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To say the last two-plus years have been tough on restaurants is an understatement. More than 205,000 hospitality workers have moved on, leaving the industry entirely. During the past 12 months alone, an unprecedented 3,344 restaurants closed permanently, according to a new report from the Unified Data Lab.
COVID-19 restrictions are in the rearview mirror, but restaurants face a host of new challenges. Pandemic-related shutdowns, layoffs and capacity caps have been replaced by a labor shortage and rising food prices.
As the industry begins to recover, though, there may be no better time to celebrate what sets restaurants apart.
For the (usually annual) Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list, the decision to summarize the ranking in 2022 after a two-year pandemic hiatus was “a bit of a tricky balance,” says Jacob Richler, editor-in-chief of Canada’s 100 Best and former National Post restaurant critic. “It’s exciting for us because of what it means — that restaurants are doing well again.”
In December 2021, as Richler sent the poll to a team of 100 judges — attributed geographically according to population (roughly 500,000 people per judge, provincially) — the Omicron variant hit. Voting went on as planned, closing in the first week of January 2022. To account for varying degrees of lockdown across the country, judges voted for their 10 best dining experiences: takeout or dine-in.
For the first time in its eight-year history, Canada’s 100 Best named a Vancouver restaurant No. 1.
Published on Main, headed by executive chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson, took the top spot in the ranking, which was announced on May 30. The restaurant rose from 88th place in 2020 (when the last list was released), which was a feat in itself; it opened on Dec. 18, 2019, without a liquor license and with just two weeks to impress judges.
“If you register in the 80s — like they did in their first year — on the basis of being in business for a (couple weeks), then you’re obviously doing a bunch of stuff right,” says Richler.
Toronto’s Alo, which ranked first in the last four lists running, Vancouver’s St. Lawrence, Restaurant Pearl Morissette in Jordan Station, Ont., and Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont. rounded out the top five.
Restaurant closures became commonplace in the early days of COVID-19 but as the list shows, there have been successful openings as well. Of the 100 restaurants, 19 are new and 20 others are newcomers (ie, they didn’t rank in 2020).
For 2022, Canada’s 100 Best expanded their definition of “new.” Typically used to describe restaurants that opened in the previous calendar year, they considered all spots established in the past two years “new restaurants.”
“It seemed to me that the restaurants that opened shouldn’t be ignored,” says Richler. “Because in the case of places that opened to do takeout, they weren’t really hitting their stride until this year anyway. So, I counted them all as new.”
To highlight the numerous new restaurants in the main ranking, the publication created a Canada’s 20 Best New Restaurants list as well. Calgary and Toronto dominated with six and seven restaurants, respectively.
The Best New Restaurant award went to Calgary’s Major Tom, headed by executive chef Garrett Martin. Toronto’s Osteria Giulia ranked second followed by Calgary’s DOP, Taverne Bernhardt’s and Pompette, both in Toronto.
This broader definition of newness is one reason there are so many recently opened restaurants on the list, says Richler. The other is that pre-pandemic times were economically promising. Some restaurateurs were committed to opening when COVID-19 started and ended up launching with takeout, which was not the original plan.
“A lot of places opened during the pandemic and people thought they were headstrong or wildly ambitious. But the reality is, they had already acquired spaces or were renting them, and they had to do something with it or give up,” he notes.
High-ranking restaurants in previous years such as Raymonds in St. John’s, NL, and Normand Laprise’s Montreal institution Toqué! (No. 1 in the inaugural 2015 list and in the top 10 2016–2020) were closed during the pandemic. They didn’t offer takeout, and as a result, don’t appear on this year’s list.
The places that closed got attention because people were distracted about the situation, says Richler. But the changeover made space for other restaurants. “There’s an enormous amount of quality still there on that list. And that’s a testament, I guess, to the commitment of the people in the business to carrying on.”
This year’s issue includes profiles of three community leaders “who have not just advocated but implemented positive change,” including chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of Calgary’s Charcut Roast House.
It also features awards, such as the Best New Destination Restaurant, which went to chef Warren Barr and Lily Verney-Downey’s Pluvio in Ucluelet, BC
When restaurants express a distinct sense of place through their food, people tend to take notice. They have an allure that can spark the creation of a culinary community around them. Richler offers the example of Fogo Island Inn (93rd) in Newfoundland and Labrador, which opened in 2013. Nearly a decade later, there’s an array of restaurants to choose from on the offshore island.
“I like to see places that have a really strong sense of geographic identity on the plate doing well,” says Richler, who doesn’t vote on the list. “That’s how culinary identity matures and asserts itself.”
Many of this year’s restaurants excel at this, he adds, including Restaurant Pearl Morissette (fourth), Montreal’s Mon Lapin (sixth), Toronto’s Canoe (eighth), Calgary’s River Café (10th) and La Cabane d’à Côté (71st) in Mirabel, what?
A favorite of Richler’s, La Cabane d’à Côté is located nearby Martin Picard’s legendary Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack. Chefs cook on an old sugaring off table fired by wood logs using all their own products; meals are memorable and firmly rooted in place.
“When you sit down and eat at those places, you know exactly where you are,” says Richler. “That’s really important for our culinary identity. Published (on Main) is another case in point. It’s a very local, product-driven restaurant with a quite singular style.”
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More than two years into the pandemic, in the face of mounting challenges, Richler commends how restaurants have responded. COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, though they’re now contending with staffing shortages — especially in kitchens — and increasing food costs.
“They have their struggles, obviously, but once again, they’ve returned to ambition and success,” says Richler. “It’s great to see them doing stuff that they take a lot of pride in again, which is having full rooms and creating great dishes.”
Earlier this month, Michelin announced it will launch its first Canadian fine-dining guide, starting with Toronto in fall 2022. Some chefs see it as an “exciting turning point”; others question if the pursuit of stars will worsen working environments in an already fraught industry.
As restaurants deal with understaffing, reduced hours, abbreviated menus and wine lists, “the timing is a bit regrettable,” Richler says of the launch. Food is only expected to get more expensive in Canada and Michelin stars mean higher menu prices, he adds. “Two stars will result in a 20 per cent price increase, and three (stars), 40 or 45 per cent.”
Price arises aside, Richler feels the Michelin Guide could have a positive influence on the restaurant scene. “They’re still a respected barometer of quality. So, I think chefs get excited about it. They’ll be motivated by it. I mean, I’m hoping most of them will just carry on doing what they do well.”
Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants 2022 — The top 10
1. Published on Main (Vancouver)
two. Hello (Toronto)
3. St.Lawrence (Vancouver)
Four. Restaurant Pearl Morissette (Jordan Station, Ont.)
5. Langdon Hall (Cambridge, Ont.)
6. Mon Lapin (Montreal)
7. Edulis (Toronto)
8. Canoe (Toronto)
9. Boulevard (Vancouver)
10. River Cafe (Calgary)
Canada’s 20 Best New Restaurants 2022 — The top 5
1. Major Tom (Calgary)
two. Osteria Giulia (Toronto)
3. PDO (Calgary)
Four. Bernhardt’s Taverne (Toronto)
5. Pompette (Toronto)