A Menu for Change: Checking in on enRoute’s Top 10 Restaurants of 2019

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Many of our 2019 list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants (published last November) celebrated their one-year anniversary in quarantine. We caught up with last year’s Top 10 to see how they are navigating the pandemic, what changes they have made and what the future holds.

August 13, 2020

Ten — Toronto

“A restaurant can no longer be just about the food.”

— chef Julian Bentivegna

Chef Julian Bentivegna at restaurant Ten in Toronto
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

March 14, 2020 was the last day that Ten was in full operation. The team, optimistic at first, pivoted to takeout, but quickly realized it wasn’t financially sustainable. After closing for two months, they launched “Ten to Go”: all-vegetarian options for pickup that have been embraced by returning customers missing Ten’s plant-forward tasting menus. “As chefs, one of our most useful skills is being able to adapt,” explains Bentivegna. “I wanted a way to highlight seasonal produce and still be able to pay the bills.” Bentivegna has also been reflecting on how leading restaurants are run, advocating for the elimination of the tip system and supporting higher wages. “This pandemic has been a reckoning for a lot of people in the industry,” he says.

A green themed vegetarian dish served at Ten in Toronto
Prepping a leafy vegetable in Ten's kitchen
   Photos: Maude Chauvin

Frustrated by conversations with landlords, and the limbo of not knowing what’s happening with the commercial rent relief, Bentivegna has been reaching out to other Toronto chefs like Jed Smith from Donna’s to share his struggles. And the community support hasn’t stopped there. The team at Ten delivers 40 meals to local women’s shelters every few weeks, and have opened a handful of “community fridges” – fully stocked with produce that was over ordered, left over from a cancellation or donated, and cleaned by a group of 20 volunteers (the first one is located at 113 College St., in front of the restaurant). “A restaurant can no longer be just about the food,” he explains. “If you went through the garbage of the world’s top tier restaurants you would be shocked.” Bentivegna says he’s not perfect but is trying to come out of this better than he started. “As chefs or restaurant owners, we need to figure out a way to give back, check our privilege and uplift voices.”

Nowhere *A Restaurant — Victoria

“The overwhelming support from the community allowed us to keep our financial commitments to our farmers, and to hire everyone back right away.”

— chef Clark Deutscher

The team stands in front of Nowhere *A Restaurant
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

Once the closures were announced, Nowhere *A Restaurant kicked off a full renovation, adding built-in wooden dividers so that diners would have “private rooms” upon reopening. During construction, sister restaurant Hanks was busy with takeout business (250 orders on their first night!) but when restrictions were lifted for in-room dining at Nowhere, Hanks took a hit. “We kind of played the restaurants off each other. People are either comfortable eating in a dining room, or not,” explains Deutscher. “And the overwhelming support from the community allowed us to keep our commitments to our farmers and bring all our employees back right away.”

A wooden booth at Nowhere *A Restaurant
   Photo: Jonna Deutscher and Laura Cousins

Flipping to a two-and-a-half-hour, tasting menu-only dining experience has allowed Nowhere to do contact tracing and cover costs, but a recent spike in B.C.’s Covid-19 cases has tightened guidelines again. “We went from a full house to zero reservations in July,” says Deutscher. But there have also been some silver linings. “The competitive aspect between restaurants disappeared. Everyone is just trying to help each other through this,” he says. Nowhere has always considered themselves a local restaurant – using 70 percent local products – but now they say it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s something they have to do. “We’re 100 percent local now, whether that’s wine, beer or the farms,” Deutscher says. And then there’s family. “We have a one-year-old baby and being home together is probably the greatest thing that could have happened.”

Dispatch — St. Catharines, Ontario

“We’re taking this opportunity to learn about ourselves and others.”

— chef Adam Hynam-Smith

Chef Adam Hynam-Smith preparing take-out orders at Dispatch
   Photo: Brilynn Ferguson

Chef Adam Hynam-Smith’s eggs are all in one basket and he’s not afraid to say he’s scared. “I’ve never been as terrified about our livelihood,” he explains. “But I’m not hiding behind my pride, afraid to talk about how bad it is.”

The past four months have been a humbling experience for Hynam-Smith, his wife, co-owner Tamara Jensen, and the team at Dispatch. They chose not to open indoors to help flatten the curve, struggled to launch an online store, tried to build and grow an in-store retail business, refined their meal kits and opened a new curbside window and patio – all with a skeletal staff. “The other morning, I walked into the kitchen and just started to cry,” he says. “The patio isn’t that busy, and every decision feels like we’re starting from scratch. It’s been overwhelming and exhausting.”

