Will the unique dining category spawned in the tony enclaves of Yaletown and Kitsilano become Canada’s national cuisine?
There’s no mistaking the look and sound of a hot restaurant. And on this fall evening the buzz around one corner patio is lively. Customers loiter outside, awaiting tables; inside, wait staff shout orders and line cooks shout back while conversations escalate in volume, either due to alcohol consumption or out of simple necessity. The food is good and the place vibrates with energy. It’s no wonder the Globe and Mail called this “Toronto’s hottest new restaurant.”
This particular scene, however, is not happening in Toronto. It’s Guu with Garlic, at the corner of Robson and Bidwell streets, one of the six Vancouver-area locations of the Japanese chain. Having introduced the izakaya concept to the Vancouver market in the early ’90s, Guu has now exported the concept to Toronto with instant success. And Guu is not alone in its eastward invasion. Several Earls restaurants have landed in metro Hogtown, including a downtown location that is already the chain’s most successful. Following the lead of those two are Vancouver casual dining staples Joey Tomato’s and Cactus Club. Meanwhile, the Caffè Artigiano chain that has spread through Vancouver since opening its first café at Pender and Thurlow streets is also taking its latte art show to Canada’s biggest city.
Like zebra mussels invading the Great Lakes, Vancouver restaurants are steadily colonizing Toronto. Most of the western invaders developed and honed their operations in competitive fields that did not necessarily exist back east. Just as the armies of Genghis Khan sharpened their skills and techniques fighting battles back home before conquering Europe, Vancouver chains have worked out the bugs in Vancouver before striking out beyond the mountains.
The arrival of Guu in Toronto was everything a restaurateur could hope for: earning rave reviews, landing steady office business, and perhaps best of all, owning a market niche that did not even exist in Toronto before the first Guu opened its doors on Church Street in December 2009. But the chain has had some experience introducing the izakaya concept into new markets. Common as they may be here these days, Vancouver was once izakaya-free. Before the wave could spread across Canada, some education – and adjustment – would be necessary.
Raku (not to be confused with chef Trevor Hooper’s now-closed Raku Kushiyaki on West 10th Avenue) opened at Thurlow and Smithe in 1993. It was launched by Tokyo izakaya master Takashi Uno, who ran three different izakaya chains in Japan and wanted to launch one in his adopted hometown.
Things did not go well initially. Vancouver did not understand the izakaya concept. Sometimes described as “Japanese tapas,” izakaya menus offer an ever-changing variety of small dishes, often based on traditional comfort food. Although they offer seafood items, including black cod and the popular seared tuna tataki, izakayas are not sushi joints. “People would come in and expect sushi or teriyaki,” recalls general manager Kaz Hashimoto, “and then they’d go away and never come back.”
Enter Yoshinori Kitanoya. A chef at one of Uno’s Japanese restaurants, Kitanoya transferred to Vancouver six months after Raku opened, on a mission to turn it around. The food, Kitanoya decided, was not the big problem. What Raku needed was the missing element so crucial to the feel of a Japanese izakaya: yelling.
For an izakaya, yelling is not an end in itself. It’s about team spirit. Staff members shout back and forth, wait staff to kitchen and vice versa, conveying and confirming orders but also functioning like a cheering squad at a ball game. Everyone gets pumped up. The content of the shouting is not all that important.
Soon patrons arriving at Raku were startled by loud shouts of “Irashaimase” (welcome), followed by a near-continuous cacophony of Japanese bellowing, capped off with hearty goodbye-and-thanks-for-coming choruses. And come back they did. Tickled by this bizarre new dining experience, Vancouver diners began to stick around long enough to discover that there was more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and teriyaki. Meanwhile, homesick Japanese ESL students began showing up in droves. Raku took off.
Izakayas began sprouting around Vancouver, many bearing the name Guu, including Guu with Garlic on Robson, Guu Otokomae in Gastown, Guu Garden on Nelson, and Guu Thurlow – the restaurant formerly known as Raku. The name change for Vancouver’s original izakaya reflected a big change at the top. Head chef Yoshinori Kitanoya was now the owner. It hadn’t been a hostile takeover – in fact, Takashi Uno had simply given the restaurant to his protege. “The Japanese master-student relationship,” says Guu general manager Hashimoto, “is like a father-son relationship. It was as if Mr. Uno was giving the restaurant to his son.”
By the early 2000s the revolution was well underway: it seemed almost every new Vancouver restaurant was an izakaya. By the time Guu arrived in Toronto, its operations had been honed to a sharp edge in North America’s most competitive market for casual Japanese dining.
Take away the octopus casseroles and deep-fried pumpkin balls, and a similar story could be told about Earls. The new Earls on King Street in Toronto’s financial district is now the chain leader in revenue and profitability, sometimes taking in $300,000 a week. The Earls menu of burgers, steaks, stir-fries and salads may not seem quite as new to Toronto as Guu’s mystery marvels (one Guu special sheet contained a dish described as “squid gristle”). But Earls is also exploiting a Toronto market niche that is, if not empty, at least under-served: the segment known in the industry as premium casual.