A full 90 days before I got to eat at Alo, it was already one of the most expensive meals I’d ever paid for. I had to book a table three months in advance and even with that lead time the best spot I could snag was for 9 PM on a Tuesday night. Securing the reservation required a (non- refundable) deposit of $50 per person, with the restaurant's website explaining that the deposit would help ensure an “all-encompassing experience” and be used towards a portion of my total bill.
Alo, in downtown Toronto, is considered one of the best restaurants in Canada. Their seasonal, French-inspired, tasting menu has landed numerous accolades and awards. Reviewers have championed the establishment as a bastion of traditional fine dining, touting its food and ambiance as a second-to-none culinary extravaganza.
The reason I was booking a reservation at Alo was to impress my girlfriend. During one of our first dates I had asked Sarah some dumb get-to-know-you question—what is something you’ve always wanted to try, maybe?—and she offhandedly mentioned the restaurant. A friend of hers, a producer I think, had recently visited Alo and had shared a carefully curated series of photographs on Instagram. Sarah said the restaurant looked like a dream. She made a joke about amuse-bouche I pretended to understand. When Sarah went to the washroom I wrote a note in my phone: if this works out take her to Alo.
By the time I booked the reservation the two of us had been together for six months. If I'm being honest I’ve never really felt comfortable in our relationship. Sarah is a couple years older than me and a lot further along in her career. She’s got published work and writing credits on IMDB. When she has creative appointments they’re over cocktails or power lunches. Comparatively my last creative appointment was at a 24 hour Taco Bell.
I’ve always admired Sarah’s success, it’s one of the reasons I was attracted to her in the first place, but the achievements put her in company with a whole different class of people. People who have opinions about wine pairings. People who have guest spots on sitcoms. People who brunch. Her friends and colleagues have always been kind to me, but sometimes hanging around them makes me feel like three kids in a trench coat. Like I've landed a spot at the adult table but can only stick around as long as no one looks too closely.
I compensate for that feeling in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s positive. I’ve tried to keep up with her by looking for better freelance work, cooking better meals, and actually washing my bedsheets. But other times it manifests in an overwhelming compulsion to prove I can fit in. I convince myself that if things are going to work out I need to. This time fitting in meant getting a reservation at a restaurant where a single meal is more expensive than rent at my first apartment.
My initial plan was to surprise Sarah with the reservation. It was a gift for her birthday and I liked the idea of casually dropping into the country’s top dining room like it wasn’t a big thing. But because I am absolutely useless with delaying gratification I forwarded my girlfriend the confirmation email almost immediately after receiving it. Sarah was ecstatic. For the rest of the day my phone came alive with questions about how I got a table and anecdotes about the multi-course menu. I knew I had done good.
Things went on like that for months. Sarah built up her anticipation by looking up reviews for Alo. She read articles about the chefs and browsed through photos online. During outings with friends she’d mention the upcoming meal. People would react to the news like it was some sort
of accomplishment, nodding along, and congratulating us on the future experience.
Despite the fact that I spent years working in restaurants, I’ve never really understood the appeal of fine dining. It seemed foreign, like something for other people. Still, Sarah’s enthusiasm was infectious. One afternoon while procrastinating at work I started reading through the restaurant's Yelp page. People used words like divine, exciting, and innovative. They promised it would be the best meal of my life. I bought in.
Every few days Sarah and I would feed each other a new Alo tidbit. I heard they let you pick the colour of your napkin! I heard the beef is aged for 60 days! I heard there are three different rounds of desserts! By the time our reservation rolled around I felt like we had done everything there was to do at Alo except, you know, eat there.
Alo is located on the third floor of a Victorian style building at the southern edge of downtown Toronto’s Chinatown. If you didn’t know it was there you’d never find it. The only indication of the establishment is a discrete metal sign beside the innocuous ground level entrance. As Sarah and I walked into the lobby a pristinely dressed hostess stood guarding a matte blue elevator. We told the hostess we had a reservation. She smiled a perfectly white smile, then greeted us both by name. “Graham, Sarah, welcome! We’re so glad you could join us.” I nudged Sarah with my elbow. The two of us took the elevator up and entered the restaurant. The decor at Alo was minimalist and modern, like a Crate & Barrel (the thinking man’s IKEA) catalogue come to life. After spending so much time reading about the establishment being inside felt like being on a movie set.
Someone walked us to our table. We sat and I was legitimately giddy when presented with a selection of multi coloured napkins to choose from. I took blue, Sarah took purple, and we ordered our drinks. I looked across the table and smiled, feeling grateful that I was on this date with this person. Then Sarah’s phone buzzed. It was a work thing, some urgent decision that couldn’t wait. She apologized profusely and stepped outside for a quick call. Rather than looking at my phone I decided to people watch. I wanted to take in the room.
The couple to my right were wearing freshly pressed dress shirts, patterned and folded at the elbow. They had expensive-looking chinos and shiny shoes. They chatted as a waiter brought them their next course: the bread. Every review I had read highlighted the bread as one of the absolute best parts of the meal. It was made in-house and followed up with a locally-sourced honey. The waiter started into an in-depth description of the food, hitting all the beats in a sing-song voice. It was charming. The performance made me hungrier for the bread.
