Go Brown Bag Free, and Treat Yourself with Toronto's Top Lunches
By Courtney Sunday
New York and Toronto Local Expert
Let's bring the lunch back.
For too many years, we have been neglecting this meal, eating it hurriedly in front of a computer screen. We are spending far too little time indulging our epicurious side; our inner gourmands.
Lunch in Toronto doesn't have to come at a high price point. From a bowl of steaming hot noodles made by rising superstar chef David Chang at Momofuku to a fancy take on local food at Nota Bene, we have you covered. We have the burgers slathered in cheese, and the pizza slathered in...cheese. We have the spots where you can sit and linger, or the perfect places to grab and go and get on with your day. That fresh air will do you good either way.
From downtown Toronto to the Beaches, our picks transverse the city. It is hard to run a restaurant in Toronto and keep the customers interested. The ones that "make it" have inventive chefs, fresh food and an energy that never wanes.
Whether you are solidifying a business deal or gossiping over illicit lunchtime drinks is your prerogative. Just step away from the desk, already. Right now you must tend to your stomach. That work will wait for you to return.
Banh Mi Boys
If you are looking for a unique twist on a filling Vietnamese sandwich, you certainly can't go wrong with Banh Mi Boys. Right on Queen and Spadina, the sandwich shop takes the Vietnamese construct and gives it multicultural twists, from Korean to Japanese. People line up out the door in anticipation, serving the grab-and-go style quite nicely. It is a skinny, hip and modern restaurant which serves its sandwiches on retro checkerboard paper. Banh Mi Boys was an overnight sensation for Toronto foodies who had no idea how great five-spice pork belly could taste. Other mouth-watering choices include duck confit or kimchi fries slathered in mayo, kimchi and slow roasted pulled pork. Now it's your turn to get on the Banh Mi train. (416-363-0588)
Momofuku in Japanese translates to "lucky peach." Now that we have the linguistics lesson out of the way, let's get to the details. With the surging popularity of New York's Momofuku scene, Toronto couldn't have been more thrilled to David Chang. The prime downtown location in the Shangri-la Hotel has four restaurants in one. Go big or go home. Momofuku noodle bar is prized for its ramen noodles and pork belly buns. David Chang introduces twists on authentic recipes, making them just different enough to keep the eater interested. Slather the amazing house made kimchi on everything. Eat at communal wooden tables and make sure to make a stop at the Milk Bar for some crack pie, which has a "toasty oat crust and gooey butter filling." We could insert a Rob Ford joke there, but that just wouldn't be classy. (647-253-8000)
If you are looking for fast food that is made of ingredients that you can pronounce, in general you are out of luck. However, chef Stephen Gardner foresaw a need and in 2005 opened up Urban Herbivore in a small restaurant in Kensington. They are now at three locations (and counting). This is vegan, local and organic food that is made entirely from scratch. Custom build a salad or grain bowl on a bed of quinoa, lettuce or black and brown rice (among others). Toppings are substantial, from artichokes to kimchi cabbage to marinated mushrooms. Or indulge in a hearty stew or soup, with exotic curry spices or subtle vegetable flavour. Sandwiches are also phenomenal, and you will be in and out of the door in no time. (416-927-1231)
The Burger's Priest
When The Burger's Priest opened in 2010, it catapulted in popularity. Now three restaurants in, there is a cult following, because Torontonians love nothing better than overpopulating a new hot spot. Luckily, the service is quick and even if it weren't, the wait would be worth it. The griddle-smashed 4 ounce burgers can be loaded up with toppings or doubled up, easily overtaking the small white bun. Veggie burgers are by no means virtuous (fried cheese stuffed Portobello mushrooms) but definitely delicious. If you are extra hungry, try The Vatican: two grilled cheese sandwiches encasing two cheeseburgers. You may not be able to fit into your skinny jeans after this lunch, but you won't be able to prevent a huge smile from overtaking your face. (647-346-0617)
This is the real deal kind of pizza. You may find yourself enthusiastically affirming the taste of real Neopolitan Pizza at Pizzeria Libretto in Italian. Or, if words fail you, "Mmmm" works well in most languages. This pizza has a soft chewy crust that is beautifully blistered by the piping hot oven. Each pizza is made as a single serving and is not overwhelmed with toppings. Cheese and toppings such as duck confit or house made sausage merely accent the pie, allowing it to be melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The result is a lunch that feels lighter than it looks. Even people who are convinced they will just have a slice may find themselves downing a whole pizza. Perfect to eat and then take a nap. We mean...get back to work. We are in Canada, after all. (416-532-8000)
