From steakhouse favourites to the original old-school no-frills diners of previous generations, these establishments have stood the test of time.
By Bert Archer
Being the revolving restaurant at the top of Toronto’s biggest tourist attraction, the 360 at the CN Tower didn’t have to be a good restaurant. But it is as much a must for locals as visitors.
There are a lot of great steakhouses in town, but this is the stone-cold classic. Founded in 1959 by Harry Barberian and not one tchotchke on the wall or book in the upper private dining room has been changed since.
There were certainly diners in Toronto before Fran’s, but when Francis Deck opened his 10 stools at Yonge & St. Clair in 1940, it became the standard by which all other diners were judged. And as a result, it’s survived the decades. The original’s gone, but there are several locations, the most established of which is on College Street just west of Bay Street.
One of the oldest spots in town (been there since 1929), and still one of the classiest. A diner for breakfast, a lunch counter at mid-day and jazz joint at night.
This is one of the spots only real old-school Torontonians even know about, but enough of them have been coming often enough over the decades that it’s still there, one of the last remaining high-end neighbourhood Italian spots. Named, obscurely, for the Ettore Fieramosca, the Count of Mignano (1475-1515). On any given night, half the guests will be regulars, but their secret is, they’ll make you feel just as welcome.
The bar where deals have been made, law students have networked and everyone else has just had fun since the 1980s.
One of the ancient ones (founded in 1981) and a secret to many, hidden as it is behind its famous circular window in a courtyard you might not even know was there unless someone pointed it out to you. So, like Fieramosca, but maybe a bit fancier.
Known for its curvaceous statuary, Toronto’s most famous Dalmatian restaurant started as a Yorkville coffeehouse in the 60s where acts like Harry Belafonte, Nana Mouskouri, Gordon Lightfoot and even Liberace would play, before it moved a couple of blocks north into its current Victorian digs.
The walls are filled with pictures of the film festival celebs who have made the high-end Italian Sotto Sotto an annual stop since the 80s.
One of the city’s earliest brunch spots, where Portuguese bread and French sauces combine for what’s still one of the best Benedict plates in the city. Try to get one of the two coveted window seats (the one on your left as you go in is the prize).
Classic massive-menu’d, shared round-table, pan-Chinese spot. They call themselves a seafood place, but there are as much BBQ and noodles and chicken and pork and duck feet as there are squids and abalone.
The other classic, massive-menu’d, shared round-table pan-Chinese restaurant, this one on Spadina. Try the salted doughnut with your congee.
The restaurant that introduced Toronto to Vietnamese food, and is still the go-to for everything but banh-mi. Regulars scribble their favourite numbered dishes down on the slip without even bothering with the menu (mine’s 19A). Find a second location in Mississauga.
Everyone’s favourite Old Chinatown dim sum place, on Spadina since before most Torontonians could tell their har gow from their siu mai.
Stop in for a glimpse of what Old Chinatown looked like when it was new. The newspaper-clipped reviews on the walls are older than almost all the staff, but the Cantonese food’s still good (especially the snails in black bean sauce).
This place is old enough for Margaret Atwood to have worked here as a waitress when she was a teenager. Still a hangout for the literary and media elite, especially on a Saturday morning, it’s a slightly pricier version of your classic Canadian diner.
Another secret spot that only the savviest Torontonian knows about where you can get some of the best French food in the city for about half the price you’re probably guessing.
Though it’s only been around since the 1980s, it’s as classic as a Toronto pub gets, built into a late Victorian bank, complete with an old safe that’s become a snug. Jane Jacobs used to hang out here, and it’s got one of the best patios and the best rooftop in the Annex.
There are diners, and then there are counter diners. What you see is what you get at Vesta Lunch, and what you get is greasy and fast and perfect. “Reputable,” as the sign says, “since 1955.” Also, open 24 hours.
There’s some dispute as to whether this is Toronto’s oldest pub. Founded in 1833, it’s been there longer than the Wheat Sheaf (see below), but it closed for a while in the middle there. One of the most popular patios on Queen West, it’s where you want to get your first beer on a sunny afternoon.
