I want to begin this year’s response to our Best of MTL list with a statement: If you’re a restaurant owner and your business survived this far, you should be immensely proud.
Every measure of excellence in hospitality has been thrown for a loop this year. Guides like Canada’s 100 best, Les Prix Lauriers and, most notably, the Michelin Guide all adapted their models in an attempt to consider the circumstances that COVID-19 presented to the industry. For many who follow the goings-on of the food world, the very nature of a system that compares and ranks restaurants was called into question. Who do these lists serve? Who is on them, who is not, and why? Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant biz was reaching its loftiest heights in the contemporary era. We had long surpassed the groupie-esque admiration of “rockstar” chefs, graduating to a near-sycophantic worship of “geniuslevel” restaurateurs.
These guides, in conjunction with food media, are responsible for reframing the good, noble craft of cooking and turning it into a narcissistic, self-congratulating feedback loop where those with the deepest pockets and most rarefied ingredients compete for a level of supremacy that most people will never be exposed to. When the walls came tumbling down, much of the restaurant world was exposed for what it truly is: a means to an end. Suddenly, without all the pomp and grandeur of lavish dining rooms, custom French ranges and hand-thrown ceramic plates, the playing field changed. The dry-aged duck magret sauced with 1999 Puffeney Vin Jaune and your favourite Indian joint’s Palak Paneer become a lot easier to compare when placed side by side on your coffee table.
For me, this circumstance has exposed a fundamental truth about food and restaurants: most of it is theatre, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To eat a meal in a magnificent dining room, to taste a foraged ramp served moments after being plucked from the earth, to savour a wine coddled and incubated for years before being poured exactly at the very height of its potential is truly wonderful. The theatre of it all makes for a great, even heightened dining experience, but it has very little to do with what makes food good.
At Cult MTL, our list presents far less influence from the world of food. It is judged by people with everyday experience who express only what is true for them — their favourite spots, the places that serve the dishes they love to eat. This year, there is only one resto wrong: pitting restaurants against each other for a spot on a list. And while this remains a best-of list, I think of it that way in format only. If I can offer a suggestion to those reading this list, it would be to see it as a reflection of the places and dishes that connected with people, offered them comfort, satiated cravings and helped mark milestones and celebrations in a year where expressions of joy were fleeting and so hard to separate from everyday life.
As we emerge from the pandemic, with restaurant terrasses newly open again and bars not far behind, I hope we reflect on all that the restaurant industry has suffered and all that it has given to us. I hope that we remember that greatness in food is not limited to the restaurants that top prestigious lists. Great restaurants — the best restaurants — achieve that status because they connect with people in a meaningful way.
One last thought. It’s been a while since we’ve all been out to eat at a restaurant — go easy on the staff, please. Be patient, compassionate and forgiving — I can tell you from experience (on both sides) that these qualities are rewarded tenfold.