Trend Watch: Is Toronto seeing the slow death of the destination restaurant?
When Scott and Lindsay Selland announced that they were turning Acadia, their lowcountry kitchen on Clinton Street, into a family-friendly snack bar called Red Sauce, Toronto food lovers were flummoxed. Throughout its run, Acadia had been revered as one of the city’s most exciting kitchens. Why take something so special and transform it into something relatively run-of-the-mill?
The answer, for the Sellands, could be summed up in two words: broad appeal. “We had friends who didn’t get what we did with Acadia, but they would go to The Keg three times a week,” said Scott. “We weren’t reaching enough people with what we were doing.”
Red Sauce is a bit more like The Keg, albeit with a notably locovore bent (as with Acadia, the Sellands source their ingredients from Toronto businesses like The Butcher Shoppe and Hooked.) It’s got comfortable booths and familiar, unintimidating food, like meatball sandwiches and calzones. People can bring their kids without feeling awkward, but it’s also hip enough to appeal to a younger, trend-conscious clientele. “We wanted to make it a space that has some longevity,” says Scott, “and that caters to most crowds.”
The Sellands aren’t alone. While the downtown core has undergone something of a luxury-restaurant renaissance, some neighbourhoods further afield have seen their special-occasion spots dying off. Either that, or being transformed. At Yonge and Eglinton, old-school Italian power restaurant Centro became Vita Sociale, a cheaper, more casual pizza and sandwich spot. On St. Clair West, seafood restaurant Catch underwent a similar transformation, exchanging fancy table settings and high-concept dishes for a more accessible experience.
Convenience, it would seem, is key. In some cases, that means extended hours and multiple menus, to suit every culinary occasion. At Red Sauce, you can grab a veal parmigiana at 2 p.m., take-out at 5 p.m., or a nightcap at midnight. It’s a model that more and more restaurants are beginning to adopt. (In the last few months alone: Bar Buca on King West, County Cocktail on Queen East and ZeZe in Parkdale.)
At these places, the goal isn’t necessarily to provide people with a culinary experience they can’t replicate in their own kitchens. It’s to replace the kitchen altogether, or at least serve as a regular stand-in. (Even Starbucks is getting on board. The coffee giant recently announced plans to roll out Starbucks Evenings, an after-4 p.m. menu of beer, wine and trendy small plates, like bacon-wrapped dates and truffled mac ‘n’ cheese.)
Peter Tsebelis is the managing director of restaurant company King Street Food, which owns Buca and Bar Buca. He draws a distinction between “dining out” and “eating out.”
“People are living in 600-square-foot condos, where the kitchen is small, and it’s [becoming] less and less important to cook,” he says. “The idea of dining out 10 years ago was going out for an occasion; whereas eating out was grabbing something like Subway and bringing it home. Now the value proposition has changed: one, these restaurants’ price points are more accessible; two, people have more options to eat out at better establishments for the same cost as fast food.”
Meanwhile, refined fine-dining restaurants like Splendido and Auberge du Pommier are becoming increasingly niche. That’s partly why former Splendido co-owner Carlo Catallo decided to turn his full attention to his County General chain. “The way people eat out and socialize has changed. Formal dining won’t go away but it’s also undergoing a change. Change is inevitable, and the way I view that is that you have to accept it, come to understand it, and apply yourself properly to the nature of the change.”
Like the Sellands, Catallo is focusing less on ground-breaking cuisine, and more on creating a comfortable scene. This means serving drinks and food that are “trendy but good,” sold at a low enough price point that people can make a habit of coming back.
“The County might not be a place that’ll change your life,” says Catallo. “But it can be a part of your life.”