After 38 years as the restaurant critic for The Globe and Mail, retiring tastes bittersweet. I remember fondly the day in February, 1974, when I called Cameron Smith, then the Globe’s assistant editor, responsible for features coverage, and suggested he hire me as restaurant critic. Cam said he didn’t have a restaurant critic, and didn’t need one. I convinced him otherwise, sent a sample column on a spiffy new place called Noodles, and it was game on.
Back then, the Globe did not address itself to the subject of food. It wasn’t news. The newspaper I leave today has morphed into a food savant, breaking and making food-news in a town gone nuts about dining.
But in the seventies, when I first started covering the scene, food was of no interest to Torontonians. When people at parties said: “What do you do?” and I told them, they always did a quick exit … not like today. In those days there were barely enough restaurants of interest to review, and you could count the serious chefs and waitstaff on the fingers of one hand, all of whom worked in expensive, fancy formal places – hardly the normal stomping grounds of somebody (then) my age or income.
I always worried that they knew I was an imposter in those fancy places. Winston’s? La Scala? Julie’s Mansion? Centro? I had neither the wardrobe nor the requisitely dressed date to pass for someone who belonged in those palaces of high-net-worth gourmands. It was stressful trying to pass – but never as tough as taking notes was.
I tried everything: Tiny notebooks in the lap (oh, the ink stains on skirts I couldn’t afford in the first place). I tried going to the bathroom to scribble some thoughts down. I even had a jerry-rigged tape recorder for a while, with a mike in my sleeve. (That works better on TV.) I am thankful that with the advent of handhelds, nobody notices me taking notes because everybody’s texting at table these days – or snapping pics of their dinner.
We have become a city-state of foodies – we flock to the latest resto, we have to be in the know. We need to make acquaintance with the new vegetable nobody has met, the previously unheard-of cuisine or cooking technique. Sous vide! Twelve-hour smoking! Nine-hundred-degree Neapolitan pizza ovens! Torontonians now sound like New Yorkers, easily able to distinguish between shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, critically savvy about the texture of gnocchi, the quiver of panna cotta and the seasoning of the aioli on our fresh-cut frites.
But a weekly column becomes a bit of a grind. It’s a lot of going out for a person who adores cooking and has a great kitchen at home. I have grown children who visit often, and our favourite thing to do together is cook. My idea of heaven is four hours in the kitchen with three or four apprentices (they get snippy when I call them slaves) and some very dry martinis after the mise en place is ready. Believe it or not, having to go to dinner at least twice every week, year after year, gets routine. What if you feel like staying home in that snowstorm? And if there isn’t an interesting restaurant to write about in a given week, I have to make some dog at least sound interesting. And really, how many ways can a writer parse sushi? Or describe broccoli?
Remaining anonymous has also presented its own set of challenges. A critic cannot be impartial if she knows the restaurateurs. If I meet them, empathy rears its head and I shy away from dishing the truth lest I hurt their feelings – or even worse, their bottom line. So I’ve refused to get to know any of them, and have done everything in my power to prevent their knowing me.
Which has meant reserving tables under a false name and paying with credit cards bearing the same nom de plume. To make reservations, I use *67 to block my line at work and have an unpublished number at home. But making reservations has become harder of late. Half the new restos don’t pick up their phone; they want you to leave a message and they’ll call back – not ideal for someone in my situation. One time, in a panic of tardiness, I phoned a resto on my cell to say we were running late. They didn’t pick up but clearly did “call return” and got my cell voicemail. Busted!
And then they knew my false name, so that one had to be retired. I have tended to get a new fake-name credit card every year, and I favour bland WASP names, often from my beloved Victorian novels, so as to fade into the woodwork.
That part is easy (as long as you remember what your new name is). The hard part is the camouflage. Although I never went as far as Ruth Reichl, who adopted elaborate and bewigged disguises during her tenure as the New York Times critic, I have always adopted “protective mimicry” in restaurants – meaning that, when on Ossington, I wear a lot of black, and uptown I’ll put on the pearls and heels. It’s about trying to fit in, to disappear into the customer crowd. People dining with me are never allowed to complain, send food back, or sound too food-smart.
Have they always obeyed? Fat chance. There have been guests who draw too much attention to themselves, or say my name aloud (especially after their second glass of wine). I usually kick them under the table for that. There have been guests who refuse to order the dishes I want to sample. They’re on a diet or they don’t like red meat or cream sauce scares them. These people are not usually my guests again, because I require flexibility in my epicurean research assistants.
My goal has been to be “everyman,” that ordinary customer who gets treated as average, not special, for that restaurant – in order to discover how they would treat you, my reader.
Still, it’s been a great ride. Reviewing for the Globe has been, in so many ways, a dream job: There was the three-star tour of France in 1982 (10 Michelin three stars in 10 days). There have been breathtaking dinners from Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm, and at Lotus from Susur Lee. And through it all, I’ve gotten paid to eat (mostly) fun food, a task that has been the dominant form of entertainment for my entire adult life. What a long, tasty trip it’s been, Toronto, and you’ve been riding shotgun all the way.
Which is what makes it so hard to say goodbye to you, my readers. When we first met, perhaps as long as 38 years ago, you didn’t know a hollandaise from a béarnaise – and likely did not need to, because there was precious little of both in our unsophisticated town, and not much of anything else worth eating here either.
From bland to smoking hot: The evolution of a city food scene
My first review for the Globe appeared on Monday, April 22, 1974. Noodles was Toronto’s first Italian restaurant that broke the mould of checked tablecloths, spaghetti and candles in Chianti bottles. People with money were really still going to the Benvenuto or the Park Plaza to eat shrimp cocktail and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding in those days. Those of modest means went to Swiss Chalet, Fran’s or Murray’s, but mostly stayed home. Cheese was Kraft slices and veg were often canned peas.
In the seventies, French cuisine came to town: Cream and butter grabbed our attention. The Westbury Hotel (where Susur Lee cooked for a time, and Franco Prevedello served) made food headlines (diminutive at the time) for chef Tony Roldan’s “Scampis in Love” (an orgy of cream and white wine), but never on Sunday because that was a day on which restaurants weren’t allowed to serve alcohol. Gaston’s on Markham Street broke ground with French onion soup; people who had been to France flocked there. We fell hard for quiche lorraine, crepes Suzette and chocolate mousse.
The most important restaurant in Toronto was Three Small Rooms (really three restos) opened in 1966 by George Minden, a gifted amateur who went so far outside the box that he profoundly changed Toronto dining. The cooking was French and fabulous. Chefs Dante Rota and then Herbert Sonzogni taught Toronto to take food seriously (and incidentally trained a kid called Marc Thuet).
Mr. Minden hired two young cooks named Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander to cook at his ski chalet near Gstaad in Switzerland. Mr. Minden’s friend Morden Yolles, owner of the Benvenuto Hotel and a passionate gourmand, came to visit him, fell for the food, sent the young cooks on an eating tour of Europe to broaden their horizons, and then hired Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stadtlander as co-chefs to open Scaramouche in 1980. That changed the landscape, both because Scaramouche’s kitchen trained and inspired cooks and eaters, and because Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stadtlander between them, in their various cooking incarnations, trained a generation of chefs.
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.