When Jonathan Segal was planning to expand his female-friendly STK steakhouse chain outside the United States, he looked to Toronto, and three neighbourhoods in particular: King Street West, Yorkville and the downtown core.
Over the years, as opportunities came and went in each of the areas, Yorkville emerged as his preferred location with its mix of posh stores, offices and condo developments. He was also attracted to what he sees as the neighbourhood's restaurant revival.
"There's no question of doubt that the resurgence of dining in that area was a considering factor," Mr. Segal, CEO of the One Group, which operates STK restaurants, said over the phone from New York. "And also the amount of new development that's there and planned to be happening there. All of these things helped to cement the deal for us."
Some eight years after he began his Toronto search, Mr. Segal, who has 10 STKs in three countries, finally found a spot – 8,880 square feet on the second floor at the corner of Yorkville Avenue and Avenue Road – and is planning to open the doors to his first Canadian location some time in the fall.
He is not alone in choosing Yorkville. In the past few years, well-known restaurateurs – from superstar chef Daniel Boulud to the group behind the city's acclaimed Buca restaurants – have also set up shop. The new eateries have helped elevate the cuisine of an area often seen as a hub of high prices and outdated, mediocre cooking.
Briar de Lange, executive director of the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area, says there has been "a marked improvement in the food quality and in the menu offerings." In addition to Café Boulud, she points to Mark McEwan's One restaurant, which opened eight years ago in the Hazelton Hotel.
"It is changing in the sense that we're certainly getting a very high calibre of restaurant and food quality, and the celebrity-chef aspect from Mark McEwan and Daniel Boulud is a definite change," she said.
In addition, Ms. de Lange notes that the number of restaurants in the affluent neighbourhood is on the upswing, increasing by an estimated 20 per cent in the past five to 10 years. The residential population is also expanding, from about 30,000 people a decade ago to about 40,000 now, with another 10,000 expected when several nearby condo developments are finished, she said.
The neighbourhood boom was a key reason behind Nicki Laborie's decision to buy a restaurant on Cumberland Street where she plans to open Bar Reyna, a Mediterranean snack and cocktail bar, next month.
"You can feel the resurgence in the neighbourhood," she said. "From a business standpoint, I think that most people would agree that to be surrounded by the best is a great way to launch a business and to want to be part of that."
In addition, Eataly, the high-end Italian eatery and foodie shopping destination, is slated to open its first Canadian store next year in Toronto and officials have scouted a number of sites in the Yorkville area.
Restaurant enthusiast Josh Josephson, who is president and owner of Josephson Opticians, which has its flagship store on Bloor Street West, and a judge for several restaurant rankings, has also noticed an improvement in local eating establishments, citing Buca, Kasa Moto, the flashy Japanese restaurant on Yorkville Avenue, and the retooled Café Boulud in the Four Seasons Hotel. But he stops short of saying there has been a revival.
"I'd say the area hasn't improved a huge amount but it's slightly better," he said. "I think there's a range of choices around the area that are good. You've got a lot of choices to be able to eat around here."
Despite the more recent arrivals, Mr. Josephson notes that Yorkville is home to several long-running top eateries, such as Joso's ("which is still the best fish restaurant in the city") while bemoaning the February closure of Pangaea after almost 20 years.
For their part, the restaurateurs behind Buca weren't even considering a second location but changed their minds when the developer of the new Four Seasons Hotel approached them about setting up shop in the base of the residents' tower. Almost three years later, Peter Tsebelis, Buca's co-founder and managing director of the King Street Food Company, says the timing was fortuitous.
"I think we were very honoured to be asked to go into the Four Seasons but I think also very lucky in retrospect that maybe we got in there just ahead of the curve," he said.
Despite the prevailing wisdom that rents in the exclusive area are too high for restaurants – a factor many culinary observers believe stifles innovation and risk-taking, leading to over-priced conventional dishes – Mr. Tsebelis says that's simply not true.
"I think that's been a misnomer for some time," he said. "I think the … market was perceived as being more of a retail area and maybe too expensive for restaurants to handle the rent in Yorkville, but I don't think that's the case at all."
The One Group's Mr. Segal concurs, saying he was "completely priced out of the market" in the King Street West area when searching for a Toronto STK site. He also felt the neighbourhood wasn't central enough and attracted a younger clientele than his target audience (which he defines as "men who are in their late 30s, early 40s; women who are in their mid- to late-20s and up.") He looked in the downtown core, but felt it was too sleepy on weekends. Yorkville, however, "satisfied each of the wishes that we had," he said.
"We like the area because there's a greater attraction to dining there now and I think it's because landlords are being more sensible with restaurants because they want to have the inclusive experience for the shoppers and for the visitors in the region."