A takeout container from Dispatch with a bun and sliced sausage
Terrace view of Dispatch within the Lincoln building
   Photos: Brilynn Ferguson

Being open and proactive about the toll the pandemic has taken inspired Hynam-Smith and manager Mike Kapusty to create a fitness group (b.well.fitness) that helps support mental and physical health in the community. “This time has shown me that I’ve sacrificed too much,” says Hynam-Smith. “Working 60, 70, sometimes 80 hours a week... I need to make some changes.” Hynam-Smith and Kapusty are now taking an online course called Indigenous Canada (offered by the University of Alberta) in an effort to explore key issues facing Indigenous people in Canada. “We challenged ourselves to bike cross-country so we can connect with Indigenous communities from province to province,” Hynam-Smith says. “We’re taking this opportunity to learn about ourselves and others.” And to consciously pass the mic to staff like Delodun Olusola-Ajayi (a.k.a. Dee), whose popular Instagram takeovers feature her sharing hometown recipes like Nigerian Fried Chicken with Suya Spice and Ghanaian Shito Sauce.

Como Taperia — Vancouver

“I bought one of Donna’s T-shirts the other day, and I’ll wear it at the restaurant. Those kinds of things help.”

— Shaun Layton, owner

Staff serving paella at Como Taperia in Vancouver
   Photo: Paella Guys and Ruben Nava Mendoza (LessNoise Studio)

After a lot of back and forth (and no action) with the city about patio openings, the team at Como Taperia took their struggle to Instagram. The mayor’s office called about half an hour later, and then six news crews showed up… Fast forward to Como Taperia’s new patio, where every other Sunday is paella night. “We’re not making any money, and the shutdown sucks, but we’ve pivoted pretty well,” says Layton. “We sold 450 tickets in eight hours for our paella nights, which is record time.”

The interior of Como Taperia was transformed into grocery store
   Photo: Paella Guys and Ruben Nava Mendoza (LessNoise Studio)

During the closure, Como turned their space into an indoor market – the conservas (canned Spanish seafood) flew off the shelves – switched their wine program to focus on B.C., and changed the tip-out format with more benefits for back-of-house, putting people over profits. In addition to innovative revenue streams like the market, the new provincial wholesale discount on liquor and Como’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood location have played a big part in the restaurant’s survival. “Smaller restaurants are doing well, with some pizza spots doing even better than before,” he says. “The restaurants in the downtown core that are more tourist or office tower-based are having a really hard time.” Totes and T-shirts were designed to help raise money for the staff emergency fund, with proceeds also going to the Vancouver Food and Beverage Community. And restaurant industry people from Sydney to Copenhagen to Toronto are buying them. “I bought one of Donna’s T-shirts the other day, and I’ll wear it at the restaurant,” says Layton. “Those kinds of things help.”

ARVI — Quebec City

“The current climate in Quebec City remains uncertain. We rely heavily on international tourists who have not been here this summer. A lot of restaurants are in survival mode.”

— chef Julien Masia

Dinner served on a round plate with gravy at ARVI
   Photo: ARVI

“I was really emotional,” explains Masia when talking about ARVI’s closure. “It was frustrating because there was a lot of talk about businesses reopening, but nothing regarding restaurants. Not a crumb.” ARVI took their time to pivot to a takeout business. “Each box contained a four-course menu for two people. We wanted to make sure it was the right combination of assembly and cooking for our clients,” Masia explains, “and to guarantee that restaurant quality at home.”

The team at ARVI prep for their dinner service
   Photo: ARVI

Since reopening, ARVI is adjusting to the lack of tourism. “The current climate in Quebec City remains uncertain. We rely heavily on international tourists who have not been here this summer. A lot of restaurants are in survival mode,” Masia explains. While they are unable to use their dining room to maximum capacity, and the reservations aren’t anywhere near what they once were, they are seeing an uptick thanks to the à la carte menu on their terrace.

The closure has afforded Masia time to disconnect from the business and focus on new ideas. “It’s rare in this industry, especially as a chef-owner, to have so much time off,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed spending time with my family. We’ll do the math on the restaurant at the end of the year.”

Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms — Ucluelet, B.C.

“The experience of restaurant dining is so valuable now. We’ve extended our reservation times because people want to linger... Guests are more appreciative than ever.”

