Travel Guide: Experience Toronto’s Diverse Food Culture

Welcome to your next foodie blog post! There are millions of hidden gems to find and dine at around the world, but here is a breakdown of one particular city’s hot-spots for diverse cuisine. Toronto, Canada: a spectacularly growing city that has erupted in the media and papers for its tourism and unique atmosphere. Drake calls it the 6ix and so does everyone else now–but it’s more than Drake’s hometown. Welcome to the third-ranked cities with the most diverse food spots. With over 73 national cuisines represented by Toronto, here are 12 restaurants that are great to know of within those 73 cultures of the city.

The History of Toronto’s Immigration

It all begins with immigration. The beauty of Toronto’s ethnic cuisine is how authentic the food is. This cannot be achieved without natural influence from those who carry on traditional recipes and culinary ideas to a new place. There is an extensive history of Toronto’s immigration. It starts back to the days when Canada was 13 colonies–the 1400s. However, the history dating from that century to the 19th century is partly irrelevant to how Toronto became so diverse. This is because of the settlers coming and going come the rise of Canada as an established country.

The Italians

So, by the late 19th century, Irish Catholics welcomed and encouraged French and German Catholics to migrate to Toronto. Italians, too, are a large part of Toronto’s immigration history, with first a small portion, around 2000, in all of Canada starting in 1880. By 1901, there were over 11,000. Three quarters of Italian immigrants to Canada came from Italy’s rural south from regions like Calabria, Abruzzi, Molise, and Sicily. This was an attempt to escape the hunger and devastation that was caused later on by World War 2.

The Jewish

Then the Jewish population grew. Large-scale Jewish immigration began late in the 19th century, although their first arrival dates back to the 1750s when Canada was still known as New France. But, from 1900 to 1920, that is when there truly was a soar in immigration, around 120,000 Jews. Between the wars, this number fell back to 60,000. Even after that Second World War, the Jewish population in Canada continued to grow. By the 1980s, 135,000 arrived, mostly residing in Toronto and Montreal. They became a huge part of establishing diversity in Toronto and other surrounding cities.

The Chinese and South Asians

Toronto is divided into little “towns” that host a certain culture and pertain to its traditions and cuisine. Chinatown is a quite popular one, and can only be authentic from the Chinese immigrants who first arrived in Canada on the west coast as shipbuilders in the late 18th century. They continued to become members of the Canadian identity. With the establishment of multiculturalism as official policy in 1971, the Chinese community finally felt welcome in their adopted homeland.

Still from Asia, South Asians are a notable population that did not have the easiest welcome to Canada or Toronto when they began to arrive. They were accused of providing cheap labour and faced harsh discrimination from local authorities at the start of the 20th century. However, things changed for them by the 1980s, as language skills requirements became stricter, their profile adjusted to university-educated, skilled workers.

The Portuguese

Little Portugal is another part of the Greater Toronto Area that influences strong bonds between culture, Canadian influence and European integration into society. Many settled in Toronto, (as well as Montreal), in Alexandra Park and Kensington Market, but have since spread out across the city.

The Caribbean

The Caribbean includes islands like Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica and Haiti that are connected to the Black community in Canada. When the policy of discrimination in immigration ended, migrants from the Caribbean surged. Today, in Toronto and surrounding areas like Ajax and Brampton, sizable Caribbean communities exist.

Regional restaurants in Toronto

Belgian: LEKKER-Pure Belgian Bites

LEKKER-Pure Belgian Bites is owned by a Belgian-native himself, Christophe Stevens. It started off as an authentic waffles restaurant in 2016, the only one in Toronto. In 2020, Christophe rebranded the name and menu, including more Belgian dishes like beef/chicken/veggie meatballs and stomep in addition to the satisfying sweet waffles menu.

Linked to their Instagram feed
Instagram post from the restaurant’s feed

LEKKER's specialty meatball dishes

Located in the most eclectic part of Toronto, Kensington Market, this food spot holds high standards to its traditions and culture. On the website, Christophe outlines his journey to perfecting a brunch diner like this one, specifically inspired by his grandmother’s recipes and homeland influence. People who visit love to speak of the restaurant’s welcoming ambience, impressive presentation and tasty treats for dessert. With specialty places like this come high prices, however, so it is necessary to note the chances of spending a pretty dollar for authentic food.

Hungarian: Budapest Restaurant

Budapest, a small but flavourful restaurant sits in between The Danforth and Beach Hill in Toronto. It has over five years in business with warm hospitality from its Hungarian owners. Signature dishes include a variety of schnitzels, chicken paprikash, and cabbage rolls that are prepared fresh daily. Take a look at the images here that display the European ambiance and comforting interior. With a 4.5 star rating on Yelp, it is a must-try to devour true Hungarian flavors.

