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 $80-100 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 French wine bar is also a butcher shop and restaurant. It’s also just the most incredible “secret but not really” place on Ossington. Potential drawback: The whole place (obviously) smells meaty. They don’t (really) take reservations, so plan to put your name down and grab a drink elsewhere before coming back.
  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, and there aren’t a lot of vegetables on the menu.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Kōjin: As part of Momofuku’s revamp (goodbye Noodlebar), and Colombian head chef Paula Navarrete has totally brought a cool, South American vibe to the beautiful space. The corn cakes are addictive. Potential drawback: It feels very different than the Momofuku experience in New York, in case you were feeling nostalgic.
  7. 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.
  8. La Palette: A true casual French wine bar that has been on Queen Street West forever. Potential drawback: Their kitchen and dining room are one and the same and the ventilation is terrible.
  9. 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 super good in the area, which means this place is overcrowded all the time. It’s also gotten so much press, it’s constantly a revolving door of people.
  10. Campechano: There are two locations of the Mexican taco spot (Adelaide and College) and both are great for a casual group dinner. I’ve removed other taco places on the list that used to be more fun and have replaced them with this. They have a focus on ethically-raised meats and high quality masa. Potential drawback: A lot of the seating is outdoors, so be careful when weather is an issue.

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. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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: You need some context to really appreciate this restaurant.

On My Radar:

  1. Montgomery’s: They’ve closed for now but there is a chance they may come back and I will be here for it.
  2. Sunny’s Chinese: I tried MIMI and thought it was pretty good (though there are more bells and whistles than I like) but I would also like to give Sunny’s in-person location a try!
  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. Imanishi: I don’t know what this Japanese home cooking spot will bring, but I can’t wait to dig in.
  8. SARA: Looks quite lovely.
  9. Paris Paris: A fun new wine bar with serious tartare game.

Last updated: November 2022