Tasting in Toronto

This is a super interesting topic that I have given a lot of thought to but IMO this piece misses some deeper big picture reasons why these type of restaurants have struggled here compared to other markets. (A bit of background, I moved here from Chicago in 2011 and spent most of my time in both cities working in restaurants. I never worked at any of the famous places in Chicago but restaurant culture there has been deeply shaped by the likes of Trotters, Alinea, Schwa etc. Here in Toronto I was briefly GM of Yours Truly about 6 months before it closed.)

Obviously Instagram is not a Toronto specific phenomenon. I also think that there is plenty of wealth here to support high end restaurants (certainly compared to Chicago at least, if not NY/SF/London).

To me the biggest factors are:

  • TO diners reluctance to go out for “fancy” dinners midweek and early or late on weekends.
  • The absence of true wholesale liquor pricing, especially for wine.

Obviously these do impact all restaurants but small plate and a la carte formats can compensate more easily through volume, especially on busy weekends. Places like Alinea and EMP are fully booked every night they are open and it is very difficult to make money if you are only really busy 2–3 nights a week between 7–9pm. People will drop in someplace for a snack or a quick bite early or late or midweek but nobody in Toronto wants a tasting menu at 9:30pm on a Tuesday. Lots of people don’t even want it at 9:30 on Saturday. A tasting menu restaurant can not turn a table 3 or 4 times on a busy night, so it is harder to maximize profits on busy nights. At YT, we found it difficult to do even two turns of a long format menu in one night, especially because people were chronically late for early resos. People in NY, SF, Paris and London have tiny apartments with tiny kitchens and thus eat out much more frequently. (Chicagoans have bigger kitchens but rents are also much lower which makes it a bit easier).

Wine list prices are higher here than other major markets but margins are lower. Wine is less profitable than cocktails and beer but is a usually higher percentage of sales in a tasting menu restaurant compared to more casual formats. The LCBO also makes it difficult/impossible for a new restaurant to build a deep cellar of older wines which can be bought at retail or auction in other markets. Often these older vintages are actually less expensive than new released but can be sold for a premium. Again, this impacts high end restaurants disproportionately.

Also there is the weather, winters here are much rougher than most major markets (other than maybe Chicago), and the summer, people here are at cottages, on a patio or grilling at home.