From steakhouse favourites to the original old-school no-frills diners of previous generations, these establishments have stood the test of time.
360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower
Being the revolving restaurant at the top of Toronto’s biggest tourist attraction, 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower didn’t even have to be a good restaurant. But it is, and as much a must for locals as visitors.
Barberian’s Steak House
There are a lot of great steakhouses in town, but Barberian's Steak House is the stone-cold classic. Founded in 1959 by Harry Barberian and not one tchotchke on the wall or book in the upper private dining room has been changed since.
There were certainly diners in Toronto before Fran’s, but when Francis Deck opened his 10 stools at Yonge & St. Clair in 1940, it became the standard by which all other diners were judged. And as a result, it’s survived the decades. The original location is gone but you can find the most established location on College Street just west of Bay Street.
Fieramosca is one of the spots only real old-school Torontonians even know about, but enough of them have been coming often enough over the decades that it’s still there, one of the last remaining high-end neighbourhood Italian spots. Named, obscurely, for the Ettore Fieramosca, the Count of Mignano (1475-1515). On any given night, half the guests will be regulars, but their secret is, they’ll make you feel just as welcome.
Hemingway's is the bar where deals have been made, law students have networked and everyone else has just had fun since the 1980s.
Known for its curvaceous statuary, Joso's is Toronto’s most famous Dalmatian restaurant. It started as a Yorkville coffeehouse in the 60s where acts like Harry Belafonte, Nana Mouskouri, Gordon Lightfoot and even Liberace would play, before it moved a couple of blocks north into its current Victorian digs.
The walls are filled with pictures of the film festival celebs who have made the high-end Italian Sotto Sotto an annual stop since the 80s.
Cafe La Gaffe
Cafe La Gaffe is one of the city’s earliest brunch spots, where Portuguese bread and French sauces combine for what’s still one of the best Benedict plates in the city. Try to get one of the two coveted window seats (the one on your left as you go in is the prize).
House of Gourmet
Classic massive-menu’d, shared round-table, pan-Chinese spot. House of Gourmet calls itself a seafood place, but there is as much BBQ and noodles and chicken and pork and duck feet as there are squids and abalone.
King's Noodle is the other classic, massive-menu’d, shared round-table pan-Chinese restaurant, this one on Spadina. Try the salted doughnut with your congee. 296 Spadina Ave.
Pho Hung is the restaurant that introduced Toronto to Vietnamese food and is still the go-to for everything but banh-mi. Regulars scribble their favourite numbered dishes down on the slip without even bothering with the menu (mine’s 19A). Find a second location in Mississauga.
Everyone’s favourite (including Domee Shi, director of Disney Pixar's Turning Red), Rol San is an Old Chinatown dim sum place on Spadina from before most Torontonians could tell their har gow from their siu mai. 323 Spadina Ave.
Stop in at Swatow for a glimpse of what Old Chinatown looked like when it was new. The newspaper-clipped reviews on the walls are older than almost all the staff, but the Cantonese food’s still good (especially the snails in black bean sauce).
The Avenue Diner
The Avenue Diner is old enough for Margaret Atwood to have worked here as a waitress when she was a teenager. Still a hangout for the literary and media elite, especially on a Saturday morning, it’s a slightly pricier version of your classic Canadian diner.
Le Paradis is another secret spot that only the savviest Torontonian knows about where you can get some of the best French food in the city for about half the price you’re probably guessing.
Though it’s only been around since the 1980s, Paupers is as classic as a Toronto pub gets, built into a late Victorian bank, complete with an old safe that’s become a snug. Jane Jacobs used to hang out here, and it’s got one of the best patios and the best rooftop in the Annex.
There are diners, and then there are counter diners. What you see is what you get at Vesta Lunch, and what you get is greasy and fast and perfect. “Reputable,” as the sign says, “since 1955.” Also, open 24 hours.
There’s some dispute as to whether this is Toronto’s oldest pub. Founded in 1833, it’s been there longer than the Wheat Sheaf (see below), but it closed for a while in the middle there. One of the most popular patios on Queen West, Black Bull is where you want to get your first beer on a sunny afternoon.
Le Select Bistro
Home of what is probably Toronto’s finest wine list, Le Select Bistro is also the place to get your steak frites, duck confit and other bistro standards. You can, just like in France, order without having to look at the menu. If it’s a classic, they make it and make it well.
