Toronto’s fine dining may soon surpass Montreal’s
Pantelly (Telly) Damoulianos (left) and Stratos
Papachristopoulos of Dine.TO
By Colleen Isherwood, Editor
TORONTO—Fine dining in Toronto appears to be making a comeback, the locavore ethos is showing up in restaurant trends, and—this coming from two guys who run prominent restaurant guides in both cities—Toronto could soon overtake Montreal as Canada’s pre-eminent dining city.
Stratos Papachristopoulos and Pantelly Damoulianos, who are originally from Montreal, founded the Dine.TO website 10 years ago.
Their website enables them to track information regarding calls and online reservations for their 500 member restaurants in Toronto.
This year, they report that restaurant reservations are up, but more particularly, reservations at fine dining restaurants, where dishes sell for $20-$30 a plate, increased by nine per cent last year.
“Three and a half years ago, the economic downturn affected consumer behaviour in Canada,” Damoulianos notes. “People were now contacting and requiring reservations for more casual restaurants, upper casual restaurants. In 2010, casual restaurants were on the rise, but in 2011, to our surprise, they were decreasing again. A rise in fine dining started happening again. We started contacting fine dining restaurants to find out what was going on.”
The downturn caused some fine dining restaurants to change their menus to become more competitive. But customers also want to take a mini-vacation from their life.
“The average check did decrease a bit—they’d order the $40 wine instead of the $100 bottle,” Damoulianos notes.
Dine.TO research found that there was also a trend toward local foods despite the perception of being more expensive. “Diners are opting out of Greek, Italian or Ethnic and opting more for local food—it’s nice to see,” he adds.
“Thai was popular three or four years ago, as was Indian food,” says Papachristopoulos. “Now there’s more of an awareness when it comes to Canadian food.” Indeed, Canadian is No. 3 on the list of restaurant types, trailing Italian and seafood, and topping Mediterranean and steakhouses. A few years ago, Canadian food wouldn’t have made the list, he says.
There is also a trend toward flourishing boutique restaurants of 40 to 60 seats. “Even though [local food] costs more money, they have smaller dishes to accommodate the Canadian cuisine,” says Papachristopoulos.
Examples of boutique restaurants with a quasi-comfort, fine dining environment include Ursa on Queen St. West, Ruby Watchco and JP Challet’s Ici Bistro.
“The chefs in these restaurants have a fine dining background,” says Papachristopoulos.
Montreal vs. Toronto
When the Dine.TO founders came from Montreal to Toronto 10 years ago, they found that Toronto’s dining scene “had a lot of chains,” as opposed to Montreal, “where independents rule.”
But over the past decade, more independents have been launched, and Toronto foodies have become dependent on these restaurants for better quality food.
Says Damoulianos, “Toronto is becoming more of a dining capital, and may overthrow Montreal at some point.”
The reason, they say, is that Toronto chefs and hospitality experts are working together to make things happen, whereas in Montreal everyone is in it for themselves. The local and organic movements are very strong in Toronto.
“And for the past 10 years, Montrealers have been dining on a budget.” But “Montreal has some fantastic restaurants,” Damoulianos hastens to add. The two also own Question de Goût (QDG.ca) in Montreal.
Hotel dining stigma
Ten years ago there was also a stigma around hotel dining—people didn’t dine inside hotels unless they were staying at those hotels, Damoulianos remembers.
“When we first launched, we were not really working with hotel restaurants. Now, there is more and more uniqueness. They have stepped up to the plate with organic options on the menu,” he notes, pointing to Jamie Kennedy and Massimo Capra’s restaurants in Niagara Falls hotels. At the recent opening of Jamie Kennedy’s new restaurant in Niagara Falls, Tony Aspler provided guidance on the wine list, showing that both the chef and sommelier are top notch.
“Hotels want to invest and attract local people seeking this type of dining,” adds Papachristopoulos.
“They actually built their own cheese boutique at TOCA, [inside the Ritz-Carlton]”, says Damoulianos. “Big, renowned [hotel] chains are working with local chefs to make things happen.”
Dine.TO has another sister site in Edmonton—though that market has its challenges due to the provincial labour problem.
Damoulianos and Papachristopoulos are planning the following:
o A Dine.TO-type website in Vancouver to launch later this year.
o A nation-wide restaurant guide called Taste My Country—and eventually a guide that covers all of North America.
o Dine.TO’s own version of OpenTable, which currently has a monopoly on real-time reservations. Dine.TO hopes to launch its own real-time reservation software by the end of the summer. They say they can offer their members relief from OpenTable’s rates.
Dine.TO has an extensive database of more than 10,000 restaurants, hotels, lounges, banquet halls, bars, clubs and all-things-gastronomic.
Restaurateurs comment on Toronto fine dining scene
Erik Joyal, owner, Table 17: “The business as a whole has been steadily increasing over the last five months, and it’s relative to the city we live in. Just look around at all the cranes in the skyline – Toronto is booming.
“We’re noticing a higher frequency in customers, and with the economy in good shape, people are no longer in fear of spending.”
Julian Gova, GM, Mistura: “At the end of the day people want to eat and be entertained; this will never change.
“People will always return to a restaurant with a great product and service, but now they’re more financially conscious. Rather than a $150 bottle of wine, they’ll order a $75 bottle.”
Steven Mastoras, owner, Whistler’s Grille & The McNeil Room: “We’ve been open for over 30 years and our reservation numbers are on the climb and we see this number continuing to rise this year.”