World of Flavors: Toronto’s Cultural Mosaic

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Toronto?

For most people, the great city of Toronto likely beckons images of the sky-scraping CN Tower or Drake’s enthusiastic courtside support of the Raptors during their championship run. However, Toronto is more than that. It is a culinary hotspot with a sheer array of unique dining experiences throughout the city. As someone who has been moonlighting as a food photographer and writer for over seven years, I have had the joy of living and breathing the local food culture. By the end of this article, I hope to whet your appetite for what this city has to offer. Because if you’re a foodie at heart, there is no better place in the world to eat than in Toronto.

 

With over 6 million residents calling it home, Toronto has become a cosmopolitan destination for individuals coming from vastly different walks of life. In fact, the city has earned the reputation as the world’s most multicultural city, with over 200 ethnic groups and 140 languages spoken. As a result, the diversity of its people is increasingly changing the landscape of the local food scene, as new flavors from around the world continue to find their way to our doorstep. Food diversity in Toronto is where the city shines the brightest, creating a cultural mosaic of food where options are plentiful and remain true to their authentic origins. That’s what differentiates Toronto from other major cities around the world. 

 

Having traveled abroad in search of novel gastronomic experiences, I have been privileged in sampling some of the finest food offered within each culture. In Rome, I regularly dined on savory Italian classics such as spaghetti alla carbonara and diavola pizza. In Paris, I indulged in decadent pastries, crepes, and coq au vin that would make your mouth water. And in Tokyo, I devoured the freshest sushi and the most flavorful ramen every minute of the day. While I was astonished by each culinary specialty endemic to cities overseas, I often found myself yearning for something in short supply: variety.

 

Toronto’s strength is in its abundance of culinary options. Over its long history, immigrants flocked to Toronto to seize on the opportunities Canada had to offer. However, instead of assimilating into Canadian culture and shedding their previous identity, ethnic groups formed districts with a distinctive cultural presence to maintain their traditions and values and showcase the food they grew up eating back in their homeland. The diversity across districts unofficially earned Toronto the nickname “the city of neighborhoods.” From a food perspective, this has proven to be extremely beneficial to locals and visitors alike, hoping to find an extraordinary culinary delight.

The Danforth

One of the more popular neighborhoods is the Danforth, located on the east end of Toronto. Locals generally know this neighborhood as “Greektown,” as it is home to the city’s highest Greek population. It’s no surprise then that as you walk down these streets, you will undoubtedly notice the plethora of restaurants serving Greek delicacies worthy of a dining experience found anywhere in Athens. If you’re craving souvlaki, moussaka, gyros, or spanakopita, you’ve come to the right part of town. A restaurant staple here is Messini, famous for its authentic gyros stuffed with fresh meat from the spit. And only a minute away is Athen’s Pastries. You will discover a favorite Greek street food and dessert called loukoumades, which are balls of fried batter generously coated in luscious honey.

But the Danforth isn’t solely limited to Greek cuisine. Just outside of Greektown on the Danforth are other singular eateries offering a unique dining experience not found elsewhere in the city. Maha’s is where you will find the most exceptional Egyptian fare with their all-day brunch menu, full of Arabic aromas and flavors. Meanwhile, Rendezvous has the city’s best Ethiopian food. Your hands become utensils as you use a piece of injera (a spongy sourdough flatbread) to scoop up a blend of all the delicious meats and sautéed vegetables to stimulate your taste buds. 

Chinatown
Toronto is also home to a large Chinese population, so as one might expect, one of the biggest and busiest Chinatowns in the world is right here. Within the downtown core of Spadina and Dundas West, you’ll have a wide selection of Chinese restaurants to choose from, ranging from late-night dim sum, steaming hot-pot, Chinese bakeries, and marketplace windowsills full of hanging roast pork and duck to either dine-in or take out.

 As you stroll through the sidewalks filled with fresh produce and exotic fruits, you will likely come across some of Chinatown’s most excellent restaurants. R&D serves up modern Canadian-Chinese dishes owned by none other than Michelin Star chef, Alvin Leung, and Masterchef Canada winner Eric Chong. Sky Dragon offers up cart service dim-sum with a stunning view of the downtown skyline, and a local favorite, Juicy Dumplings, is where you can get six freshly steamed xiao long baos for a bargain.

Little Italy

College Street is where Toronto transforms into Little Italy, packed with classic pizzerias, gelato shops, trendy bars, and trattorias. The charm of this small Italian community is as vibrant as ever. Starting from the early 20th century when Italians arrived in Toronto in record numbers. Little Italy has remained a cornerstone in the city life of multicultural Toronto, where you’ll find some of the most delicious and authentic Italian cuisines in the city.

Trattoria Taverniti is a cozy restaurant that keeps visitors coming back for their signature pomodoro sauce, meatballs, and lasanga made from scratch, based on the recipies from an Italian immigrant grandmother passed down through generations. Also, one can’t visit Little Italy without making a stop to Bitondo Pizzeria. An ageless Italian eatery selling pizza by the slice will make you feel like you are in Sicily with each bite.

Koreatown

With an influx of Korean immigrants in the 1970s, Korean shops and restaurants began to pop-up, exuding Seoul’s ambiance that has etched themselves nicely within Toronto’s multicultural tapestry. After a day out shopping for Korean beauty products, fashion, or maybe even singing your heart out at a karaoke bar, these activities will sure build your appetite. Fortunately, all the Korean food staples are available here, be it bibimbap, japchae, bulgogi, or even Korean BBQ.

An area known for a wide array of mom-and-pop shops run by Korean families, none might have a more loyal following than here at Sunrise House, offering traditional Korean dishes at affordable prices. Their pork-bone soup alone often creates line-ups right out the door. One also can’t forget Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu. With a specialized menu, tofu is the star of each dish exemplifying what Korean comfort food truly means served in their sizzling hot plates. 

Yorkville

For locals, Bloor Street in Toronto is synonymous with luxury and retail therapy. Designer boutiques such as Gucci, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton are all patiently waiting to tempt those eager shoppers to shell out some hard-earned cash for high-end fashion. If a designer handbag is not in the cards and you’re longing for fine dining, wandering down the side streets by Bloor will eventually lead you into the beautiful, upscale neighborhood of Yorkville. A host of high-end restaurants is at your disposal with a multitude of different cuisines to choose from, with a possible celebrity sighting if you’re lucky.

Figures bring back childhood nostalgia through decor inspired by comics and superheroes while infusing the dining experience with an exquisite meal paired off with a carefully crafted cocktail list. In contrast, Chabrol brings French fine-dining to a whole new level with dishes like their Riesling-poached foie gras. You can also consider one of Canada’s Best 100 Bars, Alobar, with its European and Asian-centric dishes, a sister restaurant to Toronto’s Alo, ranked #1 in Canada’s Best 100 restaurant four years in a row.

The Takeaway

Food by all accounts is an expression of love and social connectedness. We invest a lot of time and effort into learning new recipes to cook for our friends and family. We cook a fancy meal in hopes of impressing someone on the first date. And we pass down recipes from generation to generation to honor our heritage, no matter where we are in the world. All peoples around the city exhibit this love of food, and no matter your race, colour, or creed, the Toronto food scene will always be here to embrace you.

And that is what truly makes the city so extraordinary. The next time someone asks you what Toronto is famous for, I hope the first thought that comes to mind will be its diversity of its people and the cultural mosaic of its food.

Photo(s) courtesy of Jacky Yoh