Hallway with traditional decor

Greek: MEZES

Mezes was imagined as an extension of our home, a dining room where select family recipes would be offered to the neighbourhood we lived in, and loved” Mezes Greek Restaurant speaks of their hospitality and experience with Greek food in the heart of Greektown. The Greeks have a part in immigration history right next to other European cultures. With a whole neighbourhood dedicated to the Greek influence on cuisine in Toronto, Mezes brings exactly that to the table–ordering multiple dishes, celebrating variety, and sampling everything. It is about family, culture and tradition. With a 4.5 rating on Tripadvisor as well as a listing of #59 out of 5,511 restaurants in Toronto being a clear traveller’s and local-choice, this place is a must-know.

Check out classic dishes like their Poikilia platters, vegetarian mezes and dip platters.

Classic example of a table full of traditional dishes to share

Portuguese: Alex Rei dos Leitões

From the heart of Little Portugal comes Alex Rei dos Leitões. This restaurant has been around since 1977 and has been considered the most successful Portuguese restaurant in Little Portugal. Here, you can get Leitão à Bairrada (a delicious roasted piglet), fabulous barbecued chicken and many other delicious traditional and popular Portuguese dishes.They offer take-out, catering or lunch/dinner dine in. Out of the many Mediterranean restaurants in Toronto, Alex Rei dos Leitões has Francisco Bento and Teresa Ferreira joining their parents to create delicious meals. This, as well as bringing in new techniques of the restaurant’s classic dishes is what makes Alex Rei dos Leitões a win.

The store front of Alex Rei dos Leitões

Syrian: Zezafoun

Syrian women used to create dishes using seasonal vegetables and fresh ingredients to perfect their family meals. Zezafoun is a restaurant that focuses on family traditions and cuisine from generations way back. In 2018 Marcelle and her mother, Yolla, started Zez-

Shawarma is a middle eastern favourite, Toronto has no shortage of this dish
Here is a pocket version of the chicken shawarma, a corner of pita stuffed with paprika-seasoned fries and dripping with tahini

-afoun as a cozy family restaurant to promote the Syrian food’s unique taste. The business has been written about and criticized by reporters from The New York Times, Tripadvisor and Blog TO. Some of the chef’s top dish choices include:

Fatteh (Tisiyeh), (Homemade chickpeas layered over a bed of crispy pita bread and topped with hot tahini sauce) Okra with Tomatoes, (Okra cooked with tomatoes and onions, served with rice) Kabab Karaz (Beef Kabab balls marinated in cherry and berries sauce served with bread)

They also incorporate menus that align with vegetarian and vegan diets.

Cuban: Mambo Lounge

The Cuban cuisine is not its most authentic without the pure ambience and burst of energy to accompany the great food. Mambo Lounge is located in the east end of Danforth Toronto. Traditional dishes are well matched with contemporary cuisine in a succulent menu, that combines an excellent variety of options.

Some recommended dishes include: Congri (rice and beans) tostones con carne (ripe fried plantains holding shredded meat) and their Yucca fries.

Dancer
A lovely capture of Mambo’s dancer

An evening at Mambo looks like fun entertainment of lives musicians and dancers along with classic cocktail drinks that bring every guest to the sandy beaches of Cuba. The prices range depending on the party size–Mambo offers selections for bigger groups to enjoy from. Take a look at some images from their website: one of the lovely dancers and a delicious dish.

Jamaican: Chubby’s Jamaican Chicken

Another Caribbean favourite of the city: Jamaican food. There are many spots for jerk chicken and fried okra, but Chubby’s prides itself on their cooking infused with warmth and vibrancy of Jamaica’s culture and people. Leading the Chubby’s opening culinary team is Jamaican-born Chef de Cuisine, Donavon Campbell. He brings a special outlook on the vision behind Caribbean food outside the Caribbean. The team also includes Angela Lawrence, chief culture officer at Gusto. Her responsibilities in this position requires only the most authentic and raw passion for her Jamaican heritage. Located in a restored circa-1890 row house, Chubby’s melds old and new to create soulful hospitality within a delicious dining experience.

Toronto has many jerk chicken spots, linked is Chubby's
Slow-baked jerk wings, picture provided by BlogTO

Some of their dishes include:

Slow-baked jerk wings: serve as a starter, dressed with wild honey and scotch bonnet dust.

Curry Goat: House-made curry spice, mango chutney jasmine rice

Likkle Jamaican Patties: Spicy beef, curry turkey, coconut greens pepper shrimp

Thailand: PAI Northern Thai

“It all started on an elephant…I was backpacking in Northern Thailand” owner Jeff Regular speaks of his experience building up to the opening of PAI Northern Thai restaurant in the core of downtown Toronto. His goal along with his wife whom he met in Thailand in the early 2000s, was always to create the finest Thai food and recreate the exact experience they shared while living in Thailand. With a lively passion for food, only the best cuisine can come as a result. In a city of many cultures, Thai food was never neglected, but PAI takes it to a whole new level. From soups, salads, platters and curries, the menu holds a large variety to choose from. Tip for those with dietary restrictions–PAI has a complete vegan menu!

