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

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. Here are some of the new spots to look forward to when that day arrives—in the meantime, they’re available for takeout.

More Toronto dining in 2021:

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

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

Crosley’s

Of all the haymakers thrown at Toronto’s restaurant scene by the pandemic, the July closure of tiny Brothers Food and Wine in Yorkville—not even four years old but already an institution—may have landed hardest. It felt like a knockout punch to head chef Joachim Hayward (above left), who had thrived in the kitchen under Jonathan Nicolaou but suddenly found himself out of work.

Less than 24 hours later, a call from Hayward’s friend Myles Harrison—a Brothers alum, and wine director at the St. Regis—would change everything. Harrison needed to convince Hayward to embark with him on an endeavour that seems risky in the best of times, but downright ludicrous in the middle of a pandemic: opening a bricks-and-mortar dine-in restaurant.

Six months later, in the middle of the second lockdown, Crosley’s opened its doors—albeit in a manner that would have been unimaginable just a year prior. By day, the space serves as a takeout counter for Hayward’s heaping veal tonnato sandwiches and scotch eggs, pantry goods and a predictably excellent lineup of takeout wine. By night, Harrison handles bookings for Hayward’s four-course plate-and-serve takeaway meals that change every other week.

The menus strive for the simple Anglophilic elegance—familiar, but a little showy—at which Brothers excelled: Welsh rarebits spread with snow crab-studded mornay sauce; Nunavut flounder with a bottarga, seaweed and herb compound butter; a wild mushroom-leek timpano—which is a baked slab of rigatoni bound together by béchamel and sheets of pasta. One early at-home menu finished with a slice of Hayward’s take on cheesecake, lacquered puff pastry sandwiching mascarpone and tiny tart cloudberries. It was simply incredible—and a promise of things to come. 214 Ossington Ave., crosleys.ca

 

Taverne Bernhardt’s

The team behind Harbord Street’s currently-on-hiatus Dreyfus had been planning a casual spinoff since before the pandemic hit. But the precarious state of indoor dining altered those plans slightly. Thus, Taverne Bernhardt’s entered the world in August as a patio-and-takeout-only spot in the former Julie’s Cuban space on Dovercourt.

Zachary Kolomeir builds his often-changing menus around seasonal salads and Ontario veg, and inspired one-offs like kosher-style deli sandwiches à la Montreal. But his mainstay is the rotisserie chicken, a plate (or box) loaded with juicy golden bird, slaw, fries, Harbord Bakery buns and house-made gravy. It became the must-have takeout dish of fall and winter, a time when we needed such comforts like never before. 202 Dovercourt Rd., bernhardtstoronto.com

 

Manita

This new local on Ossington is just one of many businesses to open on the street in the past year (even in a pandemic, Ossington continues to hold on to its hip-strip status). It’s a café-slash-restaurant that, like many of its industry peers who had to pivot, carries artisanal groceries and wine alongside a menu of hearty fare. It’s the newest project for Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan of Grand Electric fame (along with Sam Lipson of Greenhouse Juice Co.), and while it’s technically the taco spot’s younger sibling, Manita is the more mature of the two—the business in front to GE’s party in the back. Here it’s all about simple luxuries, like golden-brown croquettes stuffed with creamy Mahon cheese or saucer-sized chocolate chip cookies with chewy middles that radiate out to toffee-like edges.

But there are substantial plates, too, including a quarter pounder topped with American cheese, tangy house sauce and sweet pickles (you had a good run, dill) on a smooshy sesame-seed bun from Blackbird Baking Co. There’s also a ham and cheese sandwich, which is way greater than the sum of its few parts. Sure, the crusty exterior might scrape the roof of your mouth a bit when you take a too-big bite, but it’s just a reminder that you are eating a really good sandwich on really good bread and life could be a lot worse. 210 Ossington Ave., 416-551-2230, manita.ca

 

Dova

Roberto Marotta has been one of Toronto’s top ambassadors of Sicilian cooking since he arrived here in 2010, cooking at Parkdale’s Maialino Enoteca Italiana. In 2016, he and his wife, Jacqueline Nicosia, opened Ardo, on the edge of Corktown, and made a splash with Marotta’s beautifully composed plates of charred octopus and unnaturally creamy gnocchi. But with the August debut of Cabbagetown’s Dova—delayed several months by you know what—Marotta is nearing doctoral status with his native cuisine, each dish a dissertation on his upbringing.

