Food and Wine

Best Restaurants 2009

The top 10 places to eat right now. Plus an insider’s guide to 16 additional must-try eateries.

Scientists will tell you that which separates us from all the other beasties is the opposable thumb and conceptual thought. I think that what really makes us different from your average bear is that we cook our food. I braise, therefore I am.

I sweet potato, therefore I yam (sorry, couldn’t help myself). There is a direct anthropological link between when we began to char and when our brains got bigger and our jaws got smaller (easier to chew and digest a sabre-toothed bunny rabbit once it was spit-roasted and served up with a side of frog). The other big whoop on the evolutionary timeline was when we stopped chasing migratory animals and settled down to grow stuff. Give up your nomadic ways, and suddenly you’re building huts to last, latrines, Pilates studios, row housing and suburbs and eventually adding condos with fees. Apparently, maize was all the rage back then: easy to grow, easy to store, lots of serving options. See where I’m going? It’s all about the food, baby. Moses might have spoken to a burning bush, but what he really said was “Who wants theirs medium-rare?”

Cooking made eating easier and less time-consuming. This, in turn, allowed our ancestors more time to ponder the universe — and to figure out ways to spend less time cooking. This has had mixed results. It has given us the bad, as in microwaves, drive-throughs, pre-shredded lettuce, and prepared foods, but it has also given us the good, as in butter, brining, refrigeration, and restaurants.

According to Wikipedia, the Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, which opened in 1725, is the oldest restaurant still in existence today. There is, however, evidence that Henry III of France ate at the still extant Tour d’Argent on March 4, 1582. Another claim to being the world’s oldest restaurant is made by Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg, which has apparently been in existence since 803 AD in the era of Emperor Charlemagne. Back in the day, I suppose having someone cook for you was something only the très riche indulged in, while the other 99 per cent of the world still cooked at home (boiled turnips, anyone?).

So let’s say the restaurant biz is 1,000 years old. You’d figure after a millennium, they’d be able to get it right. But noooo… More often than not, dining out is downer out. The biggest problems are fast food and chain restaurants. How did we get to the point where your food tasting exactly the same no matter where you are is a good thing? How obese do we have to become before we decide that drive-through and eating in your friggin’ car is not a good thing? How is it possible that parents who take their kids to McDonald’s for dinner are still allowed to be parents? Seriously, people! Go on, I dare you, I double triple dare you, to make an argument in favour of kids eating dinner at McDonald’s. I’ll even include it in my next column.

The 2009 Heart and Stroke Report on the Health of Ontario’s Kids, the first ever survey of its kind in the province, shows that “Our children are still facing an unhealthy childhood due to a lack of physical activity and poor eating habits, even though statistics 10 years ago brought these problems to light.” It goes on to warn that if the situation doesn’t improve soon, this generation of children — through no fault of their own — will experience a shorter lifespan than their parents due to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. And it’s not just eating out; it’s all the prepackaged stick-in-the-microwave junk we stuff into our collective maws. Have you seen the commercial where the skinny white blond perfect suburban mother comes into the kitchen and asks the equally skinny perfect brunette what the secret is to her lasagna? Know what she says? She says something like “Well, it’s this bag with three types of pre-shredded industrial-grade cheese-like product.” Wink, wink. Really? You’re too dumb to grate your own cheese? It’s enough to make a guy weep. But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yeah…restaurants.

Two-thirds of restaurants in Canada are independently owned. They’re everything from that coffee shop in the basement of your office tower to the most ridiculously overpriced “fine dining” restaurant that leaves you feeling as though they’ve somehow done you a favour by feeding you (oh, the stories I could tell). Luckily, there’s a bunch of people in the mix who really, really care about the food they serve. Every restaurant in the Top 10 (and lots that aren’t) qualify, as does the guy who owns Alpha, the corner store with the deli counter that makes a 10 times better (and healthier) sub than anything you can get at Subway (Yo, Subway! You call that bread?). These people live in your neighbourhood. So do all the people who work for them. And the growers who supply them (a lot of the time, anyway). And the money you give them for dinner stays here in our community. So I’m going to issue you a pleasant challenge: do not eat at a chain restaurant or a fast-food joint for six months. Cook more. Let the Big Dog hunt come Sunday dinner. Make the procurement, preparation, and consumption of food a joy and priority in your life. And if and when you do eat out, go only to those places where the owner is either on the floor or in the kitchen. You will be happier, healthier, and wealthier for it. I promise.

And now, the Top 10:

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