Milagro Restaurante Mexicano y Cantina
There are times when you crave Mexican Food, but you don't want to stoop to Taco Bell. Milagro is as far a deviation as you can get from the "run for the border" fast food chains. It has a sleek look that more warrants a business lunch than a sombrero. Everything is made fresh, right down to the hot sauce, and the guacamole is out of this world. They stuff their burritos and enchiladas with everything from octopus to pork loin. If you are in the mood for a liquid lunch, their selection of tequila is impressive. Check out Margarita Tuesdays to save a few pennies on your cocktail. (416-850-2855, 416-850-3401)
Mark McEwan is a Canadian celebrity chef. He has had his own Food Network show (of course) and he also has this restaurant, among many others. This restaurant has the markers of a perfect business lunch: a swanky restaurant interior and a spacious outdoor patio, which Toronto seems to think is the pre-requisite for any restaurant, if they want patrons from May-September. Executive chef Brooke McDougall adds a touch of luxury to comfort food favourites, such as the addition of lobster to a grilled cheese made with aged brie and crisp pancetta. The dessert menu has just as much length as the lunch menu, allowing for the grand possibility of this becoming a pants unbuttoning sort of experience. (416-777-1144)
When men stand with a sign that says "You'll love the the taste of our balls" you have to take notice. When it comes to chef Rod Bowers, it is indeed true. His restaurant Hey Meatball in Little Italy in Toronto is a small grab-and-go restaurant that boasts farm to table ingredients. Everything is as fresh as possible, including the eggs that are used as binders. It is classic comfort food without a hint of unnatural ingredients. Meals can be as simple as filling in the blanks of the sentence I want ___ balls with ____ sauce on ____. A choice using that formula would be chicken balls with mushroom gravy over polenta. Or go for a meatball sandwich, stuffed to the brim with quality ingredients and served with a leafy chopped salad on the side. Fine, Rod. We love the taste of your balls. You win. (416-546-1483)
If you are a person who hears the words "baby back ribs" and salivates, you must make a trip over to Roncesvalles for a spectacular lunch. Lucky for us, owners and childhood friends Jonathan Persofsky and David Neinstein left the corporate world to dedicate more time to their passion of genuine pit BBQ. Every piece of meat is treated like a work of art, and the word succulent doesn't even begin to do it justice. Nosh on the complementary popcorn with dipping sauces as you wait for the meal, and try your best not to drink the homemade BBQ sauce. Tuck into a sandwich with meats ranging from sliced smoked pork to blackened smoked chicken with candied smoked bacon. You may find yourself making socially awkward noises as you devour your sandwich, but it is rare that you find meat cooked to perfection. There is nothing wrong with enjoying it. (416-532-7700)
Right smack in the heart of the Entertainment District, it is indeed possible to have uncomplicated, unfussy food that is all about freshness. Nota Bene has a chic art deco vibe, with abstract artwork by Canadian artist Alex D'Arcy contrasting the soft colours of the table settings. The local seasonal menu can be as hearty as you wish, from rabbit pappardelle to a stilten brisket burger. Executive chef David Lee places asterisks next to the menu items that he designates as healthy fare, but they are extravagent choices flavour-wise, such as Matzo Ball soup with shaved black truffles. An express menu is also on offer, with a starter, main and a chocolate chip cookie to take back to the office to enjoy with your coffee. Nota Bene will not disappoint. From the skilled waitstaff to the stunning food presentation, we are not sure it even knows how to. (416-977-6400)
About Courtney Sunday
Courtney Sunday lived in Canterbury, England and Luzern, Switzerland before returning to Toronto in 2010. Yoga teaching and freelance writing became her full-time professions, as she learned the true meaning of the statement: "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." Courtney now divides her time between Philadelphia and Toronto. She loves the cafe culture of both cities and the ever-expanding group of foodies. When not leading small yoga teacher trainings around the globe she explores her cities by foot: www.courtneysunday.com, @Omathomeyoga.
Read more about Courtney Sunday here.