Toronto is a world-class food city, overflowing with top-quality dining options ranging from dim sum to curry-stuffed Caribbean roti. Yet ask me to name the city’s most memorable restaurant and I wouldn’t hesitate to offer a somewhat shameful answer: the now-defunct, lasagna-slinging GarfieldEats.
This an appalling choice for various reasons, perhaps especially because the restaurant’s entire raison d’etre was derived from the 43-year-old Jim Davis comic strip Garfield, which follows a fat orange cat who loves lasagna and hates Mondays. “Most memorable restaurant” is not the same as “best restaurant,” but it’s hard to find a Toronto dining institution that’s made a bigger splash on the internet, spawning its own short-lived subculture that fixated upon the restaurant and the every move of its enigmatic owner and founder, Nathen Mazri. And while the legions of GarfieldEats obsessives have mostly moved on, social media is littered with fascinating detritus from the restaurant’s 18 months in business.
It started in 2019, when an ad for GarfieldEats suddenly appeared on a vacant storefront in Toronto’s West End. It featured a large image of Garfield pointing at an even-larger photo of Mazri. In an almost-accusatory speech bubble, Garfield says, “This is the man who made a pizza out of my face.”
As the ad implied, GarfieldEats wasn’t just about Garfield; it was also about Mazri, a businessman who bursts with a uniquely frenetic energy, proudly identifying himself as the world’s youngest Garfield licensee. (That is, he was granted the right to use the Garfield brand, a stumbling block for many aspiring pop culture venues.)
Speaking of himself in the third person, Mazri explained his sudden rise in popularity to me as if he’d achieved the impossible: “All of a sudden, a young Canadian entrepreneur comes in, he’s taking pictures with [Garfield creator] Jim Davis... Jim trusts this young man with his license, and boom, a GarfieldEats restaurant.”
With revolutionary zeal, he claims that by mixing pop culture iconography with food service, GarfieldEats became the world’s first “entergaging” — entertaining and engaging — restaurant concept.
“[There’s been] over 5 million mentions of my name and Garfield and the word ‘entergaging,’” he went on to claim, although I found just under 500 Google results.
The difference between a regular themed restaurant and an “entergaging” one seems to be that the latter serves copious amounts of meme-able content alongside its dishes: The restaurant launched its own app, which featured ordering capabilities, built-in games, voice recognition, its own currency, and an Instagram-like photo feed. It also had a YouTube channel, which advertised the restaurant’s sustainability efforts, including an instructional on repurposing the restaurant’s lasagna boxes into Garfield-themed tissue boxes (presumably after cleaning out the food residue).
This combination of content, fast-casual dining, and the Garfield character led to a unique experience for visitors. Journalist Sarah Hagi visited the restaurant twice while researching a piece for Food and Wine. Speaking to me over a year later, Hagi still vividly remembered the restaurant’s absolute weirdness, describing it like an art installation with an unnecessarily convoluted ordering system centered entirely around iPads and TVs playing endless loops of Jim Davis extolling the virtues of GarfieldEats: “It looks like he’s being held hostage,” she said.
“At first I was like, ‘Oh I’m exaggerating this,’” Hagi said, recalling her first impressions of the restaurant. “But then ... a friend was like, ‘That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced.’ And I was like, ‘Okay it’s not just me, I’m not gaslighting myself into thinking like this is weirder than it is.’”
Hagi was far from the only person to find herself entranced and confused by GarfieldEats. YouTuber and cultural critic Thought Slime (who also goes by the mononym Mildred) produced an entire video focused solely on the GarfieldEats website, an entire ecosystem of extraneous bells and whistles that apparently served to bolster the restaurant’s “entergaging” credo.
“The amount of simultaneous overwork and underwork that went into every element of this business is staggering,” said Mildred, recalling one particularly dissonant element of the former GarfieldEats website.
“When you used the website, it would automatically play a WAV file of Garfield saying ‘Love me, feed me, don’t leave me.’ But depending on where you were on the site, there were two different voice actors for Garfield,” they described. “This is a problem that only exists because you chose to play a WAV file on this website, a fucking 1996 decision that nobody would do nowadays.”
But GarfieldEats isn’t memorable just because of its oddball website and app: Once word about its existence got out, the restaurant morphed into a machine of perpetual content, fueled by a continuous back and forth between Mazri and various irony-obsessed sections of the internet. Before long, the restaurant was being inserted into classic meme formats (“what if we kissed ... outside the garfieldEATS?”) and Valentine’s Day cards reading “I’ll slurp you like a Garficcino.” YouTuber StrangeAeons, known for her sardonic commentary on internet fads, later made three videos that received over a million total views, in which she described the restaurant as a “fever dream” laden with “terrifying, chaotic energy,” and the food being “disappointingly mediocre.”
