Does Toronto Need a Restaurant Critic?
What is the state of Toronto’s food scene? The question itself makes assumptions: that there is a scene; that it is unitary or coherent enough to be referred to in the singular; that it matters at all.
But if one were to try and answer the question, where would one even begin?
BlogTO would be the obvious first stop because it is so very obvious. As a content mill, blogTO is an ongoing source of news about openings and closures, in addition to helpful overviews that are indistinguishable from marketing. I read the site daily.
When it comes to evaluation, discussion, or contemplation, though, your options are more limited. This is strange. Say what you will about discussing places where dinner and wine run a few hundred dollars for two, but food and dining out are normal parts of life for most people. News organizations should talk about them.
Perhaps what that requires isn’t just a source of information, but a critic. Alas, the Globe and Mail, the country’s only real national newspaper, has given up on Toronto. There was a short run by Jason Chow to replace Chris Nuttall-Smith as dining critic. But since that ended for whatever reason — one assumes there just wasn’t the appetite for it, either at the paper or among readers — there has been precious little discussion of dining out in the country’s largest city in the country’s largest paper (here is a recent exception).
A more traditional sense of critique is very occasionally found in Toronto Life. But while its food coverage is vastly more informed and interesting than BlogTO, reviews have essentially disappeared. They’ve been replaced by news about openings and best-of lists which, despite being beautifully produced and enjoyable to read, are not quite the same as criticism.
So, we search on. Despite the disaster that is the opinion page, the National Post has solid food coverage, often due to the excellent work of Laura Brehaut. But almost none of it is Toronto-specific or about dining out, and that is my concern.
The Toronto Star no longer has a restaurant reviewer after it discovered hardly anybody read reviews and it let long-standing critic Amy Pataki go in 2019. The Star remains a bright spot in terms of coverage, however, primarily in the work of Karon Liu (I have an obvious institutional bias here). Liu is, if you’ll forgive me for using the phrase, actually doing the thing. Rather than the relentless focus on downtown (a phenomenon lamented by people like me and also propagated by people like me) Liu writes frequently about places in the suburbs; doesn’t merely latch on to the buzzy joints everyone else is talking about; and is disdainful of the need for outsider approval such as Michelin stars. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the range of cuisines you find here, and a knack for finding hidden gems. For this, we are lucky, and it’s clear that the Star’s food coverage has gotten much better in the past few years.
In a related vein, it is impossible to talk about food in Toronto without mentioning Suresh Doss, whose work appears on CBC and in the Star, too. Doss, recently profiled in the New York Times, has become the standard-bearer for covering the broad swath of the Toronto culinary scene. In particular, his commitment to focusing on food made by immigrants in the suburbs means his (and Liu’s) version of Toronto is arguably closest to the way things actually are. It is hard to imagine that, say, Toronto Life’s recent shift to cast its gaze outside the core wasn’t in part a product of the work done by Doss.
Coverage and criticism aren’t quite the same however. When criticism is doing what it should, the critic plays a role, if perhaps a small one, in encouraging the creator to change, improve, grow. Without an active sense of criticism, the sense of evaluation as something more than consumer advice but instead, as a consideration of food as part of culture, diminishes.
Of course, it’s worth asking if a critic in the vein of Joanna Kates, Chris Nuttall-Smith, or Amy Pataki may be an anachronism now — not only because of a change in what constitutes a restaurant review (thanks, Yelp), but because the authority the older form relied upon may simply be gone (thanks, Yelp).
What’s more, the example of Amy Pataki and the Star makes it clear that economic case for restaurant critics has not just changed, but has mostly evaporated. Only rare exceptions like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times can support critics, and it’s not just because of the the size of those cities and their readerships. It’s because what happens in New York or L.A. is seen as significant or influential beyond those places.
You cannot make the same case about Toronto. There is no national conversation about the restaurant scene here, and even less a sense of what matters in Canadian food. The three major cities in the country all feel as if they exist in their own distinct universes, and despite there being genuinely interesting things happening all over, food media is plagued by the same problem as all media here: Canadians appear more eager to read about what is happening in Manhattan than Toronto.
Still. Perhaps the very fact that there is no critic in Toronto may be as much cause as effect when it comes to this lack of a discursive context. Food writers are constantly saying “there’s always a food angle” in reaction to contemporary news because what they are trying to foreground is that the culinary is a central part of cultural and material life.
What I am thus wondering is whether a city’s culinary scene can develop as well as it might in the absence of a critic. I mean this not despite the shift to social and digital but because of it. Yes authority can be a scourge, even oppressive, but discourse as a network often operates in relation to particular, key nodes. It is why, for example, the New York Times is so central to how America’s chattering classes think: in light of so much noise, the stature or ubiquity of a singular thing at least gives one some common ground from which to start.
Without that anchor, discourse is more diffuse. This isn’t inherently bad. It is how we get something more heterogenous, less stratified. But without that anchor, it feels worth asking if there is something lost when someone isn’t doing more than just saying “here’s a new place” or “the chaat here is great,” but instead asserting why and how culinary trends are reflective of what is happening more broadly in the city’s culture.
My answer: maybe. I don’t know how one might address the change in cultural context and business reality that has all but killed restaurant reviewers. I don’t know if a sustainable model exists outside traditional media, especially after Chris Nuttall-Smith struck out on his own and failed. It seems likely that a return to the age of the restaurant reviewer is impossible - and perhaps that is the way it should be.
Still. There are excellent entertainment reporters and there are excellent cultural critics, and both are necessary. The former digs into what is happening; the latter can help us make sense of why it matters. And perhaps someone whose job is to talk about food and cooking as cultural artefacts and why they matter is an idea worth exploring.
All I suppose I am doing here is asking a pretty straightforward question. What if a culinary critic is important not because they might make pronouncements from up on high, but instead, that in the cacophony of the contemporary moment, you don’t need someone with all the answers, but instead, someone who knows to ask the right questions?