The next game-changer was Franco Prevedello, who opened Pronto in 1981, Centro in 1987 and Splendido in 1991. Mr. Prevedello picked up where Noodles left off and taught us modern Italian sophistication: Pasta without tomato sauce! Fresh fish! Risotto! The final revolutionary of the foundation years of Toronto gastronomy was Susur Lee, who opened Lotus in 1987. He gave us Asian fusion, and the style of Lotus and his succeeding restaurants prefigured the other great change: Susur dumped the white tablecloths! He led us away from formality in dining.
But good food was still the province of the wealthy. For “ethnic” they dined on white tablecloths at the upscale Lichee Gardens, eating egg rolls, barbecue long ribs and sweet ’n’ sour shrimp. Mass immigration from Canton changed all that: Immigrants opened inexpensive restaurants, and Chinese newcomers led the charge. Thanks to them, fabulous flavours became affordable. Ethnic was in! In the late eighties we went wild for the dozens of delicious Szechuan dives on Spadina. That broke the gastronomic ice.
In the nineties, thanks to Toronto’s explosion of immigration, we learned to eat Indian at the Indian Rice Factory, Vietnamese at Saigon Star and Japanese at Michi. Wandee Young introduced us to Thai cooking at Thai Shan Inn. Suddenly Toronto was an Asian-inflected food city, and the value we placed on food skyrocketed.
Since 2000, the game has changed again. Few would dare open a white-tablecloth restaurant in Toronto, because everybody’s a foodie now, and Hogtown foodies have fallen for that determinedly downscale pork-centric thing. The going-out part has become less fun of late, thanks to the new style that has exploded here in the last two years. There has been a profound changing of the guard – usually a good thing in any culture, but in this case there is an unfortunate sameness to the new guard: The new restaurants mostly have unfriendly reservation policies (i.e., they don’t do it), they tend to have been opened on a shoestring (read: not so comfy and certainly not elegant), and the hot new places are not retailing variety. The food is all the same: Pork, formerly forgotten beef cuts, meat fat and more meat fat. Which could be partly because so many of them are either alumni of the Black Hoof or friends/protégés of the people of the Hoof.
Money has not exactly chased them: Since the recession, deep pockets have lost interest in restaurants, so chefs opening restaurants these days have precious little money to spend on stuff like décor… and chairs.
They’re great at cocktail mixology and bourbon is big. So is the noise – so many people in small cramped spaces plus loud rock ‘n’ roll: This is where food and entertainment meet. Gracious living? Not so much. But there are some fab flavours to be had.
The new generation of chef owners also tend to be self taught. Lots of them have done brief stages at international hot spots like Noma and Alinea, but not so much long-term sweating in the trenches like the Kennedy and Stadtlander generation did. They did not study cooking, apprentice and then work their way up from the bottom in different kitchens over years – which explains their undisturbed expectations that chefs get to be artists, allergic to outside investors or partners who might want to control things.
This shift, and the changing definition of restaurant professionalism, that it implies, is part of the great democratization of Toronto dining. Everybody’s an expert today. Access – to both kitchen and dining – is no longer limited to elites.
How far we’ve come together! Perhaps you no longer need me, thanks to the levelling effect of the blogosphere. You talk to each other online and off, all the time, about food and restaurants. Toronto’s foodies have grown apace with Toronto’s restaurants. And despite the current little blip of sameness, the long-term situation is fabulous: Toronto is now a very good place to go out for dinner.
So have fun at table. Bon appétit.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated Cameron Smith was the Globe's managing editor in 1974. Mr. Smith was the assistant editor, responsible for features coverage. This version has been corrected.