After telling a friend about a good dining deal in Toronto— her own home town — she said, “I’ll have to go there; I don’t know that restaurant.” Understandable. Canada‘s largest city is as rich in restaurants as it is in museums, galleries, theaters, boutiques, clubs, and more clubs.
You can always find affordable restaurants in Kensington, the St. Lawrence Market, and Chinatown, but you already knew that. So here are a half-dozen spots for affordable dining beyond the obvious; some are places that even locals may not know. (BTW, note to Yanks in particular about the exchange rate: Right now, the U.S. and Canadian dollars virtually equal, so you don't really have to convert when viewing the prices below.)
Four, with its dark, sleek furnishings, looks like a conventional business district restaurant, but it isn’t. No item on chef Gordon Mackie’s menu exceeds 650 calories—yet the cuisine is exquisite. The shrimp fusilli (CA$18*, left), for example, combines tender shrimp, bran fusilli (!), Grana Padano cheese, and walnut pesto into a flavorful, deceptively rich entrée that tastes like 2,000 calories.
Dhaba, at the west end of downtown, is well-regarded for its updated Indian cuisine, which features bright, vibrant—not necessarily hot—spicing. The slow-cooked mountain goat (CA$17.95), for example, makes me wonder why I seldom eat goat meat (answer: because I can’t cook it as well as Chef P.K.). But here’s a secret: Dhaba’s lunchtime buffet (CA$11.95) may be the best dining value in downtown Toronto, because this is that rare, all-you-can-eat deal that features fresh, thoughtfully prepared cuisine.
Mill Street Brew Pub is the obvious mid-price pick in the historic Distillery District, but I like Pure Spirits Oyster House. The main dishes in this cavernous brick-walled bar and restaurant are not cheap, but you can get around that: Pure Spirits calls its hearty poutine (CA$10, or $14 with bacon, $16 with crispy fried oysters) and fresh Prince Edward Island mussels with a garlic-and-cheddar-smeared baguette ($15) appetizers, but they’re really stealth entrées. And this is the most flavorful, perfectly timed poutine or mussels you’ll ever eat.
Caplansky’s Deli, on College Street north of Kensington, is known for its sandwich of “smoked meat” (CA$8). Whazzat? The owner calls it “the bastard child of pastrami and corned beef” — a hand-rubbed brisket that’s cured two weeks, then smoked ten hours. Caplansky’s also uses this tender, peppery invention in a hash-and-eggs breakfast ($10) that’s served all day, including dinnertime. “Do you like it?” Caplansky asked. Like it? I’ll never eat conventional corned beef again.
The Gardiner Ceramics Museum Café has somehow convinced star chef Jamie Kennedy to produce elegant soups for CA$6, sandwiches for $9-11, and cookies for $2. FYI, you could visit the nearby Royal Ontario and Bata Shoe museums, eat here, and skip the Gardiner itself, but don’t: This museum and its programs will open your eyes to art forms many of us don’t think about very often.
West Queen West Art & Design District
This hot neighborhood has umpteen resto-bars, and its anchor, the Drake Hotel (above left), boasts almost as many lounges and restaurants as guestrooms. Chef Anthony Rose’s Blue Plate Specials (about CA$18), such as fish ‘n’ chips, are born-again classics, but here’s an even better idea: Order the sushi pizza with avocado, roe, and salmon (CA$14, right),
a delicious patchwork of flavors, from subtle to wasabi sharp, and textures, from silky to crispy crisp. By the way, the Drake serves a Canadian cab-merlot blend and a Bordeaux-style chardonnay with a private label that’s perfect for this crowd — or part of it, anyway: It’s called Starving Artist.
*For conversion to other currencies, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk