Skip to main content

Dozens of patrons line up outside Guu, a new restaurant in Toronto that does not take reservations.J.P. MOCZULSKI

Last Saturday night, a lineup of 40 people snaked from the rough wooden door of Guu Izakaya, a recently opened Japanese restaurant that seats just 63 diners. Shivering for an hour and a half before abandoning their attempt at getting a table, 15 dancers from the National Ballet huddled together for warmth, their feet in first position, smoking cigarettes to stave off hunger.

In front of them, a group of four sipped cans of Maclays beer in sub-zero temperatures. As one hour stretched into two, the waiting crowd shuffled their feet, complained, and quietly mocked a sockless man whose attempt to bribe his way in is politely rebuffed. Whenever diners exited the restaurant, they let out a halfhearted cheer.

Guu is part of a new breed of restaurants whose lineups are as talked about as their menus, and how they manage them is just as key to their continued success.

Small, trendy and located in the city's most up-and-coming neighbourhoods, they trade in a self-described lack of pretension, offering hungry hipsters inexpensive, trendy food in the simplest of packages: Neapolitan pizza, homemade charcuterie, freshly rolled pasta and quick-seared sashimi.

But the popularity of places like Guu, Local Kitchen, The Black Hoof and Pizza Libretto has quickly outgrown the number of diners they can seat, and restaurants that describe themselves as casual now require fierce dedication just to get through the door.

Sheryl Kirby, editor of Taste TO, believes the crowds scrambling for space at one of these restaurant's shabby chic tables are demonstrating the city's provincial attitude toward food, where partaking in the latest trend is more important than the quality of the meal itself.

"We'll stand in line and get yelled at because at least we got to come," said Sheryl Kirby of Taste TO. "If it's the cool place to be, people will take that abuse."

Like some diners, she is frustrated by the increasing number of restaurants that don't offer reservations and says the food some of them offer does not measure up to the hype. She compares the current craze for charcuterie to the come-and-gone tapas trend, when people paid $12 for a bowl of olives. Coca, a trendy place on Queen Street West, opened to large crowds but was out of business two years later.

"There's huge amount of false buzz about places now," said Ms. Kirby. "I don't line up for anything."

Not everyone is so calm about expressing their disdain.

In early January, a man named David arrived at 5 p.m. for an anniversary dinner with his wife. Posting on Toronto Life's Daily Dish food blog, he described an enjoyable meal, which he claims was cut short by the restaurant's two-hour time limit. He objected to being asked to leave and an argument ensued. He screamed at the staff, kicked another customer in the groin (in self-defence, he claimed) and knocked over garbage cans outside when he was removed from the restaurant. Eventually, the staff called the police.

"Obviously he has anger issues," said the restaurant's manager James Kim, who also controls the fate of his diners with the all-important waiting list. "I just want to forget about it and move on."

Guu has nightly lineups at each of its five Vancouver locations, but Mr. Kim said they did not expect such large crowds - let alone fights - in Toronto in the first year. His staff is already overwhelmed.

They bought commercial patio heaters this week to keep people warm while they wait, and will start distributing hot green tea to people in the queue.

Popularity has come quickly to many new establishments, leaving them similarly scrambling to accommodate the rush. But their owners say the attention is earned, and that most customers happily submit to dining delays.

"I think people like lineups," said Michael Sangregorio, the owner of Local Kitchen. "People want to eat in busy restaurants."

Reservations, he says, are incompatible with the realities of a small restaurant. Booking tables in advance eats up valuable time during the day and limits the amount of plates that can be served.

To make booking work, restaurants must have higher prices and larger dining rooms, she said. Smaller places, where plates can cost between $6 and $25, must turn over tables quickly and keep seats constantly filled to remain financially viable.

Mr. Sangregorio takes reservations only for parties larger than six, or those willing to pay $50 per person for a special chefs menu. On most nights, he maintains a wait list for more than two hours.

"Sometimes people don't come back," he said. "A lot do, but at the end of the night there's always about four or five that we lose."

He has noticed that an older demographic of diner is absent from his popular new bistro on Queen Street West at Roncesvalles, because those willing to wait tend to be in their 20s and 30s.

But the place is constantly packed and Mr. Sangregorio believes the difficulty in getting a table has added to Local Kitchen's appeal.

On Ossington, Pizza Libretto is still trying to work out the kinks in its flow issues, says general manager Daniel Clarke.

The restaurant has stopped taking reservations for large parties, but has added a second hostess on busy nights to help manage the wait list.

Staff try to be up front about potential wait times, and no longer let people wait inside the restaurant, hovering over seated diners. Instead, they take cell phone numbers and tell people to go for a drink at a nearby bar.

"We never anticipated being as busy as we are, and obviously we're very happy, but along with that comes problems," Mr. Clarke said.

Rather than reassessing their reservation policies, most new restaurants are taking their cue from Terroni, an ever-expanding empire that does not take reservations and refuses to alter either its dishes or its attitude. The longer the lineups get, the more locations they open.

Following suit, The Black Hoof recently opened a cafe across the street, where they direct people to wait until their table is available. Local Kitchen is considering a similar move, and the owner of Pizza Libretto is planning a second Ossington restaurant.

Guu, just one month old and already driving middle-aged men to violence, is also planning for Toronto venue No. 2.

Interact with The Globe