Standing next to boxes of drywall compound one recent afternoon, chef Michael Steh pointed to the many cranes and construction sites surrounding the space that will soon become The Chase, his new seafood restaurant in Toronto's financial district. "That's going to be a new building," he said, pointing to a site right next to the restaurant. "That's tens of thousands of new customers."
Despite no shortage in demand, the city's downtown core has not traditionally been seen as a place for really great food. But, with the dozens of new condo and office buildings that have sprouted up recently, the downtown restaurant scene is changing quickly. With a number of high-profile openings this summer – most notably, the Drake One Fifty (from the owners of the Drake Hotel) – and newer additions like the Gabardine, the Momofuku restaurants and Richmond Station already earning rave reviews, the downtown core is poised for a culinary renaissance. And restaurateurs setting up shop there are attempting what many of their predecessors have so far failed to do: to keep the financial district as lively at night as it is during the day.
On a recent afternoon, Chris Sampson, 44, and Mark D'Souza, 37, listed off their go-to spots in the area for business lunches: "Ki, Reds, Canoe, and Vertical," Mr. Sampson said. But outside of these "corporate expense account restaurants," Mr. D'Souza, who works at RBC, said, he usually finds himself eating in one of the many underground food courts. "In terms of a culinary destinations or really good food," he said, "I venture out of this area."
Part of the reason the culinary scene in the financial district has been stagnant for so long is because of the clientele – the Bay Street crowd – and their very specific needs. Mr. D'Souza said that when he chooses a restaurant for a business meal, he does so with criteria that often have less to do with culinary ambition and more with ambiance and sound levels. But, with condo buildings full of new customers sprouting up, the variety of restaurants – just like the area demographic – is quickly changing.
Looking up at the gleaming TD buildings or the brand-new Trump Tower, it's hard to see the financial district as an "emerging neighbourhood," yet that's exactly how Drake founder Jeff Stober describes it when it comes to food and entertainment. At the end of August, Mr. Stober will open the Drake One Fifty, the company's first standalone restaurant, in a refurbished bank building at York and Adelaide.
"The urban core is usually the most prized piece of real estate," he said of Toronto's financial district. "But at night, the nightlife of Toronto has always taken place on the periphery."
Like many cities, he said, until recently, a lack of housing has contributed to the trend of workers abandoning downtown at the end of the day for the suburbs. He added that strict municipal guidelines, as well as high rents and giant spaces (which means typically only chain restaurants or established restaurateurs can afford to set up there), are other factors that led to downtown being a "bit of a forgotten moment" for restaurants.
Mr. Stober, whose original Drake Hotel is often pointed to as the driver of gentrification along West Queen West, says he can see a similar "reimagining" happening in the core. "You come to conclude that every square inch has a purpose and a meaning, and a reason for being there," he said of the city. "When you look at all the neighbourhoods – who would've thought, five years ago, Dundas West? Who would've thought Roncesvalles? Who would've thought the Junction?"
Executive chef Ted Corrado (formerly of C5 at the ROM), said that while the menu at the original Drake is "fun, dynamic and interactive," the new downtown location will still be approachable, but "a touch more sophisticated." He called the restaurant's menu a "take on Canadian brasserie tavern," and added that the service will have "a subtle finesse that you'd experience at the top restaurants in the city."
But while the Drake may be working on a more grown-up approach, some existing downtown restaurants are doing just the opposite. In a nod to the area's changing demographic, Reds Bistro on Adelaide Street West recently underwent a complete renovation, re-opening as "Reds Wine Tavern," with a more casual space and menu. The same thing happened a block south on Richmond Street, at LA's Italian + Bar – previously known as Little Anthony's.
Even the chain restaurants are skewing younger. Cactus Club, a western chain known for lounge-like atmospheres, is scheduled to open on King Street later this year.
Aside from the new condos, chefs also point to other factors driving new restaurants into the area: a steady lunch crowd, and a food scene emerging all over the city that's changing even the once-stodgy Bay St. palate.
Carl Heinrich, chef-owner of Richmond Station, was deciding on where to spend his $100,000 prize from Top Chef Canada, he thought he'd end up somewhere in the west end. But as he did the math, he realized being in the financial district made better financial sense. "It's really nice and comforting to have a restaurant, especially when you're paying higher rents in the downtown core, to be able to open for more than one service." He tailors his menu to include lighter, healthier options for the many regulars he gets who come in several times a week, he said.
And for Graham Pratt at The Gabardine, while being in the downtown core, with its heavy traffic and narrow alleyways, can have its challenges ("Delivery, maintenance – we don't even really have a loading area for our stuff," he said) – he said that a greater interest in food in general – and in different types of food – has spread to the financial district. "Everyone associates the financial district with red wine and steaks," he said. "We tried to do the rib eyes and stuff, but we couldn't sell them," he said. Instead, people – especially the families and young couples now living in the nearby condos – ask for burgers and mac and cheese.
"Someone who doesn't have the expense account has options now," said Chef Corrado over at the Drake. "There used to be this huge gap downtown – really high and really low," he said. That gap has narrowed now, he said, in part to satisfy foodies. "They watch something on the Food Network, and now they can go out and experience it themselves."
And while Mr. Steh – whose 15 years of cooking has seen him working in some of the most established kitchens in the downtown core – welcomes the addition of new, more casual restaurants to the mix, he said his own style and own restaurant will remain "elegant, refined," designed to cater to the "top of the pecking order" off Bay Street.
As for Mr. Stober, he said he's excited to "bring the Queen West brand downtown." Dressed in a cardigan, a yellow t-shirt and plastic-framed glasses, Mr. Stober fit in perfectly with the youthful, laid-back artsy crowd around him one recent afternoon on the Drake's Queen St. patio. But how the Drake and its quirky brand will fit in amongst a more conservative Bay Street audience is another question. "I think the days of homogenously stereotyping people as if they only have one set of interests has given way to a myriad of interests," he said. "That's what being human is all about."
Toronto's financial district follows in the footsteps of New York, or L.A., where food culture has similarly flourished on the fringes, as opposed to inside of the central business district. But changes are happening in those cities, too – just last year for example, famed restaurateur Danny Meyer opened two restaurants in Battery Park City in New York's financial district. Mr. Stober hopes to see Toronto's financial district "blossom" in the same ways he's seen it happen in those other cities.
"We're always looking for the next big thing. Sometimes it's right before our very eyes," he said of the potential for the downtown core. "You don't have to go to the fringes all the time," he said. "And then when you see the magic that's right in front of you, you think 'why hadn't we thought of this until now?'"