The restaurant scene in Toronto is booming. Gastro gems are popping up on corners across town, and formerly neglected neighbourhoods are becoming culinary hubs for the epicurious. The trend of the tartan shirt server has slowed down – somewhat. The restos du jour are accepting reservations – mostly. Bay Streeters are brunching alongside stentorian university students. Dining out five or six nights a week has become an avocation of the everyman. As culinary culture creeps towards the middle, both in access and audience, what has become of the upper echelon of eating out? Is fine dining a dying breed in Toronto?
“I don’t think so,” Mark McEwan, pioneer of fine dining in Toronto and owner of four of the city’s most revered upscale establishments, tells me plainly. “I think as the pendulum swings it tends to exaggerate itself and find another level of balance that’s a little more reasonable.”
Like any paradigm shift it didn’t happen all at once. The camber of the culinary industry in Toronto continues to sway, with the bulk of the weight resting in the middle. As the industry began to develop in the 80s under names like McEwan, Thuet, and Bonacini it wasn’t meant to be approachable – it was designed to be exceptional.
“In the last 10 years there’s been an amazing awakening in Toronto – chefs, food, restaurants, the lifestyle,” McEwan explained. “Going to a restaurant used to be a special occasion. Now, people don’t know how to not go to restaurants.”
Dining out has moved beyond straight entertainment for the segmented few. Financial restrictions aside, self-proclaimed foodies have become as ubiquitous as movie lovers or those who like music.
Michael Dabic, owner of 16-month-old Michael’s on Simcoe and former GM of Harbour Sixty Steakhouse, would tend to agree with McEwan. “The middle of the road is getting higher end and the higher end is going towards the middle of the road,” he says.
In 2013, trendy, more laidback spots like Takht-e Tavoos and Bar Isabel were sharing space on Best Of lists with plush newcomers such as The Catch and Momofuku Shoto. Each offering exceptional and unique dining experiences, the upper crust of the category rightfully demands a different set of standards – and culls a different class of diner.
The growth of the industry – the scope of dining options and scale of interested diners – creates less space for the high-end. Fewer entrants into the market are prepared to marginalize their target audience. Those who are committed to providing an exclusive experience have to extend themselves more than ever before.
“[Now] people want even greater service when they’re shelling out for fine dining,” Dabic remarks. “Just in the same way as those who shop for designer clothing or luxury vehicles.”
“[Fine dining] has to be the full package,” McEwan contends. “There has to be a sense of luxury, that there’s something special… Is the linen polyester or damask cotton? Do you have clunky glassware, or fine, thin crystal? One must have an educated sommelier and capable maître d’.”
Take down six small plates and the right bottle of wine at The Black Hoof or Patria and one could spend as much as a three course dazzler at Scaramouche or Sassafraz. Food quality and palatal pleasure can often compare in such cases. Attention to detail and idiosyncrasies create the divide. But how much weight does this carry for the average diner? How many restaurant owners are willing to stake their livelihoods on such singularity?
“[Fine dining] restaurateurs are fighting for a diminishing market share,” say Dabic. “If everything wasn’t on the line for me, I would have failed in this business.”
“I don’t want to change at all. I don’t think I need to,” McEwan proclaims. “I still get excited at 5pm when the lights are perfect, the tables are set, and the glasses are lined up with string.”
Like the industry itself, fine dining restaurants must continue to adjust to a changing landscape. Toronto may boast larger quantities of quality midrange dining than ever before. There may be a diminished divide between them and their high-end counterparts. But it would seem as though fine dining is not a dying breed. Rather, it’s a stronger animal, and it’s putting up a fight…
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Check out Michael Dabic’s Michael’s on Simcoe below…