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Every business is competitive, but the restaurant industry is Darwinian. Natural selection is swift and merciless; diners determine which rooms thrive, which survive, and which ones fail. Last year proved especially tough as our restaurants felt the effects of the recession, drinking-driving laws, HST shock, and the Olympic hangover. Proprietors scrambled to adapt, cutting costs, reconfiguring space, recalibrating menus. Nu reinvented itself as a modern Greek room, to fine effect; places like Voya and Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe and Pinkys Steakhouse could not find a niche and gave up the ghost. This March brought the closure of db Bistro Moderne and the Relais & Chateaux-honoured Lumière, an irrefutable sign of changing times.
It’s because the dining landscape is in constant flux that we refine our Restaurant Awards each year. What’s different this time around? For starters, we’ve done away with a couple of categories. Because regional influences are now evident on virtually every menu and all manner of rooms emphasize fresh, local, seasonal, ocean-friendly ingredients, our 19 judges nixed the Best Regional category. Best Service is gone, too, because they see little value for the consumer in comparing the formal service at, say, Le Crocodile to the more easygoing approach at, say, Vij’s. And rather than choosing Best Last Course, as in years past, they decided instead to name a Pastry Chef of the Year, honouring the creator rather than a specific creation. To celebrate the city’s new spirit of adventure, they also added a Best Food Cart category.
But the biggest change bears on the biggest prize. Noting the proliferation and popularity of smaller, more casual rooms in 2010, the judges named two “best” restaurants-one formal, one informal-and then chose between them to determine Restaurant of the Year. In a way, it’s comparing chalk to cheese, and it led to some impassioned debate about consistent excellence, fleeting trends, and value for money. In the end, it came down to this: did the formal winner embody the qualities of the formal dining experience more richly, more satisfyingly, than the informal winner exemplified casual dining? For the judges’ answer, click here.