By Mike Spry
Dining out isn’t what it used to be. While in the past we often divided restaurants into the utilitarian and the elite, there’s been an evolution born of food networks, celebrity chefs, and endlessly and readily available global ingredients, and it’s brought diners a nearly infinite array of choices for their eating-out experiences.
Additionally, now more than ever, the common home cook fancies him- or herself a gourmand or chef-de-cuisine, demanding that bistros, gastropubs, and eateries the world over elevate their menus and venues to attract an ever-more discerning clientele.
Does this result in too many choices? It sure does, but we’re here to help. Combing through a plethora of back alleys, back roads, and baby back ribs, we’ve found some not-to-be-missed, tucked-away Southern Ontario restaurants that will surely have your tastebuds dancing, and your new air fryer dormant.
The past two years have been especially hard for the restaurant industry, and all these establishments have gone out of their way to make dining accessible, responsible, and safe with takeout, curbside, and patios. Support these local gems and explore experiences in dining knowing their menus, staff, and ambiance are addictive.
1) Figures Toronto
Figures Toronto describes itself as “the city’s most imaginative upscale resto-lounge” and, to be honest, the proprietors may be underselling the singularity of one of Yorkville’s can’t-miss hotspots. Since bursting onto the bustling Toronto restaurant scene in 2017, Figures has set itself apart from its peers not just in the unique conceit of the space, but the elevated, elegant, and avante-garde menu. Restaurateurs often use the term “experience” to describe their dining, but Figures doesn’t just earn that description; it redefines it.
To enter the Avenue Road location is to immerse oneself in a living dream of revelry and reverie. The menu and decor are a pop-culture menage of the zeitgeist, outfitted in Marvel and DC comic heroes, Star Wars characters, and other pop iconography – not in a way that is intrusive, but rather to evoke the comfort of one’s personal nostalgia. It is impossible not to be teleported to another time, or world. Designed by Toronto-based firm Prototype Design Lab, Figures features a DJ booth, lounge, and collectible shop. The venue is truly unique, in an era where “unique” has often lost its lustre.
The menu, built by a collaborative and equitable kitchen team model echoing the eclectic and democratic decor, is as playfully sui generis as the rest of the experience at Figures. The menu, refined as it is grounded in the restaurant’s creative framework, features dishes like A&W fried chicken bites, black truffle gnocchi, and slow-cooked oxtail, among others. The cocktail list boasts the Web-Slinging Spider Hombre, Johnny Blaze, and the Empire Did Nothing Wrong (an argument to rival Han shot first), as delectable as they are imaginative. Figures is Mos Eisley Cantina cranked to eleven, and is not to be missed.
figuresto.com | 137 Avenue Rd, Toronto, ON
2) Rogues Restaurant Mississauga
There are institutions and then there’s Rogues Restaurant. Opened in 1983 by Tony Pereira, Rogues has been serving Mississauga the finest in elevated dining for longer than much of its clientele has been alive. Pereira’s story is a restaurant industry fairytale: his rise from bussing tables at the fabled Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto to owning one of Southern Ontario’s most celebrated restaurants is truly every restaurant worker’s dream come true.
But Rogues Restaurant refuses to rest on its laurels, and for nearly four decades has been offering evolved, inspired, and tasty dishes. Under the watchful eye of executive chef Bevan Terry – who has been with Rogues since 1989 and purchased the restaurant from Pereira just over four years ago and oversaw a subsequent renovation – the Northern Italy and Mediterranean-inspired menu has been the talk of Mississauga even as the Toronto suburb has grown into an internationally recognized culinary landmark in and of itself. The dishes remain seasonal as always, and as Bevan says, “A lot of what we are cooking at the restaurant is inspired by what is available to us.”
Veal fortunato, chicken parmesan, gnocchi gorgonzola, and parmesan-crusted Chilean sea bass are just a few of the Italian classics elevated to contemporary delights by Terry and his kitchen. But the key to Rogues’ endurance and legacy goes beyond the menu. The restaurant prides itself on being “Mississauga’s Premier Fine Dining Experience,” underscored by the venue’s elegance and grace. But above all, it is comforting and comfortable to dine at Rogues, where its open-concept kitchen provides a warm but refined culinary experience, and where the wonder of the dishes dances to realization before your very eyes. A peerless wine list complements the experience to perfection.
roguesrestaurant.com | 1900 Dundas St W. Mississauga, ON
3) Stoney’s Bread Company Oakville
It’s seemingly a contradiction for a restaurant to be simultaneously a local institution and a hidden gem, but Stoney’s Bread Company isn’t just any restaurant. An Oakville landmark since 2004, Stoney’s borrows its name from Toronto Argonauts legend Norm Stoneburgh (and whose son Blake is a co-owner with good friend Steve Chabot).
