Surviving Summerlicious

it’s that time again

I have a serious love / hate relationship with Toronto’s Summerlicious festival. I love the idea of a reasonably priced, multi-course meal at a restaurant I couldn’t otherwise afford to eat at. I hate the fact that as a Summerlicious diner, the chances of  being treated like riff raff by an exhausted and overworked staff are much higher than they should be.

Most “hardcore foodies” that I run into shy away from the festival entirely, opting instead to avoid the crowds and hassle (side note: anyone who refers to themselves as a “hardcore foodie” should be avoided at all costs –  they are, without a doubt, the worst).  Personally, I’m not yet ready to give up on Summerlicious.

Toronto is a city that is largely still figuring out how to host great food festivals. After the recent Sushi Festival and Mac & Cheese Festival disasters, it’s pretty clear that the ‘licious program has earned its stripes. It’s a unique format that makes it easy for diners to avoid the pitfalls that plague most food festivals here: long lines, excessive crowds and meagre portions.

The options

In my experiences, most of the worthwhile participating restaurants in this city fall into one of two categories.

First, there are the restaurants that are participating for all the right reasons. These are the places that genuinely want to share their food  with a wider audience in the hopes that those who walk through their doors during the festival will some day return as loyal patrons. These are the restaurants that prioritize customer service and your dining experience over their own perceived exclusivity. They put effort into their ‘licious menu and as a result they are excited to share it with the people. If you find yourself at a restaurant that subscribes to this school of thought, chances are you are in for a good experience.

And then there are the other guys. The places that are only interested in flipping table after table and working their staff to the bone so the owners can cash in while the getting’s good. Nobody is confused about the fact that restaurants are businesses; they exist to make money. But nobody wants to be beat over the head by that fact when they sit down for a meal, either. Restaurants like this are happy to take your money only to alienate you, provide god-awful service and an uninspired menu. Obviously you should try and avoid these at all costs.

Luckily, the good does tend to outweigh the bad here.

doing it right

The key to a good Summerlicious experience? Just pick somewhere you’ll be comfortable eating that also has an interesting menu. If stuffy, white linen dining isn’t your thing, then don’t go all out just because it’s suddenly a bit more affordable. This is a very common mistake come ‘licious time (and one that I’m admittedly guilty of) that leads to lots of lacklustre experiences.

Look for menus that blend some of the restaurant’s tried & true signature items with a couple new, perhaps more adventurous dishes you might not normally order. Trying something new is the whole point of Summerlicious, so embrace the idea when you’re skimming menus.

None of this is rocket science. Just don’t pop in to Canoe with socks, sandals and a plastic sandwich bag filled with $28 in dimes and you’ll be fine.

2015 Recommendations

For the charcuterie fiend: Bestellen

For the pigs head and chicken gizzard rice: La Mesa

For those looking to pop the question: Auberge du Pommier

For elevated Mexican: Los Colibris

Because the crispy chicken buns are better than the pork buns: Daishō

For the party people: Parts & Labour

For extensive Portuguese offerings: Chiado

For some of Toronto’s best Middle Eastern: Tabülè

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