We have learned a lot about Canada’s dining scene since 2012, when the annual ranking of the nation’s best restaurants was launched. Each year, we celebrate the best in fine dining across the country. Each year, there are celebrated debuts and happy restaurateurs, and there are also notable, high-quality restaurants that are left off the list, and these omissions concern their chefs, owners and supporters.
What has been clear to me from the beginning is there are a handful of restaurants that endear themselves to discerning diners. These titans are Joe Beef, Vij’s, Langdon Hall, Raymonds, Toque, Fleur de Sel and, more recently, Bar Isabel. Then there are many, many, many others. Great restaurants, but restaurants whose support is more tenuous. This is nothing new. The industry is considered one of the most competitive because the dining public is fickle, often unforgiving.
The judges for the 2015 TopRestaurantsInCanada.com rankings were selected by Vacay.ca because they are objective food experts and connoisseurs who travel — a lot. They aren’t focused just on the dining scene in their hometown. They take the pulse of what’s going on in Canada, often by using their dining experiences around the world as a source of reference.
Voting for Canada’s Best Restaurants
How might that translate on a judge’s ballot? If a restaurant truly wows a diner, then that restaurant will receive the maximum total a voter is allowed. Each Vacay.ca judge has 100 points to allocate between five and 10 restaurants, with a maximum of 20 points for any single restaurant. Five restaurants can each receive 20 points or those 100 points can be divided between up to 10 establishments. Each year, most judges have at least one 20-point restaurant.
For a restaurant to year in and year out receive 20 points from any one judge, let alone from multiple voters, is rare. Restaurants that are “of the moment” — the newer, trendier, hipper spots that come on the scene and capture immediate attention — will steal recognition from established locales.
Last year, Patria in Toronto and Hotel Herman in Montreal debuted to lots of adoration from diners and our judges. This year, neither received the same level of enthusiasm, even though the quality of the food and service by all accounts is still top notch. What changed? We had a turnover in judges, as we always do to keep things fresh and to continue to aim for the impossible: A definitive list of the very best restaurants in the country at a particular moment. But many of the judges who voted for these previous finalists didn’t select them this time around. The reasons why would include new competition — more than anything — and the fact the uniqueness of the dining experience counts for plenty.
Like chefs, people who dine out all of the time are seeking the bold, the imaginative and the stellar. It can come in a bowl of ramen just as it can in a plate loaded with white truffles and Iberico ham. They want it to be truly memorable, especially when they are travelling, and that is what the Top Restaurants in Canada list is intended to be about. It is not meant to be a guide for neighbourhood finds or business lunches or large family occasions. It’s for the most precious of meals — those reserved for when you are visiting a place for what may be the only time in your life and you want every experience, including your dining choices, to be the best ones possible. If you’re in a place for just three nights, what restaurants will you select? Even grander, what restaurants in Canada are worth getting on a plane to enjoy?
There aren’t many. And it’s that bar that restaurants are being judged against. How does a restaurant really distinguish itself in a global arena? It’s far from easy. You have to applaud chefs who are able to build a brand around the distinctiveness of their cuisine, because that’s what turns their enterprises into destination restaurants. What hurts some restaurants — through no fault of their own — is the fact they get categorized with a trend and when that trend passes, so does the enthusiasm. For example, the recent fashion in North America about elevated pub fare has spawned many restaurants with hipster servers, boozy cocktails, craft beer, and wickedly decadent burgers and high-end tacos. It’s fun, dependable, crowd-pleasing stuff that will keep the restaurant going, which is what’s most important. But I can have a very similar experience at Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco as I can in a number of other restaurants in the United States and Canada. So, the key question when a ballot for naming the nation’s best restaurants is filled out is, “How special is it, really?”
On my ballot for this year, I gave four restaurants the maximum of 20 points: Joe Beef, Raymonds, The Pointe at Wickaninnish Inn and Bauhaus. I also voted for Ayden, My Shanti and Araxi. All made it to the Top 50 rankings except The Pointe and that stuns me, because it is one of the very few places in Canada that was built to be a destination restaurant and it accomplishes that aim in every way. My meal there was sensational. The food was creative, artfully presented and delicious, with a keen sense of place, both in the cuisine and the wine selections. Plus, it’s in Tofino, one of the best places on the planet you can spend time in.
It had ranked on the list each of the previous three years. I don’t know why it missed this time. Nor do I understand how Calgary‘s Model Milk, which I voted for in 2014, could miss, or how Maison Publique could go from No. 3 last year to outside the rankings within 12 months. But it’s not my list. The rankings are the consolidated opinion of 45 well-travelled connoisseurs and journalists who know their stuff. In past years, we’ve had more judges — including close to 10,000 public votes in 2013 — and we’ve had judges whose dining experiences were limited to their own cities or provinces, but I wouldn’t say the results were any better. In fact, one of the changes we made this year was to recruit more avid travellers to the voting academy so that we can further emphasize the national flavour of the list. In addition, we consulted with industry leaders — and will continue to do so — to enhance our selection process of the restaurants.
With each year the list becomes more important. Last year, the World’s 50 Best recruiters tabbed a number of the Vacay.ca judges for its committee, which in part led to the inclusion of Joe Beef on that globally recognized list (it was a runner-up at No. 81). Our list is also increasingly more consistent. That was the aim for the first five years: Find the most dependable places to dine in the country for travellers. Having a restaurant retain its No. 1 ranking indicates we’re on track for that goal. So too is having eight restaurants make the ranking in each of the first four years of the survey and having repeat provincial winners in Saskatchewan (Ayden), Nova Scotia (Fleur de Sel), Ontario (Bar Isabel), and Newfoundland and Labrador (Raymonds). This year, there were also 21 new entries, fewer than previous editions.
What we do know is diners in some parts of the country are more fickle than others. Montreal, for instance, has the most turnover in restaurants on the rankings. Names like Les 400 Coups, Hotel Herman and Le Serpent are soaring darlings one year and unrecognized the next. Meanwhile, Vancouver is the most consistent, with Hawksworth, Vij’s and L’Abattoir always ranking high.
We also know there will be grumbling from the restaurants that miss out and from their avid supporters. The question that could be asked of them is, “What restaurant would you remove to make room for your choice?” It’s a far more difficult judgment to make this year than in any other, because every member of the 2015 Top 50 Restaurants in Canada is quite exceptional. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. Our nation’s dining choices are getting better and better, just look at all the amazing restaurants we’ve ranked — and the names of some of the great ones we didn’t.