Stoney’s has been serving discerning Southern Ontario diners “familiar classics that you love served with a modern twist” with unprecedented fanfare and celebration, not to mention celebrity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped by to make pizza while on the campaign trail in 2015, and the restaurant was featured in an episode of The Food Network’s “You Gotta Eat Here.” It’s also perennially named one of Oakville’s Top 10 Restaurants.
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week, Stoney’s perpetuates its celebrity and hidden-gem status with a cozy dining room, warm staff, and gilt-edged Italian-inspired menu. Rustic soups and salads, pizzas and sandwiches are all comfort foods to die for, and are all freshly made on-site (like the homemade focaccia). Maple glazed salmon salad with new potato, bacon, green beans, onions, tomato and champagne vinaigrette; fettuccine à la chevre with goat cheese, grilled chicken, spinach, wild mushrooms and roasted red pepper cream; and the Regina pizza with caramelized onions, figs, prosciutto mozzarella and gorgonzola with tomato sauce, are just a few of the many standouts.
stoneysbreadcompany.com | 325 Kerr St., Oakville, ON
4) Saving Thyme Burlington
Saving Thyme owns its pun. The patisserie and restaurant is a one-stop culinary delight, with peerless bistro fare, exquisite baked yummies, and perfected take-home menus. Their offerings are postcards of perfection, artistry and artisanal chic, bringing France to the GTA in a way that sets them apart.
Saving Thyme is the honoured lovechild of Alexandra and Phil Kinsman, who began their enterprise in a suburban basement in 2012, expanding to an ever-growing storefront in 2015. Saving Thyme has quickly grown into a Burlington institution, establishing itself as one of Southern Ontario’s premier kitchens. Hamilton natives both, Alexandra plied and perfected her trade at the renowned Quatrefoil in Dundas, while Phil (an engineer by trade) adapted his scientific sensibilities to the precision of French cuisine.
And, oh, what cuisine.
The bistro’s menu features the couple’s interpretations of some classic dishes: Croque Monsieur on sourdough, chicken vol-au-vent, and classic steak frites. Their prepared meals change seasonally and specifically, and have boasted delights such as duck confit cassoulet and salmon en papillote, along with a wide array of options for every course: duck rillette, lobster spaghetti, ratatouille en croute, and more. The patisserie offers delectable options like quiche, tarts, tea boxes and canapes, as well as pastries to die for. And Saving Thyme does just that: Do you want to come in for an ambient meal and French bistro experience, or pick up a few items to take home? Either way, the Kinsmans have you covered.
savingthyme.ca | 450 Appleby Line, Burlington, ON
5) Shy’s Place Dundas
Stepping foot into Shy’s Place in Dundas is like walking into a memory. To say the decor is steeped in nostalgia is an understatement. The late-1800s heritage home is outfitted in reverie, complete with a main floor of hockey memorabilia that would make the Hall of Fame jealous; a Kennedy Room of Life magazine covers; the Bird’s Nest, filled with the Toronto Blue Jays; a Windsor Room of Royals; and Shy’s Room, a tribute to co-owner Rod Millard’s father Shy, for whom the establishment is named. And in these difficult times, Shy’s winterized patio is an attraction unto itself!
Oh, and the food’s incredible. Truly comfort food in the definition of comfort, under the culinary auspices of Mike Speer, known for the 494 Kitchen Co. “food bus.”
From a Hamilton food truck to a Southern Ontario institution in just four years is a story that could have come from the best Hollywood scriptwriters. But the real story is the food: Italian-influenced scratch kitchen fare boasting mouth-watering options like chorizo arrabiata macaroni, short rib beef bourguignon, and their infamous Moroccan chicken sandwich, a vestige of the food truck days. Serving lunch, brunch, and dinner with a stellar wine list and cocktails for the ages (casked red Sangria, anyone?), the Dundas staple has quickly endeared itself to the community, making it a must for any and all Southern Ontario gourmands.
shysplace.ca | 11 Coreslab Drive, Dundas