— Lily Verney-Downey, co-owner

The owners of Pluvio enjoying drinks on the front steps of their restaurant
   Photo: Nora Morrison

As neighbouring Tofino went into shutdown, just about every business in Ucluelet (pop. 1,700) was able to remain open in some capacity – keeping a little money flowing through the community. And community has been key for Pluvio: The number of restaurants in Ucluelet far exceeds what it can support due to its tourist-driven location, so when the international tourism economy wasn’t there this spring, locals and domestic visitors more than made up for it. “We got to meet a whole other side of the community that wouldn’t usually dine with us,” says Verney-Downey. “Our fried chicken ‘drive-through’ served about 300 people. That’s a lot of people for a town this size,” explains chef Warren Barr. “And we don’t have a deep fryer!”

Pork belly and tuna tartare served at Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms
   Photo: Danika McDowell
A cocktail fountain at the bar of Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms
   Photo: Danika McDowell
    Photo: Siobhane Galloway

Adapting to local versus international guests has made for some interesting changes, like removing salmon from the menu (“B.C. travellers have eaten salmon their whole lives. I couldn’t sell pink fish if my life depended on it!”) and adding pet-friendly rooms (“Locals are driving here with their dogs.”). Barr’s father was visiting just before the lockdown and never left. “I got to spend two and a half months with my dad, which is time I will always value,” says Barr. “And we have a hotel he could stay in, so we weren’t in each other’s faces!”

When Pluvio celebrated their one-year anniversary, they baked complimentary birthday cakes so patrons could celebrate with them at home. “I would walk down the street and someone would honk and yell: ‘Happy Birthday!’” says Barr. He and Verney-Downey are optimistic about the future, especially when it comes to colder months. “Ucluelet is considered the Hawaii of Canada because it never snows here,” says Barr. “We’re primed for a winter escape.”

Donna’s — Toronto

“Borrowing someone’s restaurant patio on a day they are closed is the new borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour.”

— chef Jed Smith

A hand holding up a burger from Donna's in Toronto
   Photo: Jed Smith

The first order of business when Donna’s closed was dealing with their abundance of fresh produce. Chef Jed Smith, chef Peter Jensen and his wife, front-of-house manager Ann Kim, met in the restaurant’s kitchen to pack up, and poured three glasses of wine left over from the night before. “We looked into each other’s eyes and toasted to an uncertain future.” Batches of soup and pasta sauces were made and delivered to their staff. “We all ate really well for the first few days,” says Smith. Vegetable and herb seedlings were planted and placed in Donna’s sun-soaked front window, which soon bore vegetables that were given away or used for staff meals.

Seedlings planted in cups and taking sunshine from Donna's front window
   Photo: Jed Smith
The seedlings planted by the staff of Donna's fully grown
   Photo: Jed Smith
    Photo: Jed Smith

In May, Donna’s launched a small takeout menu and – after originally being denied a permit from the city – expanded onto their curbside patio. “One day the construction guys just showed up with the concrete columns!” says Smith. “We still don’t have any umbrellas.” They rearranged the dining room, using the plants that had matured during the quarantine as natural dividers. “There was a lot of uncertainty with reopening. Were we doing the right thing? Is it all going to come crashing down?” says Smith. When people first came to pick up their orders, it was awkward. “Having a real conversation with our regulars was difficult. It was almost like everyone’s social skills had disappeared,” he says.

A green smoothie to go from Donna's
   Photo: Jed Smith

Toronto’s restaurant community has also come together in unexpected ways. Fellow restaurateur Nav Sangha developed a platform called Ambassador for small businesses to manage their online orders; Donna’s kitchen is being used by a friend who is opening up a bakery and other local eateries are offering up their patios on days they are closed. “There’s been a lot of knowledge sharing and a changing of mindsets,” says Smith. “Borrowing someone’s restaurant patio on a day they are closed is the new borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour.”

Pastel — Montreal

“You’re set in your ways until something comes along to break you. And that thing was Covid.”

— Kabir Kapoor, owner

Vegetable shavings in a small bowl at Pastel
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

“I knew that when we reopened something had to change,” says Kabir Kapoor. During the closure, the staff at Pastel (under new chef Yoann Van Den Berg), tasted and tested a new menu. “It tells the story of my childhood in France, but with a focus on local ingredients,” explains Van Den Berg. “The menu pays tribute to the province’s terroir, with dishes like halibut from the Gaspé and vegetables from Les Jardins Carya in Senneville, Quebec.” Kapoor explains that transitioning from a tasting menu-only format to offering a tasting menu and à la carte options has made the restaurant more accessible. “You’re set in your ways until something comes along to break you. And that thing was Covid.”

