There are still plenty of affordable places, too, of course. Many of the best restaurants in Montreal remain eminently reasonable; the owners of Mastard, an ambitious neighbourhood spot I fell in love with, have made value for money a priority. In Montreal especially, it’s far from alone. For a lot of chefs there, being accessible to friends and neighbours is as important as getting a good sear on a piece of line-caught fish.
I found excellent mid-range options in Nova Scotia too, like Dartmouth’s superb, family-run Canteen. (When it’s available, the restaurant’s lobster and snow crab “crobster” sandwich might just be my vote for the single greatest sandwich on earth.) In Calgary, I found the excellent Ten Foot Henry, as well as Paper Lantern, a second-generation Vietnamese kitchen and lounge tucked away in Chinatown. As a bonus, Paper Lantern’s “better tiki” cocktails were brilliant: tiki-style, but made with rare smarts and balance, and without the usual sickly sweet. And even Calgary’s flashy (if underwhelming) new “high-end steakhouse,” called Major Tom, was priced more like a stealthy mid-range spot, with affordable options hidden between the menu’s attention-grabbing big-ticket spends.
I did double-takes at wine lists across Alberta and B.C. especially; compared to the rest of the country, drinking in restaurants out west can seem almost absurdly cheap. I routinely found good bottles in the mid-$40s range, even from fancy, best-of-class cellars like the one at Calgary’s River Café. At Arike, an ambitious Pacific Northwest–
style Nigerian spot in Vancouver’s west end, the wine pairings to accompany chef Sam Olayinka’s one-of-a-kind $75 tasting menu sold, the last time I looked, for just $29.
It’s important to note, too, that even though the mid-range has faded in the priciest centres, it’s far from finished, as the success of standouts like Ottawa’s Supply & Demand and Toronto’s Bernhardt’s shows. And meantime, suburban restaurants—places like my top picks One2 Snacks and Guru Lukshmi—are more appealing than ever; they’ve been the mid-range (and lower-end) heroes all along.
Another major impact of the restaurant boom: reservations at the most popular places have become a blood sport. At Vancouver’s AnnaLena, to cite just one, you should be online at precisely 9 a.m. PST a full 30 days (no more, no less) before you hope to dine. At many other places, a two-week wait for non-prime nights and times has become the standard. The upshot? At a popular spot with a bit of hype behind it, you might be able to find a Tuesday evening table at 5 p.m.—if you’re the sort of person who thinks to book your Tuesday dinners several weeks in advance.
How people dine once they get through the doors has also undergone some dramatic changes, the most consequential of them the rapid adoption of tasting menus at the upper mid-range and high end. Even three or four years ago, tasting menus were generally seen as high-risk rarities, reserved for only the very best or most brazen places. (And also for sushi counters. Diners seem to love omakase sushi.) Today, they’re quickly becoming standard operating procedure, not merely among established, higher-end spots—Edulis and Alo in Toronto, St. Lawrence, Burdock, Kissa Tanto and Maenam in Vancouver, and too many more to name—but also for many untested chefs.
At their best, tasting menus are a brilliant way to eat out. Kitchens can focus on only their best work and ingredients, nimbly adjusting their menus day-to-day to feature new ideas and peak-season product, and serving them so a meal unfolds as a thoroughly considered—and most importantly, delicious—experience from beginning to end. (You’ll find the greatest of those places on my list.)
Yet the chefs and restaurants that manage to do that while truly putting the diner first remain a rarity. In spite of those menus’ surging popularity, their benefits most often accrue to the house. Tasting menus bring a rare degree of predictability to running a restaurant; it’s exponentially easier to control costs when you know in advance exactly what your customers are going to eat. And they also guarantee a minimum spend, so that diner who used to order a salad and an appetizer and a glass of tap water while—to put it bluntly—taking up a valuable seat, has no choice now but to drop $125 (or in many cases, far more) for the “menu degustation.”
That tasting-menu craze is also being driven by the dawn of tourism board–funded Michelin ratings in Vancouver and Toronto. It’s hard not to feel that many places are playing more to the inspectors’ fondness for static and perfectable multi-course menus and fancy decor than to legitimately seasonal, market-driven cooking, or, God forbid, what their customers want.
Another Michelin-related phenomenon I witnessed time and again on my travels: a notable rise in what I think of as the moneyed checklist star-chaser. They’re the seen-it-all, tried-it-all types who look utterly bored and disengaged as they work through their dinners, but nonetheless photograph or video almost every single bite. Increasingly, diners are required to pay in advance, too. As for cancellations (too bad, friend) and no-shows (for a full refund, please dial 1-800-SUCK-IT), they’re on their way to extinction.
When you add all those phenomena together—pre-paid bookings, the rise of tasting menus, cash-flush diners and the continued ascent of a social media–fuelled hype economy—they can do some immense good. These are the same innovations that allowed scores of pandemic-era pop-ups, takeout businesses and small-time foodpreneurs to thrive; since the great reopening, many young and lesser-known chefs without the old-style professional or economic capital have harnessed that model to build DIY hospitality careers. And especially at the higher end, eating out in fancy restaurants is supposed to be a luxury. Even many of the priciest places in Canada are still a steal when compared to international dining towns. Yet the big “if” behind so many of these changes is how well they’ll stick once the dining frenzy ends.
Pre-pandemic dining was mostly a buyer’s market, in which customers were always right and many restaurateurs kept a lid on prices by taking advantage of their staff. Through the post-pandemic reopening, the pendulum then swung hard the other way.
In making my best list, I stayed hyper-attuned to where individual contenders fell on that spectrum. I ate in buzzing taco shops and boisterous ramen-yas, Tamil snack counters, pasta joints and an Indigenous pop-up. I tried luxe, high-French restaurants and dosa houses, dim sum and seafood and Nigerian cooking specialists, wine bars, Middle Eastern, South American and Southeast Asian spots, and an extremely earnest tasting-menu place where they make the bathroom’s hand soap from used coffee grounds and cooking grease. (Please: don’t ever.) No matter where I travelled, I watched for restaurants that had warm service, reasonable value, spectacular cooking and, as always, a sense of genuineness and joy. And the good news? I found them in almost every city I visited.
I can’t help thinking we’ll be seeing many more of them too—that the great dining frenzy, and that perpetually swinging pendulum, might soon settle out at a comfortable mid-point, where for once, just maybe, everybody wins.