As this happened the couple barely paid attention. The explanation was treated as an inconvenience and they shot daggers at the server until he left. After the couple paused, pawed at their rolls, then started a conversation on jet lag. I hated their casual attitude. Didn’t they know where they were? This was Alo!
I continued to look around the room and caught eyes with a waifish lady in a high fashion ensemble. A black dress. A tiny hat. I smiled at her, trying to express something with my face. We’re at Alo! Look at the plate you’re about to eat! It’s the aged beef! Aren’t you stoked to eat the aged beef? In return I got…not nothing. Not exactly. It was subtle. She gave me the up and the down, just with her eyes, then quickly turned away. Thinking back I’m not even sure she was looking at me. But it didn’t matter. I was exposed.
I realized that the black of my jeans didn’t match the black of my blazer. My fast fashion jacket was a couple years old, slightly faded, and a size too big. I realized that my shoes—dress boots I wore to punk shows in another life—were permanently scuffed on the right side. I was hyper aware that I didn’t have an opinion on jet lag. I couldn’t imagine a world where it would be that big of an inconvenience. My palms started to sweat. My throat dried up. Everyone else was so put together. Nobody else was treating this like it was a big deal, and for them maybe it wasn’t. Just like that I was three kids and the trench coat. I didn’t belong there.
When I was a kid my Dad hit a nasty bout of depression and was bedridden for about a year. He was too overwhelmed to get up. He lost his job, which further exasperated the sickness, and put a lot of strain on the family. Mom started taking night classes, trying to bump up her skills while providing for the four of us on a teacher salary. Family vacations stopped for a couple of years. The house got remortgaged. We were never poorly off, not really, but there were also a lot of nights eating cheap pasta. While dad got better, I never forgot how quickly everything could just kind of go away. Economic insecurity, any kind, feels like a stamp. It makes you question what you can and can’t have in life. I grew up decidedly middle class, but I still worry about money. I’m afraid my own depressive tendencies might end up putting me out of work. I worry that something bad might happen and I won’t be able to support the people I care about. If I think about retirement too much I get hives. Tonight I could pay for the dinner, it would be the entirety of a paycheck, but I could pay for it. Still, looking around the restaurant I realized I wasn’t a person who could afford this. Not really. It didn’t matter if I had the money or not.
Sarah returned to the table, apologized again, and took my hand. A waiter arrived with our drinks and the first course. I took a large gulp at my cocktail and tried to calm down. Even if the room was full of assholes, even if I felt about as welcome as an ingrown hair, I was still on a date with my girlfriend. There was still the food. Wasn’t that the point?
The waiter motioned to the small cubes on our tiny plates. It was foie gras, goose liver, prepared four different ways and presented with an artisan touch. The foie gras looked incredible. I picked up a cube—the size of dice and dusted with tiny white spheres—then took a bite, letting it sit in my mouth to really savour the taste.
The flavour was...new? I had never really tasted anything like that before. The closest thing I could compare it to was butter and rice krispies. I didn’t like it. I picked up the next cube and popped it in my mouth, hoping for something tastier. No good. The cube coated my tongue like a marshmallow made of soy sauce. I swallowed hard and looked across the table. Sarah looked blissful. She asked what I thought. “It’s great,” I told her then did the mental math in my head. If the entire tasting menu is $125 each (plus tax and tip), the those two cubes cost me at least five bucks.
As the night went on I kept wanting to have my mind blown. The waiters would arrive with some new morsel. They’d talk about the food in a professional and entertaining way. Sarah would eat the dish, basking in the complexity, and generally enjoying herself. I’d play along but the food was so outside of my palate that I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe why I didn’t enjoy it. Even to myself. It was the culinary equivalent of a Jackson Pollock. I knew this was supposed to be great, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough to get why. The Lameque Oyster with Pomme Puree tasted of...brine? The St Canut Pork Belly was fatty? The accompanying wine pairs were too acidic or too...grape-like? They definitely had notes of grape. Halfway through the meal I was half in the bag. I felt dumb and poor and excused myself to the washroom.
Getting up from my chair I realized Alo had started to empty out, jet lagged and tiny hat had gone home, but even if it had just been me and Sarah I still don’t think I would have felt comfortable. It was too nice. Too rich. Too much. But I wanted to feel comfortable. I wanted to be a person who understood booze notes and enjoyed foie gras. I wanted to prove I could fit in with the fashionistas and the foodies. I wanted to enjoy the meal, even if I didn’t like the taste. But I couldn’t do it, the best I could manage was to pretend.
Most of our insecurities are self imposed. Mine are at least. With my background it’s a falsehood to martyr myself as a class warrior. I don’t have any debt and any outsider status I feel is probably just a trickle down of old teenage insecurities. While I know this, it still doesn’t mean that they’re not there. If I told people I belonged at Alo they might believe me. But I wouldn’t believe myself. If you make a face in the wind sometimes it sticks that way.
I walked back to our table just as two rounds of desserts arrived, the final courses in the tasting menu. Apple Yeast and Caramelized Whey, then Coconut White Chocolate and Yogurt. I ate both in two bites, swallowing them down before I have too much time to think about anything. It tasted fine. The bill arrived and I looked at the damage. With tip it was well over $400. I threw down a credit card and Sarah looked me in the eye. “That was a really incredible night,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Happy to do it.”
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.