Shared plates are back:And you still need a math degree to make sense of portion sizes. At Quebec City’s Melba, “hors d’oeuvres” are for the table, “to share” is for two, and dessert is just for me. Halifax’s Salt & Ash has a Kitchen Party section “for two or the table… depends on your appetite.” Meanwhile, Fortuna’s Row in Calgary has “snacks,” “small plates,” “sharing plates,” and “let us feed you.” (That's definitely the plan!).
A recent history of shared plates
Mid–1980s: The trend begins when North American travellers bring a taste of Spanish tapas home.
Early 1990s: Tapas begets mezze, small plates packed with big Mediterranean flavours.
Late–1990s: We’re liberated from appetizers and main courses! But the logistical nightmare begins. How do you split four coconut shrimp among three people drinking cosmos?
2000s: Small plates gain a foothold in all types of restaurants, moving it toward mega trend status, and that familiar refrain: “Everything is meant to be shared. For a group of four we recommend between eight and 12 dishes.”
2023: What does eating your own main course feel like again?
Whether it was slinging back zero–proof cocktails, munching two kinds of meringue or ordering countless shared plates, I tracked the key restaurant trends that defined my cross–country culinary journey of 2023.
Proudly Canadian ingredients:Bison, beef, lamb, sea buckthorn, spruce tips, sweetgrass, pineapple weed, rhubarb, nasturtium, rose petals, blueberries, currants, East Coast oysters, West Coast clams, sea urchin, wheat, cloudberries, snow crab, scallops, side stripe shrimp, lobster, saffron, seaweed, stinging nettles, to name a few sampled during my month–long trip. This is the year Portage in St. John’s makes the case for donair sauce, too.
Zero–proof drinks:Goodbye mocktails, hello spirit–free cocktails soaring with creative twists and favourite tastes. At Marilena Café and Raw Bar in Victoria, the Aperitif Spritz (Undone No.7 Not Orange Bitter, Grüvi bubbly) may be better than the original, while at Vancouver’s Suyo, the Sanctuary is an arborist’s delight, all oakmoss, birch sap, alder wood and barrel–aged bitters. The Rhubarb Breakfast Martini (Seedlip Spice 94, lemon, honey, and rhubarb jam) at Simpl Things in Toronto is a coupe of delicious tartness, and in Calgary, Bar Chouette’s Zero A–Peel (Seedlip Grove 42, apple cider vinegar, orange and lemon juice, cinnamon syrup, orange blossom water, egg white) is a spiced delight. Inclusive drinking has never been so refreshing.
Staff uniforms are back:The team of chefs who also do some serving at Montreal’s Cabaret l’Enfer sport short–sleeved chef’s whites and aprons, while hostesses in cable–knit sweaters and mom jeans lead the way at Salt & Ash in Halifax. At Victoria’s Marilena Café and Raw Bar it’s all about crisp white shirts, navy aprons and ties (regular and bow). And in many cross–Canada restaurants, it’s toques and trucker hats for all, in keeping with kitchen tradition.
Tartare Tuesdays?On many menus – and every menu in Quebec – tartare is a favourite. Most come with original twists, be it in a temaki at Montreal’s Anemone, spun with sea urchin at Les Mômes, egg yolk gel at 9 Tail Fox, salsa anticuchera at Vancouver’s Suyo or spring onions at Espace Old Mill in Stanbridge East. Toronto’s Casa Paco’s take is half steak, half tartare, while Folke’s version in Vancouver is made of beets. One–month tartare tally: 16.
Snack culture:Forget Netflix and chill. It’s time to restaurant and snack. Smoked olives, mozzarella sticks, seaweed beignets, cheesy crab dip. Gimme.
9 Tail Fox (Montreal): Tempura oyster mushrooms
Bar Chouette (Calgary): Fried crumpets with elderflower honey and cultured butter
Brassica (Gibsons, B.C.): Barbecue potato chips with cashew ranch
Casa Paco (Toronto): Olives and marconas
Darlings (Bloomfield, ON): Focaccia with nduja oil and fresh stracciatella
Dotty’s (Toronto): Pimento cheese and Ritz
Fawn (Halifax): Hot crab dip with Ritz
Fortuna’s Row (Calgary): Braised beef empanadas
Lao Lao Bar (Toronto): Green papaya fritters
Les Mômes (Montreal): Homemade crackers and boreal ranch
Milpa (Calgary): Salsa tasting with plantain, taro and corn chips
Portage (St. John’s): Donair spring roll
Rizzo’s House of Parm (Crystal Beach, ON): Mozzarella sticks
Suyo (Vancouver): Yucas fritas with golf and huancaina sauce
Tofu a go–go:Be it soft, firm, flavoured or plain, tofu is all things to all people, and it’s suddenly everywhere. Toronto’s Kappo Sato offers fresh homemade tofu skin, while Lao Lao Bar dishes it out in drunken noodles. Cherry tomatoes with silken tofu and fermented tomato vinaigrette is Chinatown meets Saanich in the kitchen of Victoria’s Ugly Duckling Dining & Provisions and at Folke in Vancouver, it’s the cheesecake’s base.
Price check:My dad used to say he could get a corned beef sandwich and a Coke for 25 cents. While those days are long gone, the advent of the $65 entrée is new; a reflection of inflation, food costs and our spendy new reality. Prepare to pay. At Montreal’s Le Molière par Mousso the filet de boeuf façon Rossini was $70, Portage in St. John’s offered halibut with doubanjiang and coconut for $64, a shared plate of duck confit legs and grilled breast with green rice and egg at Calgary’s Fortuna’s Row clocked in at $65 and a Berkshire pork chop at Whistler’s Wild Blue was a cool $74.
Dinner and a show:At Montreal’s Cabaret L’Enfer, all the world’s a stage with chefs standing shoulder to shoulder in the galley–style kitchen as the restaurant audience looks on. Open kitchens bring us closer to the action and make us feel like we’re in this together. And they’re everywhere, from Winnipeg’s Petit Socco to Vancouver’s Suyo, Richmond’s Acre Through the Seasons and Victoria’s Marilena Café & Raw Bar to name a few. We love to see it.
Meringue sweetens the deal:Whether it’s soft and fluffy or crisp and crunchy, meringue is having a moment. At Melba in Quebec City, an island of soft meringue topped with poached rhubarb and crispy meringue bits, floating in crème anglaise. Brassica in Gibsons has an Eton mess with elderflower, Halifax’s Fawn serves the best lemon meringue pie in an age, and Bar Chouette in Calgary has a two–temp îles flottante of frozen coconut mousse, meringue, cardamom crème anglaise and warm roasted pineapple. Meanwhile, Montreal’s Cabaret l’Enfer delights with a meringue skull on sorbet.
French: Soft and fluffy, uncooked and unstable. For home cooks making pie.
Italian: Cooked to a higher temperature and whipped to a fluffy, marshmallow–like consistency. For special occasion cakes.
Swiss: French’s kissing cousin, it’s cooked and whipped, denser and shinier. The workhorse.
Dynamic duos:Co–chefs in the kitchen are all about collaboration, creativity and (hopefully) less stress. At Portage in St. John’s, owners Celeste Mah and Ross Larkin are a sweet and savoury husband and wife duo. So too, Gibsons’ Brassica team of Jack Chen and Hilary Prince, while Toronto’s Casa Paco has co–owner and co–chefs Rob Bragagnolo and Caroline Chinery in the kitchen.