Any reservations about ordering takeout pasta should be set aside for his red-sauce linguine: the key ingredient is ‘strattu, a thick Sicilian tomato paste that brings unimaginable depth of flavour, aided by preserved sardines and accented with Sicilian fennel, pine nuts and raisins. And porcini mushrooms—another Sicilian calling card—zhuzh up the jus of his braised short ribs, a hearty dish of which Marotta’s Nonna Maria, his culinary inspiration, would surely be proud. 229 Carlton St., dovarestaurant.com

 

Bar Mignonette

This Dundas West seafood and wine restaurant, the sister spot to Patois, wasn’t exactly a quarantine baby—it was a twinkle in chef Craig Wong’s eye long before Covid came to town. As far back as 2018, Wong wanted to do something with the second-floor space above his raucous Asian-Caribbean restaurant. And while the name went through a change or two, the concept always remained the same: a subdued, intimate space serving seafood-focused small plates and really good natural wine.

Bar Mignonette was finally born at the end of last summer, in that bubble between lockdowns. Its name comes from that classic oyster accoutrement but it’s also French for “cute,” and cute it is, with only 14 seats (the patio overlooking Dundas just about doubles its capacity) and cathedral ceilings. It’s decorated with tropical greenery, and shelves made from reclaimed church woodwork are crammed with vintage knick-knacks and family heirlooms.

The menu leans on Wong’s French culinary training, with influences from his Chinese-Jamaican background. In its early days, this translated to things like shrimp cocktail served with an umami-fied mayo, steak tartare bedazzled with briny salmon roe and a pasta special crowned with chubby lobes of uni. The current iteration has been slashed to include only dishes that travel well: garlic coco bread stuffed with blue crab, and a crispy, deep-fried shrimp patty topped with house Thousand Island dressing and crunchy iceberg lettuce on a pillowy potato bun—which is essentially the delicious love child of Wong’s two restaurants. 794 Dundas St. W., 647-340-4999, barmignonette.com

 

Amal

A year largely devoid of indoor dining is a rough time to debut a floor-to-ceiling makeover at one of the city’s landmark restaurant spaces. But the former La Société in Yorkville—a tony French see-and-be-seen spot for nearly a decade—is stunning in its newest incarnation as an airy Lebanese restaurant, even if the mosaic terrazzo floors, cloud-white finishes and hand-painted ceiling tapestries have, due to lockdown measures, gone mostly un-admired.

For restaurant mogul (and Beirut native) Charles Khabouth’s first Lebanese restaurant, he took no shortcuts in recruiting chef Rony Ghaleb from Lebanon’s fine-dining scene. He excels at impeccably precise skewers and grilled meat platters worthy of a feast, particularly the pair of savoury-sweet beef kebabs he festoons with stewed cherries, carob molasses and ground pistachios, ready to tuck into pieces of herb-rubbed biwaz bread. It all works effortlessly as takeout fare, and even better as a reminder of what we’ll regain when dining in beautiful spaces is once again on the table. 131 Bloor St. W., amaltoronto.com

 

Pompette

Pompette is the pandemic bébé of three accomplished French expats. Chef Martine Bauer comes by way of the Prince Maurice hotel in Mauritius and Hôtel de Matignon, the residence of the prime minister of France (no big deal or anything). Once here, she worked at both Brothers and Pearl Morissette. In her own College Street kitchen, she makes contemporary French dishes available as four-course take-home meals: veal gribiche, buttery and bacon-y tartiflette and her take on pâté en croute, a beautiful brick of golden-brown pastry filled not with pork but chicken, sliced thickly and served with pickled veggies and grainy mustard.

Martine’s partner—in both business and life—Jonathan Bauer, once named France’s best sommelier, is responsible for curating the restaurant’s 3,000-bottle wine cellar. And Maxime Hoerth mixes up excellent cocktails (now available to-go in adorable wax-sealed bottles) like his signature Nordic Negroni, a liquorice twist on the classic that subs out the gin for aquavit. The restaurant’s name is French for being tipsy, but only just, that blissful state which closely mirrors the feeling that follows a Pompette meal, be it in your own dining room or—hopefully one day soon—theirs. 597 College St., 416-516-1111, pompette.ca

 

Azhar

Janet Zuccarini could be forgiven for taking a minute. Gusto 501, her five-years-in-the-making Corktown showpiece, opened about a month before the first lockdown. Instead of waiting for brighter days to make her next move, Zuccarini took a once-more-unto-the-breach approach to the pandemic and launched Azhar, a Mediterranean kitchen on Ossington, in January.

During winter’s lockdown, the wood-burning oven hardly stopped turning out herb-dusted flatbreads, fermented potato and yogurt buns and Jerusalem style bagels to satisfy any takeout carb cravings. And she’s partnered with some heavyweight muscle in executive chef Stuart Cameron (Mira, Patria and Byblos) to bring the rest of the menu to life, with fire-roasted cauliflower smeared with zhug and tahini; whole Spanish octopus served on a pool of Moroccan chraime; and butterflied sea bream marinated in harissa and layered with red and green chermoula. If early evidence is accurate, this dream-team might be one of the few good things to happen to Toronto restaurants during the pandemic. 96 Ossington Ave., 416-503-1098, azhartoronto.com

More on Toronto dining during the pandemic:

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

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.