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Toronto's High-End Restaurant Patrons Are Dying Off

Toronto's dining scene is always described as "up-and-coming" but will it ever emerge from its second-class status? The city's top chefs weigh in.
All photos by the author.

There's a running joke among Torontonians that every time a city-ranking poll gets published, we get really riled up to see how we compare to major cities like New York and London—especially when it comes to food. Sure, our dining scene is much younger compared to those places and we don't have a Michelin Guide, but it doesn't mean our chefs aren't any less talented.

At the high-end Splendio restaurant in the Annex neighbourhood, chef and owner Victor Barry invited fellow chefs Sam Gelman of Momofuku, Anthony Walsh of the financial district's posh Canoe, and Marc Lepine of Ottawa's experimental Atelier for a multi-course collaboration dinner last week. While they were preparing for dinner service, I asked the three chefs (Walsh was preoccupied with other matters) how they think fine-dining is faring in Toronto right now.


Chef Victor Barry.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Sam. You've moved here from the States to help open Momofuku in Toronto. How does fine dining here compare to New York? Sam Gelman: I've been here for a little over three years, and I feel like in the States, because of the bigger population, more people go out for fine dining, especially in New York. It's one of those things that I find a bit frustrating in Toronto. I wish there was more people that ate fine dining more often.

Is it a money thing? Victor Barry: It's not a financial thing. There's plenty of money in New York for sure, but there's plenty of money in Toronto. There's something like 100 millionaires in the Greater Toronto Area. It's insane. It's a cultural thing. People like it, but they don't participate in it as much outside of a special occasion like a birthday. Every single table that we've had throughout the week is either a serious business meeting, or a birthday or anniversary. Let's say 10, maybe 5 percent of the people are foodies or in the industry because they're excited to see what we're doing and enjoy this style of cuisine, but it's mostly birthdays and anniversaries.

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Toronto's dining scene is still new, right? Gelman: Yes, I mean it's up and coming. More and more new stuff is happening every day. We're happy to be a part of that.

Barry: Definitely the larger, known chefs like [David Chang], Daniel [Boulud], and [Masaharu] Morimoto are coming to Toronto. It's great, it makes everyone work a little bit harder, push themselves a bit more. People in Toronto love NYC. I love NYC; it's awesome. I'll go to New York and go to Per Se and spend $2,000 for dinner for two people, but would you do that in Toronto? Most people's answer would be no.


Victor, you used to co-own The County General, a much more casual bar and restaurant serving things like fried chicken sandwiches. What made you want to leave and focus on doing fine-dining at Splendido? Barry: Everyone wants to be the best and number one, but you're not going to do that at the County General. I had a great time there and the food is great, but it's cheeseburgers and fried chicken. It's delicious, but you're not going to be number one by doing that.

You don't open two fine-dining restaurants unless you're Thomas Keller. But as far as fine-dining goes, people are saying that it's always dying. It's not dying, it's changing. It's not dying—it's changing. In Toronto, there's a small population that still wants to be greeted at the door with the proper, "Hello, sir. Good evening," but that population is dying. And by that I mean they are literally dying because they're getting old.

Sour Cherry Croquant by Marc Lepine.

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So where do you all see Toronto, or Canada, heading in terms of fine-dining in the upcoming years? Gelman: Canada's in its own path and not trying to be New York or London. The restaurant community will only grow and get stronger.

Thanks for speaking with me, guys.