When Canada’s Best New Restaurants program hit the country in 2002, recognizing top dining from coast to coast, there was nothing else quite like it. Over time, it has helped to foster a sense of community among Canadian chefs from Tofino to Whitehorse to Fogo Island. A list like this can have a positive impact on a restaurant, of course, but it also has a flipside – where a unique dining experience can change the way we eat for good.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Canada’s Best New Restaurants, Air Canada enRoute spoke to the winners and tastemakers of years past about the transformative effect of being on Canada’s most anticipated restaurant list.
Charcut | No. 6 | 2010 | Calgary
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Charcut made waves in the Prairies in 2010 as a love letter to meat aficionados. Co–chef and co–owner Connie DeSousa helped revolutionize the Calgary food scene with her business partner, John Jackson, and helped create awareness for culinary organizations that support those in need.
“I remember getting an email that we had made the top 10 and ‘warning’ us that we were going to get really busy. We had only been open for six months and were already busy! Calgary wasn’t recognized as a culinary destination at that time, so we knew that making the list would recognize us and our city. We’ve worked hard ever since to build the city as a culinary destination. We’ve opened six brands in 12 years, one of which – Connie & John’s Pizza – was during the pandemic.” — Connie DeSousa
Mallard Cottage | No. 5 | 2014 | St. John’s
This St. John’s native is one of the folks responsible for putting Newfoundland and Labrador on the food map. Chef Todd Perrin’s homage to East Coast terroir redefined traditional comfort food using modern techniques, playful twists on local ingredients and his own brand of authenticity.
“Being on enRoute’s best restaurants list is something people aspire to in Canada. Mallard Cottage wasn’t built as a tourism destination, but we have evolved into one, and enRoute had a lot to do with that. Thanks to the list, there are probably more people outside of Newfoundland and Labrador that know about Mallard Cottage than those living here.”— Todd Perrin
Keriwa Café | No. 8 | 2012 | Toronto
Chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe highlighted his Blackfoot and Nova Scotian heritage on every plate at Keriwa Café. Originally from Siksika Nation, Alberta, chef Robe drew on his roots using Aboriginal and local, seasonal ingredients to inform his dishes. Aaron moved on to other exciting projects, including the Wine Academy and more.
“There’s a lot that goes into running a restaurant, so it’s nice to get the recognition. At the time, we were pretty out there in terms of what was happening in Toronto: our location, approach, even the size of the restaurant. This was just before the era of Instagram, so when the list came out, it was huge for business – an incredible push forward. I remember congratulating all of my chefs, sous chefs, letting the front of house know – and then getting right back to work!” — Aaron Joseph Bear Robe
Related: Red Chef Revival’s Rich Francis on the Future of Indigenous Food in Canada
Nora Gray | No. 10 | 2012 | Montreal
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Elena | No. 3 | 2018 | Montreal
As a role model for positive restaurant culture, Emma Cardarelli operates her restaurants with the following principles in mind: a good work–life balance, equitable pay – the sort of things she never had access to as a cook.
“A huge thing was the photo shoot. I’d never experienced anything like that before, and it was really great for my ego. After working so hard for so many years, I felt like my hard work was being recognized. When you’re first getting press, you read every article and every word to make sure you’re being represented. And I really felt represented. The award came a year after we opened, ant it was a lot of encouragement. We just celebrated Nora Gray’s 10th anniversary!” — Emma Cardarelli
Wayfarer Oyster House | No. 7 | 2019 | Whitehorse
On a mission to expand Yukon’s food palate, Brian Ng cemented Whitehorse on Canada’s culinary route when he helped turn a former sheet–metal shop into what diners’ call “a party every night.” Ng is also a spokesperson for work–life balance in the industry.