A table by the window in Pastel's dining room
Prepping pasta noodles at Pastel in Montreal
   Photos: Maude Chauvin

There are more changes. “We’ve put up Plexiglas and separated certain tables,” says Van Den Berg. “Sometimes we can’t understand each other because of the masks, and we just have to laugh!” While adapting is essential, so is making sure no one loses sight of the bigger picture. “What we’re going through is tough, and scary and jarring. But all of these insecurities are out of our control,” explains Kapoor. “We’ve had guests who didn’t want to go out for dinner. But at the end of the night they said we made them feel like Covid didn’t even exist.” Looking to the future, Kapoor emphasizes the need for a bigger discourse around what lies ahead for the industry. “During the recession in the 1990s, you would walk down Rue Sainte-Catherine and everything was for rent,” he says. “Walking down that street now is scary because it’s reminiscent of those times. But good restaurateurs will never stop fighting.”

Dreyfus — Toronto

“There’s been a shift from service professional to human. Now we’re asking guests how we can make them more comfortable. Heightened communication is something we’ve been missing.”

— Carmelina Imola, front-of-house / beverage manager

The team at Dreyfus enjoying a meal together by a window booth
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

The team at Dreyfus has been busy. After creating a takeout menu focused on Eastern European Jewish and diaspora food that put them outside of their comfort zone, they turned their attention to a lease they signed last December for a space called Bernhardt’s. Named after the famous Sarah and based on a traditional rotisserie menu with a nod to the French bistro, the new restaurant on Dovercourt Road is slated to open this month. “Opening a new restaurant in a pandemic is rewarding, difficult, funny... All of the emotions,” explains chef Zach Kolomeir. In the background, Dreyfus (and its new patio) was opening its doors. “It felt like we were opening a restaurant inside a restaurant,” says Kolomeir. “Like launching a Covid pop-up within our existing space.”

Top view of four different appetizers served at Dreyfus
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

Kolomeir originally followed Imola to Toronto so she could earn her master’s degree, and between school and running a restaurant together, they lived in kind of a work-school bubble. “Covid gave us a chance to slow down and become aware of the city and our new environment,” says Imola. “We’ve gotten to know the community and that support has helped us get to where we are today.” Building menus also meant Imola and Kolomeir were building new partnerships. “All of a sudden we were reaching out directly to farmers, which was rewarding,” says Kolomeir. “We developed stronger relationships with our neighbours, like Café Cancan and Piano Piano,” adds Imola. “And there’s been a shift from service professional to human. Now we’re asking guests how we can make them more comfortable. Heightened communication is something we’ve been missing in restaurants.”

Dreyfus has also been able to donate the profits from their schnitzel sales to local women’s shelters. “We wanted to see how we could be part of a larger community outside of the restaurant industry,” says Imola. “Giving back to a neighbourhood has been an ongoing learning opportunity for us, and we’re grateful for it.”

Wayfarer Oyster House — Whitehorse

“The closure was a big hit to the system for everyone. But it also happened to be in the middle of winter, which made it much worse in the Yukon.”

— Brian Ng, co-owner and chef

Brian Ng and the Wayfarer Oyster House team welcoming you to the restaurant
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

Two weeks after they closed, Wayfarer launched their “Take and Bake” program (pre-prepared meal kits with detailed instructions for reheating risotto at home), focusing on restaurant favourites. And with some downtime on their hands, Ng and a few other chefs came together, cooking meals for local food banks and elderly care facilities that were in desperate need. These weekly meetings generated almost 300 meals a week. “We still meet every Sunday,” says Ng.

Wednesdays are a different story. They are especially long for Ng who helms the lunch and dinner service (only on Wednesday nights) until they are in a position to hire back more staff. “A year ago, I said we would never do lunch, and now I’m serving crab rolls,” says Ng. “But chefs are resilient. We can take any BS you throw at us.” Being ever-present also has its perks, especially when it comes to seeing the regulars. “Kelly and Amanda – we call them ‘the power couple’ – were the first to buy our Take and Bake, the first to come to lunch and the first to make a dinner reservation,” he says. “It’s always a pleasure to see them, but now it’s especially nice.”

A group of four sitting at a picnic-style table in the Wayfarer Oyster House
   Photo: Maude Chauvin

The Yukon growing season is short, but the team strives to use everything to its full advantage. “We’ve always tried to be less wasteful, but never to this extent,” says Ng. “We’re pickling, preserving, dehydrating, turning things into salt…” Ng is also making the most of evenings that aren’t busy. “After going 150 percent for the last 18 months, it’s good to be able to take a night off to go mountain biking. You have to take the bad with the good.”

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