Home of what is probably Toronto’s finest wine list, it’s also the place to get your steak frites, duck confit and other bistro standards you can, just like in France, order without having to look at the menu. If it’s a classic, they make it and make it well.
With its lovely back patio, only accessible after descending into an underground labyrinth that’s been a rite of passage for Torontonians since it was added in 1984 (six years after it opened), it’s known for its baked-in quirk. Despite its name, the menu is a Sri Lankan-Italian-Thai-Laotian hybrid.
The Kids in the Hall got their start here, and Amy Winehouse and Adele have both played the famous back room. It’s got a huge pool hall on the second floor, and the food is another made-in-Toronto mix of Southeast Asian, Indian, Italian and Tex-Mex.
If you were to try to pin down a Toronto-style pizza (you shouldn’t—there’s no such thing), it’d be Terroni’s. A minichain, born of an Italian-Canadian trip back to Puglia, that manages to feel like your favourite neighbourhood haunt no matter which location you choose. (The one on Queen West is the original.)
With at least one break in 2019 for a renovation, this place has been serving beer to Torontonians since 1846, making it the longest (almost) continuously operating pub in the city, and home of one of the earliest versions of Toronto wings.
When this restaurant, bar and boutique hotel opened in 2004, it set a literati-glitterati tone that West Queen West has been following ever since. For the full scene, get a drink at the Sky Yard, the Drake’s second-storey rooftop bar.
Open since 1932, this large 24-hour diner on what used to be the city’s southwest outskirts is one of the places you can’t leave Toronto without visiting at least once. (And if you do go just once, at least one of you has to have the club sandwich made with Cornflake-crusted chicken.)
Where the ladies who lunch have had their suppers since 1980. Where celebrity Canadian chefs like Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander got their starts, and where you go for filet mignon and asparagus done like your parents would have expected it to be done. The attached Pasta Bar is a way to experience the spot without spending quite so much money.
A decade or so younger than Barberian’s (see above), this steakhouse in a house in a parking lot is one of the weirder, more exquisite spots to get a taste of old Toronto.
Underground, blink-and-you-miss-it, one of Toronto’s earliest brewpubs, with pool tables, coffee porter and antojitos. It’s one of the easiest, cheapest good times in the city.
Most people just call it The Nose, because instead of a sign that might tell you what this Italian restaurant’s called, it’s just got a big fibreglass nose hanging over the door. If you want to get a hold on Toronto’s very specific form of friendliness, just stop in here, and you’ll get the idea.
Technically known as the Garden Gate, The Goof is as classic as classic gets in The Beaches. (Founded in 1952, it got its name from a years-long neon sign malfunction that left several letters of “GOOD FOOD” dark.) Old-style Chinese-Canadian dishes like chicken chow mein and Singapore noodles served in retro booths indoors, or one of the best patios at the far end thereof the Queen East strip. Lunch specials from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. are $8.75 with coffee or tea. Think of it less like a trip to Guangzhou (where much of the cuisine originated) and more like a voyage into Toronto’s culinary past. You haven’t been to The Beaches until you’ve been to The Goof.
You can get fish and chips at any of Toronto’s hundred pubs, and it’ll be good at almost every one of them. But if you’re a fan of the form, you’ll want to stop by Duckworth’s, where they’ve been frying up the place (and haddock, and halibut) since 1929.
They say they’re the oldest Indian restaurant in the city, and they probably are. In the heart of Little India since 1976, Moti Mahal is a pan-Indian spot and an ideal introduction to a neighbourhood you should be spending some time in.
You may also like: A Foodie’s Guide to Gerrard Street East
West Toronto has been having its birthdays, weddings and anniversaries at The Old Mill hotel, spa and restaurant since 1914. This little green river valley enclave you’d think couldn’t possibly be part of the city has been a gathering spot for centuries, where Indigenous Canadians fished, and where European settlers built their first lumber mills in 1800.
A red velvet-and-dark-wood Austrian restaurant in the middle of old Unionville, a village founded in 1794 that’s now part of the suburban city of Markham. The herring in rahm (with cream) and Leber Knödel (liver dumpling) soup are worth the trip out.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door
there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.#OPENYOURCURIOSITY
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