“We were ecstatic to hear that our little place made the longlist, let alone the shortlist. I was doing prep for dinner service and speaking to someone on the phone who said: ‘You made it. You made the top 10.’ My jaw dropped. In a place like Whitehorse, it’s hard to tell where people are from because there are so many people just travelling through, but once we were on the list, we saw impact. Our popularity was boosted.” — Brian Ng
Related: Canadian Restaurants that Opened in 2020 (Yes, During a Pandemic)
Agrikol | No. 6 | 2016 | Montreal
When chef Paul Toussaint joined Agrikol, he brought a celebration of Haitian culture with him. With Toussaint at the heart of the restaurant, co–owned by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, he blended Canadian haute cuisine techniques with Haitian family–style cuisine. Paul is now heading up the pan–Caribbean spot Kamúy.
“A restaurant like Agrikol is not about money. It’s a cultural thing. It’s about making sure a community is well represented. There are big names out there that are opening restaurants just to make money or to create an avant–garde project. I wanted the community to be proud and well represented. Haiti has a lot of issues, but we needed to talk positively about it, which is why we focused on its culture, food and dance.” — Paul Toussaint
Related: Opening Up: The Restaurant Industry’s Road to Recovery
Pidgin | No. 5 | 2013 | Vancouver
Mak N Ming | No. 4 | 2017 | Vancouver
Married duo Amanda Chen and Makata Ono brought their brand of Japanese–meets–French to the West Coast, making Air Canada enRoute’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants list not once, but twice. The duo hinted earlier this year that they have more ventures on the horizon.
“When Pidgin made the list, it really helped bring people to the area. For years! We had a slower start based on our location, and it got a lot busier. Even after we left, people continued talking about Pidgin being on Canada’s best restaurants list. And with Mak N Ming, being on the top 10 was almost an even bigger deal. We were smaller, and in an even more hidden location, and we were surprised that enRoute even bothered to come check us out.”— Amanda Cheng
Related: Canadian Restaurants Are Fighting to Save Themselves and Their Communities: Here’s How You Can Help
Ayden | No. 8 | 2014 | Saskatoon
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Avenue | No. 7 | 2018 | Regina
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After stints in London, Tokyo and New York, chef Dale MacKay returned home and put the Prairies on point with his polished, homegrown take on globally–inspired food.
“I was working as a junior cook in Whistler in 2002 when I first heard chefs talking about the Canada’s Best New Restaurants list and what a big deal it was going to be. Then when Christopher Cho, my partner, and I opened Ayden in 2013, we didn’t just want to be a great restaurant in Saskatchewan, we wanted to be one of the greatest restaurants in Canada. With Avenue, we wanted to give Regina what we gave Saskatoon with Ayden.” — Dale MacKay
Donna’s | No. 3 | 2019 | Toronto
Three partners – Ann Kim (front of house) and chefs Peter Jensen and Jed Smith – stole the number three spot on the list in 2019 thanks to activism and community–focused initiatives that married with their refined, unpretentious fare, in what locals describe as an elevated neighbourhood hangout.
“After we opened, things took off and we were rolling. But when we got the news about Canada’s Best New Restaurants, we knew it was going to get better and better. We had more people than ever calling in and trying to get a reservation, more people showing up at our busy time and a lot of people travelling who wanted to check us out. It was opportune that our restaurant is a five–minute walk from Toronto’s Union Station express train.” — Jed Smith
Foxy | No. 5 | 2016 | Montreal
As the co–owner of Olive & Gourmando, Foxy and Un Po Di Piu, Dyan Solomon has steadily built a restaurant empire in Montreal over the past two decades, with a reputation for inclusive, diverse working environments.
“I had abandoned the fine dining scene 18 years earlier, so Foxy was like going back to my roots. In my mind, I was a wee bit too old to be doing so. Getting that email, saying we had been shortlisted, recognized we were still relevant in the fine dining game. There was an immediate effect. There was an anglophone crowd, Torontonians, people from somewhere else. Suddenly we were reaching someone from Calgary who was coming to Montreal for business.” — Dyan Solomon