Queen Mother Café
With its lovely back patio, only accessible after descending into an underground labyrinth that’s been a rite of passage for Torontonians since it was added in 1984 (six years after it opened), Queen Mother Café is known for its baked-in quirk. Despite its name, the menu is a Sri Lankan-Italian-Thai-Laotian hybrid.
The Kids in the Hall got their start here, and Amy Winehouse and Adele have both played the famous back room at Rivoli. It’s got a huge pool hall on the second floor, and the food is another made-in-Toronto mix of Southeast Asian, Indian, Italian and Tex-Mex.
If you were to try to pin down a Toronto-style pizza (you shouldn’t—there’s no such thing), it’d be Terroni’s. A minichain, born of an Italian-Canadian trip back to Puglia, that manages to feel like your favourite neighbourhood haunt no matter which location you choose. (The Terroni on Queen West is the original.)
Wheat Sheaf Tavern
With at least one break in 2019 for a renovation, Wheat Sheaf Tavern has been serving beer to Torontonians since 1846, making it the longest (almost) continuously operating pub in the city, and home of one of the earliest versions of Toronto wings.
When this restaurant, bar and boutique hotel opened in 2004, it set a literati-glitterati tone that West Queen West has been following ever since. For the full scene, get a drink at the Sky Yard, the Drake Hotel’s second-storey rooftop bar.
Open since 1932, The Lakeview Restaurant is this large 24-hour diner on what used to be the city’s southwest outskirts. It is one of the places you can’t leave Toronto without visiting at least once. (And if you do go just once, at least one of you has to have the club sandwich made with Cornflake-crusted chicken.)
Scaramouche is where the ladies who lunch have had their suppers since 1980. Where celebrity Canadian chefs like Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander got their starts, and where you go for filet mignon and asparagus done like your parents would have expected it to be done. The attached Pasta Bar is a way to experience the spot if you want to spend less.
Tom Jones Steak House
A decade or so younger than Barberian’s (see above), this steakhouse in a house in a parking lot is one of the weirder, more exquisite spots to get a taste of old Toronto. 17 Leader Lane
Gio Rana's Really Really Nice Restaurant
Most people just call it The Nose, because instead of a sign that might tell you what this Italian restaurant’s called, it’s just got a big fibreglass nose hanging over the door. If you want to get a hold on Toronto’s very specific form of friendliness, just stop in at Gio Rana's Really Really Nice Restaurant, and you’ll get the idea.
Underground, blink-and-you-miss-it, C’est What? is one of Toronto’s earliest brewpubs, with pool tables, coffee porter and antojitos. It’s one of the easiest, cheapest good times in the city.
Technically known as the Garden Gate, The Goof is as classic as classic gets in The Beaches. (Founded in 1952, it got its name from a years-long neon sign malfunction that left several letters of “GOOD FOOD” dark.) Old-style Chinese-Canadian dishes like chicken chow mein and Singapore noodles are served in retro booths indoors, or on one of the best patios at the far end thereof the Queen East strip.
Lunch specials from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. are $8.75 with coffee or tea. Think of it less like a trip to Guangzhou (where much of the cuisine originated) and more like a voyage into Toronto’s culinary past. You haven’t been to The Beaches until you’ve been to The Goof.
Len Duckworth Fish & Chips
You can get fish and chips at any of Toronto’s hundred pubs, and it’ll be good at almost every one of them. But if you’re a fan of the form, you’ll want to stop by Len Duckworth Fish & Chips, where they’ve been frying up the place (and haddock, and halibut) since 1929.
They say they’re the oldest Indian restaurant in the city, and they probably are. In the heart of Little India since 1976, Moti Mahal is a pan-Indian spot and an ideal introduction to a neighbourhood you should be spending some time in.
Also read: A Foodie’s Guide to Gerrard Street East
The Old Mill
West Toronto has been having its birthdays, weddings and anniversaries at The Old Mill Toronto Hotel & Spa and restaurant since 1914. This little green river valley enclave you’d think couldn’t possibly be part of the city has been a gathering spot for centuries, where Indigenous Canadians fished, and where European settlers built their first lumber mills in 1800.