Canada’s largest city is one of the most multicultural in the world. Over half of the five million people living in the greater Toronto area were born in another country, making the city the United Nations of dining. Among its 140 recognised neighbourhoods are three Chinatowns, a Koreatown, Greektown, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Little India and Little Jamaica. The city is also home to the largest Tibetan and Sri Lankan communities outside of Asia, so you’re never far from a good feed.
Such a melting pot of cultures living side by side has created a compelling food scene that’s so diverse it’s difficult to define. “There was a huge influx of immigrants into Toronto in the 1960s, and the integration among the immigrant communities is part of the city’s fabric,” self-confessed food nerd Aashim Aggarwal says between sips of Ethiopian coffee during a food tour of the city.
“A lot of places pride themselves on being diverse, but there’s an openness and a level of collaboration and cross-cultural learning going on in Toronto that’s quite rare,” explains Aggarwal. This cross-pollination of flavours, and a tendency among chefs to borrow from and riff on different cuisines is what makes Toronto such a dynamic food city, where sushi pizza and butter chicken poutine are staples.
There’s an openness and a level of collaboration and cross-cultural learning going on in Toronto that’s quite rare.
During a food tour, I get to scoff my way around the world. In Kensington Market – Toronto’s quirky and colourful answer to Camden – there’s Rasta Pasta, a Jamaican-Italian fusion joint serving ‘dreadlock pasta’ with jerk meatballs and ‘reggae lasagna’ with steamed callaloo, while at Dutch-Indonesian snack bar Borrel, husband-and-wife team Justin Go and Alison Broverman serve piping-hot beef bitterballen slathered in mustard, alongside fragrant bowls of nasi goreng. It might be a bit much for culinary purists, but it’s certainly memorable.
“You can get a mix of everything here,” says Ashley Rochefort, a rep for Destination Toronto. “There are places that serve Italian comfort food by day and Taiwanese street food by night. Diversity is the city’s strength, we love it and lean into it.”
Embodying the freewheeling spirit of Toronto’s food scene is Steven Molnar, the half Japanese, half Hungarian head chef of Quetzal, a buzzing Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant. The elegantly inked chef, is the calmest professional cook I’ve ever met. Having developed an interest in food from his mum, he’s on a mission to honour and showcase Mexican cuisine in a way that’s never been done before in Canada. Not one for cutting corners, he grinds and presses his tortillas on site from heirloom corn. “I discovered a new world of flavours in the markets around Mexico,” he says during a rammed Friday night service at the restaurant, where bright young things have gathered for mezcal cocktails and tacos al pastor. “The acidity and spice I found in the sauces opened up a new part of my brain. Oaxaca is such a special place, and spending time there changed the entire trajectory of my life.”
The arrival of the Michelin Guide in Toronto last year – its first appearance in Canada – has helped to thrust the city onto the culinary world stage, making it a must on any self-respecting foodie’s grand tour.
An impressive 82 restaurants spanning 28 cuisines made it into this year’s guide, with just one – Sushi Masaki Saito – receiving two Michelin stars, while 12 venues retained their one-star status, and two newcomers: Japanese restaurant Kappo Sato and the tiny-but-mighty Restaurant 20 Victoria, run by Julie Hyde, joined the fold.
“Toronto is adding unique flavours to the culinary conversation,” says Gwendal Poullennec, the Michelin Guide’s international director. “There’s a lot to say about the diversity and homegrown talent in Toronto. Since the inaugural selection last year we’ve seen and felt the momentum grow in this culinary community.”
The party to celebrate the unveiling of this year’s Michelin stars was a who’s who of the Toronto food scene. Big name chefs and sommeliers worked the room, peacocking around in natty suits, feasting on caviar from silver spoons and being snapped by paparazzi. Dressed in a beanie hat and blue boiler suit, Canadian chef Matty Matheson – the star of The Bear – drew the biggest crowd.
The Michelin Guide will no doubt boost tourism to Toronto, as globetrotting gourmands flock to the city with stars in their eyes, but it only represents a snapshot of what’s going on in the city food-wise.
“The arrival of Michelin has helped Toronto to become part of the global culinary elite, and chefs from New York, London and Copenhagen are coming to work here now, which is great,” says Aggarwal, “but the guide doesn’t reflect the full scope of the food scene in Toronto. What I’m more excited about is seeing how the street food scene evolves and the new fusion cuisines that come about from our intermingling of cultures.”
As with any city, the most interesting discoveries tend to happen when you go off the beaten track, and I’d urge any traveller to Toronto to venture out with no destination in mind and roam around its foodie enclaves. Get recommendations from locals and find out where the chefs eat, as the tiny neighbourhood spots with dodgy décor down a dingy side street are often where the magic happens.
How to eat like a local
Here’s five under-the-radar restaurants to seek out in Toronto.
