seems like a fair, if anecdotal, description, but couldn’t the same be said for Leslieville, Riverdale and the Beach? We asked Peter Viducis, manager of research and information systems for the City of Toronto, to compare two popular neighbourhoods on opposites sides of the divide: Parkdale and Leslieville.

Based on data from the 2011 census, there are actually more people living in Leslieville (29,000) than Parkdale (27,000). Viducis looked at the variables of not just total population, but daytime population (people who work, but don’t live, in the area), household income and number of household occupants, and couldn’t find a significant relationship that would account for the disparity in the number of restaurants. The standout factor, however, is density: at 13,804 people per square kilometre, Parkdale has 1.6 times the population density of Leslieville, which means more potential customers in a smaller space. Condo construction sites are fewer and farther between on the east side.

Real estate

I’ve had friends with kids move to the east side to score a slightly more affordable home, which led me to think that all real estate is cheaper east of the Don River. According to Murphy, a Queen East restaurant space is comparable, at approximately $35–$40 per square foot, to one on Queen West. He placed La Carnita on Queen near Broadview and the as-yet-unopened craft brew pub (run by Fab Concepts, the company behind Brazen Head, Pogue Mahone, Mill Street Brew Pub, etc.) in the old Dominion Hotel spot. He’s seen interest in the area from chains, but only from a handful of young chefs looking to open their first restaurant. And even the established restaurateurs are MIA. “I take calls from landlords, developers and real estate agents about locations and opportunities,” says Charles Khabouth, who owns seven successful restaurants—Patria, Byblos, Weslodge, La Société, Spice Route, NAO and America—all located west of Yonge Street. “No one has called me in 10 years about one location on the east side.”

No one wants to go first

In 2004, Jeff Stober’s renovation of the Drake Hotel got a frosty reception from some in the neighbourhood, but it galvanized the renaissance of West Queen West, an area that was largely quiet during the day and dead at night. Ossington Avenue was a commercial ghost town before chef Tom Thai opened his South Asian–inspired Foxley restaurant in 2007. At that time, restaurateurs could lock in a lease for $1,800 a month (for an 1,800-square-foot space). Now it’s more like $6,000.

It takes a special type of entrepreneur to be the first, to risk their savings to find out if locals will support the type of food they’re serving, and if outsiders will drive, cycle or take transit to try it. Not all the food on Ossington is as exotic as Thai’s at Foxley, but it took something bold (his arctic char with ginger and apple is still king of Toronto ceviches) to bring outside diners to an area where they didn’t normally go. Jen Agg did it with The Black Hoof on Dundas West; Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan did it with Grand Electric in Parkdale. Someone’s got to plant a bigger flag on the east side.

Restaurants stick together

Nick Liu spent two years looking at dozens of possible locations for DaiLo, his modern Chinese restaurant in Little Italy. He considered the volume of business in the area, how many restaurants were operating in the vicinity and if there were already spots similar to the one he wanted to open.

Liu lives on the east side, but commutes every day from Coxwell and Gerrard to College and Palmerston, a corner that’s also home to La Carnita, Bar Raval and Woodlot—an unusually concentrated quartet of successful, chef-driven restaurants that serve fancy Chinese, fancy tacos, fancy tapas and fancy Canadiana. When similar businesses benefit from close proximity to their competitors (like in King East’s design district), it’s called an agglomeration economy. The popularity of one restaurant attracts the type of customer who is likely to spend money at a nearby restaurant of similar style.

Chefs also like to be close to their chef pals, and not just as a matter of fraternity. They want to know that local diners are adventurous and that the clientele will support something unique—and their buddies’ successful restaurants confirm it. In the end, this was the deciding factor for Liu. “The reason why we chose the west is it’s where our people are,” he says. “We have restaurant friends who know we’re here.”

Foot traffic

“The east side is fairly quiet, even at night,” says Khabouth. “There’s not an area you can walk around, like King Street or Ossington, where people can bar hop and say, ‘We don’t have a reservation. Let’s try this restaurant. If it’s full, there’s another five down the road.’ On the east side that doesn’t exist.” There is, of course, the Danforth, but that row has been oversaturated with middling restaurants for decades, and the rent is high. Plus, the Danforth doesn’t support the same kind of nightlife that neighbourhoods like Parkdale or Little Portugal do.

“There’s so much more buzz here in the west end,” says Liu. “There’s just more people out, riding their bikes. There’s an energy that I think is just starting to appear in some spots in the east end. Cooler restaurants, like La Carnita, moving into the area, make it a little more tempting.” But it’s still a wait-and-see situation.

Dave Mottershall was cooking food as hip as anything in Toronto—smoked broccoli covered in peach bourbon barbecue sauce, quinoa-crusted pig’s tail—from the kitchen of Hi-Lo Bar at Queen and Broadview. Last year, the former co-owner of the lauded Terre Rouge in Charlottetown, PEI, settled on Toronto’s east side and opened Loka Snacks as a pop-up at Hi-Lo. On a Wednesday night in June, the bar’s Metallica pinball machine, which no one was playing, made more noise than the rest of the neighbourhood combined. There were hardly enough pedestrians walking by outside to form a jury, much less fill restaurants.

“You don’t see many full restaurants around Queen and Broadview,” says Mottershall. On the same night, even the more popular spots like La Carnita were half-full. “The foot traffic still doesn’t seem to be coming. Much of the neighbourhood isn’t progressive enough to go looking for more than steak frites or a burger.”

There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned hamburger joint, but the quality cooking and beautiful plating of Mottershall’s short head-to-tail menu was the sort of thing that should have had people lined up out the door. “We love the east end and still there was a part of me that wanted to open there,” Mottershall says, “but the dining crowd that’s walking around, looking for something different to eat, is in the west.” After exceeding a $25,000 Kickstarter goal to open his own place, Mottershall shut down his pop up in late September and secured an address for a restaurant—at 620 Queen Street West.