7 Classic Toronto Restaurants: Given that many restaurants aren’t around long enough to see their first birthday, it’s worth celebrating those that not only make it to the five-year milestone, but that actually become an integral part of a neighborhood or city. At these long-running classic Toronto restaurants, you’ll find some of the best food in the city, plus the perfect blend of tradition, charm, and innovation. So go try them all, and thank us later, eh?
Know what has sustained Zucca Trattoria for 21 years? “Passion,” explains co-owner Blair Aspinall, who describes his team as passionate about great ingredients and service. Zucca offers Italian, market-driven cuisine that’s more about substance than style. “We’re picky shoppers,” Aspinall says of his sourcing methods. And it results in “food we want to eat.” That includes the current early summer special of a warm asparagus salad served on a bed arugula and finished simply with extra virgin olive oil, Parmesan, and lemon.
The menu also features a whole grilled fish (chosen daily at market) prepared with fresh herbs, and locally sourced poultry such as Cornish game hen and Muscovy duck breast. As for the room: It’s warm, intimate and full of energy. Aspinall sums it up this way: “People look forward to being here, and are happy while they’re here.” That — along with a focus on quality over passing trends — is Zucca’s recipe for success. Make a reservation at Zucca Trattoria.
Not only has this restaurant been serving upscale cuisine since 1992, it has won Wine Spectator’s Grand Award every year since 2002. The secret? Top quality, seasonal products that are allowed to shine. “Every season, we find and fall in love with a few ingredients that the kitchen enjoys working into the menu,” explains chef Jason Cox. This spring, it’s been fresh chickpeas. Over the summer, Cox often incorporates Ontario strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, and corn, which he likes to use in a succotash prepared with chili, onions and fresh herbs. Another summer favorite: relish made with garlic scapes, vinegar and fresh Madagascar vanilla, which Cox pairs with Black Angus steak that’s aged for three months.
Cox balances perennial favorites (the seared foie gras appetizer prepared with current purée, and the black pepper-crusted tuna entrée) with inspiration from unexpected places. Unique ingredients discovered while traveling, and a new love for vegetables after his daughter became vegetarian—these are the kind of influences that keep Opus fresh. Make a reservation at Opus.
Set in three Victorian row houses, Sassafraz blends history with innovation. The space is charming yet current (thanks to its 20 foot, hydroponic living wall); the menu features French classics updated to reflect modern tastes and Canadian influences. Of course, there’s a commitment to locally-sourced, top-quality ingredients, but the real focus of the cuisine that comes out of Sassafraz’s kitchen is intense flavor. Take the sourdough grilled cheese sandwich, which layers aged cheddar, Emmental, and chèvre, or the braised octopus accompanied by sheep’s feta and regional heirloom tomatoes. “Unexpected combinations and depth of flavor” define Sassafraz, according to owner Zoran Kocovski, and help explain its 20 years of success.
The restaurant also listens keenly to its clientele in order to deliver a superior dining experience.
If diners regularly ask for a dish to be modified, then the menu is amended. And since many now ask about the origin of the ingredients in various dishes, the staff learns key details about their provenance. “We know our clients,” explains Kocovski, “and our clients know what they can expect from us.” And that is how you stay on top of a competitive restaurant scene in a world-class city. Make a reservation at Sassafraz.
360 at CN Tower
We know what you’re thinking. Right about now, you’re assuming the restaurant on top of Toronto’s most recognizable attraction can’t be anything other than a tourist trap. Well, Merry Early Christmas, because that assumption is incorrect. Recently renovated, 360 considers itself a gateway to the best Canada has to offer. In fact, a vast majority of the ingredients used by the kitchen are grown or cultivated within the tower’s 40 kilometer (25 mile) view.
Other specialty items are sourced from Canada’s best producers, i.e. lobster from the Maritime provinces, beef from Alberta, wine from British Columbia’s Okanagan region and albacore tuna from the west coast. “We offer consistently excellent products, but are innovative,” explains Peter George, the Director of Food and Beverage at 360. “We follow some food trends, but we also set them.
We want the dining experience to be enlightening but not overly challenging.” To that end, the menu offers plenty of familiar classics that have been reinterpreted or updated. In other words: what’s on offer is not your grandmother’s version of terrine, but rather a dish that’s been deconstructed and reassembled using fresh local ingredients and current techniques. The same goes for the desserts, which is why at 360, you can enjoy your cookie with a traditional flavor like vanilla bean, or go contemporary with salted caramel. Make a reservation at 360.
In business since 1980, Scaramouche is all about consistency, quality and the trust it has built up with its clientele. “Hipster trends? That’s not us,” explains Carl Korte. “Our core menu doesn’t change.” Instead, Scaramouche is about sophisticated cuisine with an ever-evolving skyline view. In the main restaurant, you’ll find classic dishes kept current by their presentation and accompaniments. The scallops are served with spicy caper butter; the veal with warm parmesan custard. In the more casual Pasta Bar & Grill, the Spaghetti Chitarra features Neopolitan-style meatballs while the grilled asparagus comes with shaved, smoked prosciutto. “We’re defined by our history and setting” explains Korte. “That’s what earned us a place in the city.” Make a reservation at Scaramouche.
The Old Mill
You like afternoon tea? How about outdoor patio dining? Or maybe you’re into live music performed by noted jazz trios, tribute bands or orchestras? Well then, this 103-year old iconic restaurant is where you need to be. Expect to find all the classics (clotted cream and scones at tea; burgers, steak and tiger shrimp at the outdoor patio grill) alongside more contemporary choices including vegan and vegetarian items (Hello, arugula salad with fresh berries and creamy cashew dressing!).
Dinner and dancing to big band music has been a tradition at the Old Mill since World War I (you read that right), and these events still sell out — only now the audience is peppered with downtown hipsters. While on site, soak up the classic atmosphere enhanced by the structure’s aged wooden beams and stonewalls and save time for a detour to the Print Lounge, where images chronicling the Mill’s lifespan bring history alive. (You should probably also save some time for a drink in the Home Smith Bar, too, which boasts an impressive array of Scotch whisky in addition to signature cocktails and martini menu. Just saying.) Make a reservation at the Old Mill.
Started as a small café in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood in 1967, Joso’s has been in its present location since 1977. Its colorful and buoyant ambiance reflects the character of its charismatic founder, who was both a famed musician (he once performed at New York City’s Carnegie Hall!) and a passionate chef who favored the fresh, authentic ‘sea-to-table’ Mediterranean cuisine served in Croatia, his birth country. “We don’t offer a ‘chef-based menu,’” explained Shirley Spralja, who owns and operates the restaurant together with her husband Leo (Joso’s son). Instead, they focus on pure ingredients enhanced with light flavorings including garlic, lemon, olive oil and fresh herbs. “We’ve been doing clean eating before clean eating became a thing.” Their signature dish: a Risotti Nero that features cuttlefish prepared in its own jet black ink.
Other dishes that will never disappear from the menu are the calamari and octopus, both of which are prepared using family recipes perfected by Spralja’s Mother-in-law. And since Toronto is a hub for the film and television industries, don’t be surprised if the table next to you is occupied by familiar faces with bold-faced names. Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, Paul Newman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglass, and Harrison Ford have all eaten at Joso’s. But the restaurant’s true celebrity darling is Grammy-award winning singer Drake, who grew up coming to the restaurant with his mother and even posed for the cover of his 2011 album Take Care in Joso’s dining room. Make a reservation at Joso’s.
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Audrey D. Brashich covers pop culture and lifestyle issues for outlets including Yahoo, The Washington Post, and The Vancouver Sun. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyBrashich.