For a Fun Dinner

When the food is important but the vibe is key

As we all know, the dining experience isn’t just about the food. There are a few places that I’m willing to go largely to sit in their chairs, listen to their music, or generally be entertained by the spirit of the place. Of course, it helps if the food is incredible as well. Have you ever organized a birthday party for a friend at a lame restaurant and felt super guilty about it? Pick one of these restaurants for their next birthday to make up for that. Average price between $40-80 a person. Please note: these places below all serve great beverages, but are classified (in my opinion) as “more restaurant than bar”. Check out my “For a Bar with Great Food” list for the “more bar than restaurant” options.

Tried and True:

  1. Côte de Bœuf: This Parisian wine bar is also a butcher shop and restaurant. It’s also just the most incredible “foodie secret” on Ossington.
    Potential drawback: The whole place (obviously) smells meaty.
  2. Bar Isabel: The OG of them all, Bar Isabel serves the most tantalizing Spanish dishes and cocktails, alongside freshly-baked bread in-house. I recommend giving them your budget and dietary restrictions and letting your server order for your group.
    Potential drawback: It’s pretty dark in here.
  3. Pastiche: I was sad when Boralia closed, but was super delighted to discover that my friend Nick Ruggiero, a super creative chef and great guy, had taken over the kitchen. The dishes are international fusion, tailored to an adventurous Toronto palate. Think Crocodile with miso and arugula chimichurri, or Algerian Crepes with Saffron Stewed Chicken.
    Potential drawback: It’s incredibly dark in here.
  4. Mira: Think exciting ceviches, popcorn, sausages and pickles, and fun rice dishes in a modern, Peruvian setting. Make sure to order the Pisco-based drinks.
    Potential drawback: Some may say that portions are pretty small for the price.
  5. Kōjin: Momofuku has done a bit of a revamp lately, and Colombian head chef Paula Navarrete has totally brought a cool, South American vibe to the beautiful space. The corncakes are addictive.
    Potential drawback: It feels very different than the Momofuku you once knew, in case you were feeling nostalgic.
  6. Soos: An upscale Malaysian eatery that serves all the South Asian flavours you crave like rendang beef and laksa, but with their own spin. Go with their prix-fixe menu, and feel free to tell them if there is one particular dish you really want (or don’t). They’ll make it work.
    Potential drawback: the servers never seem to have time to take a breath.
  7. Pinky’s Ca Phe: You could walk by this house several times and not realize it is the best hipster Vietnamese restaurant in town. Think sticky fish sauce chicken wings and tiger’s milk ceviche with taro chips. If you’re in a fun mood, try their “Foco Loco” cocktails. 
    Potential drawback: There isn’t much seating, and even less room to maneuver after you sit down.
  8. Kingyo: Japanese izakaya with major theatrics, without compromising any of the flavour. Like several restaurants that came to us from Vacouver, Kingyo maintains their original integrity. The bathrooms are also excellent.
    Potential drawback: It’s tucked away in residential Cabbagetown.
  9. à toi: This is an elegant speakeasy that can be found behind Coffee Oysters Champagne near St. Andrew Station. I attended their secret grand opening and it was truly an impressive experience.
    Potential drawback: There is a fun French burlesque vibe that may not be to everyone’s tastes or comfort level.
  10. Maple Leaf Tavern: An amazing menu set in a large, brassy, space. They serves one of the best burgers in Toronto, and their pickles are pretty great too.
    Potential drawback: The food is quite heavy.

Honourable Mentions:

  1. Omai: A contemporary minimalist Japanese restaurant that focuses on handrolls and izakaya food, all served at the counter (the restaurant only has 20 seats, and most of them are counter).
    Potential drawback: Traditionalists beware: their handrolls are not cone-shaped.
  2. Dailo: Nick Liu is a very creative man, and his take on modern Asian food has made a mark on the Toronto dining scene. For your first visit, make sure to order his signature Big Mac Bao. The primary location is on College Street, but there is also a Little Dailo in Assembly Chef’s Food Hall).
    Potential drawback: The portions are smaller than you may be used to.
  3. Pai: One of my favourite Thai restaurants in Toronto, and the Regulars’ (the owners) most (too) popular establishment. Anything on the menu is great, but the Pad Gra Prao and Chef Nuit Pad Thai are still my favourites.
    Potential drawback: There isn’t much else that is good in the area, which means this place is overcrowded all the time.
  4. Sabai Sabai: This is a less hectic version of Pai, and while 70% of the menu is the same, the other 30% steer towards Laotian rather than Northern Thai dishes. This place has a whole vegan menu as well. 
    Potential drawback: The restaurant is underground.
  5. Kinka Izakaya: The Kinka family of restaurants puts out incredibly fun Japanese bar food with a focus on all things grilled, and this place is great to come for a rowdy celebration.
    Potential drawback: The noise can be deafening, especially when it’s a sake bomb heavy night.
  6. Big Crow: This place is designed to be a year-round outdoor barbecue. However, instead of being inspired by the American South, they draw inspiration from the Ontario wilderness, namely, canoe trips to Algonquin Park. Bring your flannel shirt and a hearty appetite. Potential drawback: The restaurant is outdoors.
  7. Lamesa: This restaurant is at the heart of the Filipino food movement in Toronto and the best place to go for a Kamayan-style dinner (please book in advance to avoid disappointment), with finesse. Recently moved to St. Clair W.
    Potential drawback: They had a bit of a health and safety scare back in the day, but they should be good now.
  8. La Carnita: A go-to for birthdays and get-togethers, this modern taco establishment is always lively and delivers a consistently good experience. Make sure to end with a paleta or churros. Locations include John St., Queen St. E, Eglinton Ave E, and the original on College St.
    Potential drawback: It’s not as exciting as it used to be.
  9. Play Cabana Cantina: There are a few restaurants in the Playa Cabana family, but this one is my personal favourite to go for tacos and margs (it’ll even make you say margs).
    Potential drawback: Corona culture.
  10. Stelivo: An unassuming Northern Italian Restaurant decked out in black and white. Recently moved to the Dundas West neighbourhood, they are better than ever.
    Potential drawback: It’s a hard restaurant to understand.
  11. Grand Electric: I guess I would be remiss not to add the other Toronto favourite for modern tacos on my list. Seating is limited, and tacos are small, but flavours are worth it. Located in Trinity Bellwoods and Parkdale (Queen St).
    Potential drawback: The tacos are super small.

On My Radar:

  1. Adamson Barbeque: This place promises proper Southern (specifically, Central Texas) BBQ and I’m all about it.
  2. Montgomery’s: Hopeful for this place to wow with its simple Canadian fare.
  3. Skippa: Seasonal Japanese food in an omakase style.
  4. Donna’s: Offering homestyle food with a quality wine list.
  5. Lake Inez: I heard they make a mean deviled egg.
  6. Chubby’s Jamaican: Janet Zuccarini is one of the best restauranteurs around and it’s been a hot minute since I’ve had a curry goat.
  7. Quetzal: Grant van Garmeren’s latest creation is supposed to be excellent, and this time it’ll be a taste of Mexico.
  8. Imanishi: I don’t know what this Japanese home cooking spot will bring, but I can’t wait to dig in.
  9. SARA: Looks quite lovely.
  10. Paris Paris: A fun new wine bar with serious tartare game.

Last updated: October 2019