Twenty years back, when I was the hard-eating restaurant critic at the National Post, I once wrote a review of a restaurant in Toronto’s Koreatown that somehow managed to go bankrupt between my filing the copy on Thursday and the newspaper showing up on the newsstand Saturday morning.
This displeased my editor but struck me as hilarious. I mean, the odds against such a thing happening were so long. So it seemed, anyway—until March 2020. Which is when we at Canada’s 100 Best found ourselves in the home stretch of production for our annual ranking issue and suddenly every last one of the 100 restaurants on our new list shut down.
Along with the rest of the industry, from New York to Helsinki. The odds against this unfolding seemed incalculable. And there was nothing remotely funny about it. What were we supposed to do with our annual list and all those reviews of restaurants that our readers could no longer visit? A helpful reader suggested rebranding as a special edition, titled Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants: The Souvenir Program. Instead, we opted to put on the brakes, watch and wait. Soon enough, after the immediate carnage of shut-downs and layoffs, and the temporary relief of government cheques, a restaurant lifeline of faint hope emerged in the unexpected form of high-end takeout and delivery. At one end of the spectrum there were basics that we had never seen done quite so well before, like meal kits built around pizza or pasta or grill-ready hamburgers and steaks paired with a good bottle of wine to go. At its loftiest, $100+ chirashi don boxes (thank you, Sushi Masaki Saito), and four-course dinners for pickup from restaurants that used to do tasting menus only (like Alo).
We witnessed some restaurants put their own troubles on the backburner while they instead provided food for health-care workers and soup kitchens (thank you Hawksworth, Montréal Plaza and others). And some faced down an intolerable situation with their sense of fun intact by, say, offering drive-thru tasting menus, dispensing one course at a time for eating in your car while you drive around the block (bravo Marc Lepine and Atelier, for lifting our spirits with that one). To sum up, we have witnessed industry-wide resilience, ingenuity—and an admirable fighting spirit. Meanwhile, as is important to remember, our annual ranking released each spring is always a reflection of our judges’ assessment of how restaurants performed the previous year. And when we opened our poll in late December, things hereabouts were still going swimmingly. Restaurants coast-to-coast were cooking with more finesse and greater confidence in their regional identity that I can previously recall. Why ignore something so positive? We didn’t. What we’ve done in this issue is combine our poll results with what’s happening now.
The ranking stands. But the associated reviews have been shortened to make space for updates on what restaurants are doing with takeout and pickup and any number of other initiatives undertaken to keep the lights on, rehire furloughed staff and keep their suppliers busy. We look forward keenly to seeing their staffing numbers continue to rise from when they bottomed out at zero in mid-March. And we can hardly wait to get back to eating on-site—even if it’s behind a shield of Perspex, with empty tables to the left and right of us.
Just as we were putting the finishing touches on this revised post-COVID-19 magazine, the world was buffeted again, when video footage of the horrific murder of George Floyd precipitated weeks of racial unrest, demonstrations and worldwide self-examination. Canada’s 100 Best supports Black Lives Matter and all the peaceful protesters making the case for racial justice everywhere. Backing such a statement of support with meaningful action is challenging—but we are committed to doing everything we can. In the short term that will mean working toward a more diverse and racially inclusive judging panel and editorial team and, where we can, broadening the scope of our culinary coverage beyond our founding mandate of fine dining. On which front, we are always looking for articulate new voices to add to our roster of contributors. And we invite anyone interested in sharing theirs to write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re listening.