Open-fire cooking is the order of the day at Actinolite. Located on a residential stretch of Ossington Avenue, the venue takes its name from chef Justin Cournoyer’s hometown, where he grew up hunting and foraging. This back-to-basics ethos feeds into his cooking, which makes the most of the seasons, and tips its hat to Nordic minimalism and the clean, wild flavours associated with it.
The tasting menu is a tour-de-force. Each dish makes a hero of a single ingredient and maximum flavour is eked out from the flames. You’ll leave wreaking of smoke but feeling incredibly happy.
Standout dish: Aged beef shoulder with pickled hen of the woods mushrooms.
From $125pp (£74) for six courses, actinoliterestaurant.com
Keen to shine a light on royal Thai cuisine, chef Nuit Regular’s passion for the food of her homeland is contagious. Her eye for detail when it comes to presentation is exquisite – she fashions her peanut and pickled radish dumplings into purple lotus flowers that are almost too pretty to eat.
The best time to visit is for brunch, when you’ll be treated to a bountiful banquet of royal Thai classics, taking in everything from fiery grilled beef salads cooled by coriander and mint, to stirfried mung bean noodles with Thai basil.
Standout dish: Thai-style Hainaese poached chicken on ginger-garlic rice.
From $100pp (£59) for six courses, kiintoronto.com
Poma Rosa Café
Bringing a slice of Latin sunshine to Toronto’s Danforth neighbourhood, Poma Rosa Café is a pastel paradise serving flappingly fresh ceviches, killer cocktails and homemade salsas with a serious kick. Run by a Colombian-Venezuelan husband-and-wife duo, with its Latin beats, Insta-friendly décor and moreish cheese and guava empanadas, the colourful café is a perfect pit-stop for a quick bite.
Its cocktail game is also on point – the pickled watermelon Margaritas are a must. Daring foodies should try the baby shark empanadas, which have a similar flavour to brown crab.
Standout dish: Shrimp ceviche with avocado and pico de gallo.
From $50pp (£29.50), pomarosa.ca
This achingly hip temple to contemporary Mexican cuisine embodies all that’s great about modern Michelin-starred menus, where the focus is on flavour and fun rather than formality. Steering the ship is head chef Steven Molnar, who champions wood-fired cooking in his open kitchen, where tortillas are made in house on an earthenware comal from freshly ground heirloom corn.
Begin with a banging agave-based cocktail then move onto the main event, which might include a vibrant dry-aged amberjack aguachile followed by lamb barbacoa, rammed into blue masa tortillas with charred maitake mushrooms.
Standout dish: Newfoundland scallops with green garlic butter.
From $110pp (£65) for six courses, quetzaltoronto.com
Scooping a Bib Gourmand in this year’s Michelin Guide, this high-energy gem found deep in the belly of Kensington Market serves up Szechuan classics with a twist.
Buzzing day and night, its Chinese home-style dishes pack a punch. Ticking all the flavour boxes, from spicy and sour to smoky, expect the likes of grilled chicken thighs coated in cumin, chilli and pepper, followed by sticky Shanghai beef ribs with shaoxing and sesame. Don't leave without trying the yuenyeung soft serve (a mix of coffee and tea) with a decadent Ovaltine brown butter sauce.
Standout dish: Sea bass with chilli bean sauce and fermented ginger
From $80pp (£47), sunnyschinese.com
Shaking things up
Three bars not to miss while you’re in town.
If you like your bars chic and your cocktails strong, then French fancy Chantecler is for you. The quaint open-brick bar and bistro in Bloorcourt Village shakes up sophisticated sips to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac. Behind the tastefully tiled bar, bottles of Green and Yellow Chartreuse are given pride of place on the top shelf.
Agave fans should order the Golden Doodle, a heady blend of Reposado Tequila, Grand Marnier, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon and bitters that will blow away the cobwebs. The bar snacks are hedonistic delights – try the foie gras tartlet and brioche with whipped butter. chanteclerto.com
If you could bottle and sell the atmosphere at five-star dive bar Civil Liberties you’d be very rich indeed. Run by renegade mixologist Nick Kennedy, the no-reservations venue on Bloor Street is the kind of bar you imagine in fever dreams, where the bartenders are only too happy create new cocktails on the spot based on your taste preferences.
You’ll have to shout to be heard in the hotspot, where tiny details reveal themselves over the course of a drink, from the ‘Cocktails & Dreams’ sign in the window to the Canadian pennies lining the bar. civillibertiesbar.com
Hidden inside an industrial building in Dovercout Village, this clandestine bar is so nonchalant it doesn’t bother with a website. Kimono-wearing co-owner Nigel Wang is a fan off all things Japanese, and has created his version of the listening lounges that were popular in 1970s Tokyo.
Entering the serene space, filled with paper lamps, vintage furniture and retro vinyl, feels like stepping back in time. Operating as a café by day, come nightfall you’ll find all manner of Japanese whisky cocktails being shaken up. Every other Sunday Wang hosts a ‘bring-your-own-board’ chess club. instagram.com/915dupont