Why All Eyes Are on Toronto’s Plant-Based Food Scene
Whether you’re vegetarian or not, prepare to be blown away by everything from taro root chicharrón to mushroom carpaccio to eggplant nigiri.
As a Toronto native, I know my hometown has always been an eater’s paradise. The incredible diversity in Canada's largest city makes it a first-rate place to try everything from traditional Cantonese dim sum to steamy Vietnamese pho to flaky Jamaican patties. And increasingly, many of the city’s wealth of food options happen to be vegan.
That hasn’t always been the case. As a vegan for more than a decade, I used to find my dinner outings relegated to a few lackluster spots whenever I visited home. Looking back, though, I realize vegan-friendly dining was bound to take off here. Not only has the city always embraced new influences, but Torontonians are also curious and willing to try new things. Today, I can say my hometown is officially a vegan eater’s paradise, giving metropolises like Los Angeles and New York a run for their money. Chefs aren't afraid to get experimental with plant-based dishes, and new meat-free establishments just keep sprouting up, from fine-dining venues to ultra-casual spots to everything in between. (National Geographic even named the city one of the best in the world for vegans.)
I’ve long since called New York home, but not a year goes by without a visit to Toronto. Here are a few of the vegan-friendly, plant-driven places I recommend when you find yourself in the city.
This innovative restaurant puts a distinct spin on Mexican food. In addition to the usual suspects like tacos and guacamole, the menu also features creative vegan twists on classic ingredients: think cashew cremas, taro root chicharrón, and quinoa-based chorizo. The American-leaning dishes here shine, too; the kale Caesar salad is one of the best I’ve had, with wisps of crispy fried taro in place of croutons. For a standout main, go for the roasted eggplant, which is roasted whole and finished with a spicy salsa macha. Don’t sleep on the cocktails either: they’re inventive takes on typical bar offerings, like a signature margarita made extra green with a dash of spirulina.
Gia is an intimate, buzzy restaurant situated in the city’s West End, right on the increasingly hip Dundas Street. The menu bills itself as “plant-forward” Italian; though many of the offerings include dairy, vegan options abound. Even dishes that seem simple at first glance, like the panko-crusted “meatballs,” become showstoppers with Gia’s attention to detail. The baby gem salad is no exception, a memorable order featuring pickled enoki mushrooms and a crunchy almond breadcrumb dressing. Don’t skip the umami-rich roasted maitake with a luscious corn cream. And order the olive oil cake, garnished with buttercream and fresh berries, to cap off the meal on a rich, sweet note.
When restaurant veterans David Lee and Steven Salm opened Planta in 2016, they changed the vegan scene in Toronto by creating an upscale atmosphere (high ceilings, lush greenery, mosaic walls) and a menu that applied techniques not commonly seen yet in plant-based dining. The nigiri features torched eggplant, the Pad Thai is made with kelp noodles, and meaty shitake mushrooms are served raw in a carpaccio. The original restaurant was such a success that Planta now has three different locations in Toronto—two with more of a pan-Asian influence and one that leans more Mexican-inspired—as well as locations in Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C. The original Yorkville location, a chic and spacious spot, is still one of my go-to destinations for a group or celebratory dinner.
This fast-casual restaurant is a mainstay in my lunch, dinner, and takeout rotation. The menu is a reliable mix of grain bowls, salads, and smoothies, and all the options are tantalizingly flavorful. I love getting the ultra-green chimichurri, crunchy seed toppings, and protein-rich hemp-and-sunflower balls. And I can never pass up the Caesar salad, a creative rendition topped with a tangy, crunchy mix of pickled onions, toasted seeds, coconut, and tamari almonds. Don’t overlook the appetizers either; the light portobello lettuce tacos and creamy miso-flavored roasted broccolini are standouts. And I would be remiss not to mention the restaurant’s amazing brunch service, which is offered every day until 4 p.m. and features French toast, tofu Benedicts, and chickpea omelets. Also, get the avocado mousse for dessert—don’t ask questions, just order it.
No restaurant in the city is more associated with vegan or vegetarianism than Fresh. The shop opened its original Bloor Street location back in 1995 for customers to grab a quick juice, salad, or sandwich. Now, it’s grown into a chain of 10 locations throughout southern Ontario, and has even produced cookbooks and a line of jarred sauces. The menu has also expanded quite a bit and now includes pizzas, tacos, and the perennial vegan favorite, buffalo cauliflower. I always find myself ordering one of Fresh’s bowls: usually either the soba noodles topped with grilled red pepper, sweet potato, greens and vegan feta, or the crunchy napa cabbage with crispy tofu cubes in lemony tahini dressing. Whatever you do, order the dragon broccoli and quinoa onion rings to start—they’re both nourishing and indulgent.
I’ve been baking for probably the past decade, so I can get fussy when it comes to recommending a bakery. I personally like using alternative flours and sweeteners, a philosophy this Kensington Market bakery shares. Not only are all the offerings vegan, they’re also gluten free and naturally sweetened—with many keto and raw options to choose from, too. I never leave without a tiramisu square, cashew blondie, and slice of seasonal cake. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the bakery’s goodies at coffee shops throughout the city.
When I’m looking for more classic, nostalgic treats, Bunner’s, where everything is 100% vegan and gluten-free, is where I beeline. This bakery’s treats tend to be sweeter and are often topped with a mound of buttercream frosting. The carrot cake cupcakes and gooey cinnamon rolls are famous among Torontonians, though my personal favorite has to be the Supersonic cookie: an oaty, seedy, molasses-forward cookie studded with chocolate, dried fruit, and coconut. The extensive menu also features plenty of savory options, including jalapeño cheddar scones and three-seed bread. If you happen to be in need of a celebratory cake in a pinch, Bunner’s can whip one up with 24 hours notice—and even deliver it to you. If you stop by Toronto in the summer months, visit the second Kensington Market location for a swirl of seasonal soft-serve.