Tom Yum Soup from their website linked
Tom Yum Soup: Savoury, spicy, and sour soup with shrimp, lemongrass, long leaf coriander, shallots, mushrooms, tomatoes, and green onions.
Pad See Ew dish from their site linked
Pad See Ew: Stir-fried hand-cut rice noodles with sweet soy sauce, Chinese broccoli, egg, and a choice of Chicken, Shrimp, Tofu & Veggies

Filipino: Bagnet Bros

Filipino food is a mix of Asian and Western influences transformed through local cooking techniques. The food draws from international inspiration to suit local tastes. Filipino food is a distinct and up-and-coming cuisine that is growing in popularity–especially in diverse cities like Toronto. The GTA hosts restaurants from fast food to dine-in to deliver authentic Filipino food from citizens from the Philippines who, like many, wish to bring part of their motherland to the new land of Canada. And, every Canadian is soaking it all up.

Located in North York, Toronto outside look at the restaurant
The outside look of Bagnet Bros in a plaza

Bagnet Bros is just one dine-in that offers traditional-style culinary practices for their customers. It is a go to for many Filipino-Canadians. They include classic dishes that resemble the Filipino culture, like rice and dipping sauces always having a place in dishes. Some other note-worthy items include Kamayan (seafood, grilled meats, vegetables and garlic rice served on fresh [or frozen and thawed] banana leaves) and Carioca (fried sweet rice balls).

Kamayan for four (platter)
Kamayan for four (platter)

Jewish: Milk ‘N Honey

One of Toronto's best Jewish restaurant's Instagram feed linked
A picture from their Instagram feed of a night of catering

The Jewish community in Canada has been significant to cuisine and personality of different cities like Toronto for many years. This final restaurant, that displays the perfect ambience of Jewish food and community serve as a family joint with welcoming tables. “The Zombek family, happily and graciously, continues to serve the community by hosting sheva brachos and catering brissim; they welcome you, as always, to share their home away from home,” the Milk ‘N Honey website claims.

Milk ‘N Honey is located in Bathurst between Wilson & Lawrence. As a certified Kosher restaurant, this is a must-taste for those who practise the Kosher lifestyle. But of course, anyone is welcome and everyone should take a seat at the Zombek family table. Some of their popular dishes include Shiva meals: lunch or breakfast platters for groups of ten or five. They also offer catering!

73 national cuisines hosted by restaurants, cafés and take-out spots are what make Toronto spectacular. Those who visit rave about the food and those who live here…also rave about the food! There is always something new to try in a city like this. To learn more about Toronto, visit this page for 15 Places to Visit for your Travel to Toronto, Canada! 

Bibliography

Alex-Rei-Dos-Leitoes. n.d. Restaurant Guru. Accessed april 17, 2021. https://restaurantguru.com/Alex-Rei-Dos-Leitoes-Toronto.

Alex-Rei-Dos-Leitoes staff. n.d. “Alex-Rei-Dos-Leitoes.” Accessed apriL 17, 2021. https://www.alexreidosleitoes.com/.

Bagnet Bros. n.d. “Bagnet Bros About Page.” Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.bagnetbros.com/.

Budapest Restaurant. n.d. “Budapest Restaurant.” Accessed April 17, 2021.

Carlberg, Amy. 2018. “Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen.” BlogTO (Tornto), January 17, 2018. https://www.blogto.com/restaurants/chubbys-jamaican-kitchen-toronto/.

Chubby’s Jamaican. n.d. “About Page.” Accessed April 17, 2021. https://chubbysjamaican.com/about-chubby-s?

DH Toronto Hive. 2018. “Toronto ranks third among the 50 cities in the world with the most diverse food.” Daily Hive. https://dailyhive.com/toronto/toronto-top-50-diverse-food-scenes-2018.

“A hisyory of Toronto Immigration.” n.d. Immigroup. Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.immigroup.com/news/history-toronto-immigration.

“Lekker – 224 Photos & 84 Reviews.” n.d. Yelp. Accessed april 17, 2021. https://www.yelp.ca/biz/lekker-toronto.

Mezes. n.d. “Mezes Home.” Accessed april 17, 2021. https://www.mezes.com/home.

Milk ‘N Honey Staff. n.d. “Milk ‘N Honey.” Accessed april 17, 2021. http://milknhoney.ca/.

Pai Toronto. n.d. “Pai Toronto.” Cookbook page. Accessed april 17, 2021. https://www.paitoronto.com/cookbook.

Valdeavilla, Ronica. 2018. “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Filipino Cuisine.” Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/philippines/articles/8-things-you-didnt-know-about-filipino-cuisine/.

Zezafoun. n.d. “Zezafoun Story.” Accessed April 17, 2021. https://www.zezafoun.ca/story.

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