The voice that answers the phone at Frank's Kitchen, the popular Mediterranean bistro on College Street, is kind but firm. Tables for the week of July 19 through July 24, she explains in a recorded message that began playing on Monday, are fully booked every night except for Sunday. Spaces are available at the bar, she assures hopeful diners, but there are no tables for parties larger than six, and groups of six are only considered for a 6 p.m. timeslot.
"The next Saturday available to book for dinner is Saturday, August 20," she says, before the beep.
Regardless of what they hope to order in this town, Toronto restaurant lovers are currently being served a heaping dish of "sorry, we're full."
As a result of rave reviews, a thriving local food scene and the real-estate restrictions of tiny, intimate restaurants, arranging a dinner out can now involve the advance-booking scenarios usually associated with planning a wedding. Smaller restaurants are full weeks in advance, and many larger ones employ early and late seatings, requiring diners to work up an appetite by 6 p.m. or drink themselves full until their table's ready at 10. Hoping to enjoy a meal with more than three of your closest friends? You may be allowed to arrange a prix fixe, but sorry, you can't order from the menu.
One frequent restaurant-goer compared the process of procuring a table on the weekend to "getting on a list for surgery," and a survey by The Globe and Mail of some popular new places, from Roncesvalles barbecue joint Barque Smokehouse to Harbord's French fave, Ici, was a tasting menu of disappointment, even with a week's notice.
As of Monday, both Barque and Ici were booked three weeks in advance, with the latter's bar seating also booked for two weeks.
At Enoteca Sociale, the popular rustic Italian joint on Dundas Street West, a request for a table on Saturday was met with an availability for 5:30 p.m. the following week.
"We don't have a later seating available until September," an employee explained.
Perhaps this is a new twist on the slow-food movement, a plot by city chefs who believe it takes a six-week wait for a reservation to make people truly savour their food.
While tables are hard to come by, stories from frustrated diners are being served up with increasing regularity.
On the food site Chowhound, where foodies compare notes on noshes, complaints abound about not being able to secure a reservation. One man remembers calling every week for more than three months in an attempt to get a seat at Ici.
Others bemoan the restrictions placed on "larger" groups and the dismissive attitude of those who guard the reservation books.
At Campagnolo, parties of six or more diners must agree to a $50-per-person fixed menu, compiled at the chef's discretion.
One woman who attempted to arrange a dinner out for eight of her thirtysomething girlfriends with two weeks notice told the Globe that she called Woodlot, Delux, Enoteca Sociale, Cafe Nervosa, Brockton General, Campagnolo and Frank's Kitchen, all of which were full, or required large parties to eat before 6 p.m. or after 10.
"Can't eight hot chicks go out for dinner at a normal hour any more?" she lamented.
Charlene Rooke, a Toronto-based editor, said it is the inconsistency of reservation policies that frustrates her as a diner.
She tried to go to Woodlot (whose answering machine graciously informs callers that they may "request" a reservation) on a Tuesday night and phoned ahead to see if she would need a reservation.
After being told a reservation would not be necessary, she and her dinner companion arrived to find the hostess on the phone and one available table for two.
As the pair waited, they listened to the hostess promise the table to a person on the phone.
"She gives away the table while I'm standing there and then she told us it would be an hour wait," recalled Ms. Rooke.
James Chatto, an editor of Food & Wine magazine and the former long-time restaurant critic for Toronto Life, believes many Toronto restaurants lack a degree of "tact and grace" when it comes to handling an increase in demand.
"It happens in New York, for sure, but for some reason they seem to do it without such offence," he said. "There's a measure of charm in the places in New York that haven't let me in which is absent from that attitude here."
Still, he finds the current difficulty in procuring a reservation in Toronto an improvement over the "no reservations" policies of places like Guu and The Black Hoof.
"That drives me up the wall, because it's just lazy. Anybody can run an efficient reservation system. It's not rocket science," he said.
Heavily booked restaurants are a sign of a healthy industry, he said, and Toronto has seen similar waits during the heyday of Centro, in the late 1980s and early years of Lee on King Street West, which opened in 2004.
"Eventually the fuss dies down and they become eager for customers," he said.
In the meantime, restaurants must be careful not to alienate diners, he said. Scheduled seatings with early and late dining times are annoying, he said, and used by restaurants to turn over tables three times in an evening.
"It looks like greed," he said. "It's really up to the kitchen to time the dishes well, not the customer."
Many of the city's popular new restaurants are also small, he noted - Ici, for example, only seats 24 - and simply can't accommodate the demand.
Others, such as Enoteca Sociale, are wisely trying to strike a balance between taking reservations and leaving some tables open for walk-ins.
"I think that's a very smart way to do it," said Mr. Chatto. "Goodwill is key in this business."
Ms. Rooke, who lived in both Vancouver and Montreal before moving to Toronto last year, feels that going out for dinner in other cities is a less stressful affair.
In Vancouver, the popular Indian restaurant Vij's often quietly provides takeout at the back door to locals who can't fight through the throng of tourists to get a seat. And in Montreal, she said, many good restaurants fly under the radar, unburdened by the onslaught of a rave review.
In her previous role as the editor of EnRoute magazine, she recalls notifying restaurants in advance if they had been selected as one of the magazine's Best New Restaurants, after the inaugural winners complained of being unprepared for the attention.
"What's frustrating in Toronto is that places open and become instantly, deeply fashionable and everybody wants to go on a Friday or Saturday at the exact same time," she said. "You have to wait two months and go on a Wednesday night. It's often so off-putting that you never go back."