Even as a small but committed crowd of “fans” poked fun at the restaurant, Mazri retained an extraordinary degree of confidence that GarfieldEats was a serious gastronomical venture, not just a cartoon-focused theme restaurant.
“I am fighting the whole gimmicky part of it. Just because I licensed the cartoon and I’m putting a cartoon on the packaging, that makes it all gimmicky and it’s for children only?” he says. “It’s not a gimmick. It is a real farm-to-plate product.”
Unfortunately, this commitment to farm-to-table Garfield-themed food didn’t translate to critical success: Despite claims on social media that GarfieldEats’ food “doesn’t cause bloating,” its product wasn’t well-received. Toronto Star critic Karon Liu declared the pizza as “really cardboardy.”
Our Farm 2 Plate ingredients are natural hence doesn't cause bloating. You can eat as much as you can and you won't feel bloated, except for Garfield who can't stop eating!#GarfieldEATS #Canada #app #garfieldpizza #food #delivery #lasagna #garfield #pizza #coffee #toronto pic.twitter.com/phbZBgQgdH— GarfieldEATS (@GarfieldEATSco) July 3, 2019
A key part of why GarfieldEats’ short existence is so memorable is Mazri’s dogged, borderline admirable commitment to his concept in the face of criticism and mockery. Speaking to Eater, he extolled the virtue of GarfieldEats’ gastronomic pleasures, stating that he developed the menu with a chef who previously cooked for British royalty. As for the negative opinions? Those were from haters whose tastebuds were psychologically tainted, Mazri says.
“I’ve learned taste psychology, as well. And, you know, sometimes if you hate someone so much, when you eat [their food], you’re gonna just say it’s disgusting even though it’s amazing. And so it’s just psychology.”
This attitude underpins the uniquely mesmerizing quality of GarfieldEats: In the face of mockery, Mazri didn’t quiet down, instead giving the internet more to work with. When COVID-19 broke out in the spring of 2020, Mazri declared it a hoax, spawning a flurry of backlash. Then, he apparently reversed course: Just a few weeks later, the restaurant started selling face masks, and Mazri expressed appreciation for first responders on social media later that year.
When GarfieldEats’ Toronto location closed in November 2020 for its alleged failure to pay rent, Mazri responded by calling the landlord “greedy.” The restaurant’s official Twitter declared that “Garfield EATS landlords like frozen lasagnas.”
Then there’s the piece de resistance: A Real Housewives-style GarfieldEats reality TV show pilot, produced by Mazri, launched on YouTube several months after the Toronto closure. It stars Mazri as an overbearing boss, making light of buzzwords like “entergagement,” and generally displaying self-awareness, like he’s in on the joke. Mazri says that the pilot was fully unscripted — a real reality show, with more episodes on the way (perhaps on a cable TV network, he suggests).
It’s a jarring about-face that forces you to consider that GarfieldEats could be a fantastic piece of performance art, a Nathan For You-esque satire on the hollow hyperreality of spectacle-focused capitalism.
But after researching GarfieldEats and Mazri for months, Hagi rules that idea out. “It’s very hard to know what’s going on, but also there’s no level of irony behind it,” she told me with certainty. “It’s literally not possible.”
That GarfieldEats isn’t a deliberate work of performance art is a good thing, suggests Mildred, who compares the restaurant to so-bad-it’s-good cult film The Room, and its bumbling director-turned-accidental comedy icon Tommy Wiseau. “GarfieldEats is seemingly so lacking in self-awareness, it does not get why it is funny... After [The Room] got famous, Tommy Wiseau stopped being funny, because he understood why people were laughing at him, and he was like, ‘Oh, I can make money off of this, I’m gonna lean into it.’ But GarfieldEats just plows right through that criticism, like, ‘No, this is still a good idea.’”
It’s the incredibleness of GarfieldEats that makes it so mesmerizing, along with Mazri’s inability to explain why he chose Garfield from an entire universe of other famous fictional characters. If Hagi is right, and GarfieldEats was simply a questionable business idea spearheaded by an overly confident entrepreneur, it’s still hard to kick the idea that it was some kind of psy-op or prank. In the words of Mildred, GarfieldEats is “unintentionally the greatest work of anti-capitalist satire ever created.”
GarfieldEats is likely a formidable example of a “bad text,” comparable to something like Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” says Limor Shifman, a professor in communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in memes and digital culture.
“Bad texts make good memes... in participatory culture, users want to contribute something, and they want to be part of a game. And if a text is perfect, it doesn’t allow them this amount of participation, but if it’s over the top and if it’s exaggerated, that actually means that they could do things with it and be creative and be playful.”
The fact that GarfieldEats inspired so much other creative content and commentary means it may even have been a laudable cultural artifact: an “aesthetic failure” but a “participatory success,” in Shifman’s words. GarfieldEats is memorable because it was a cultural experience, rather than a gastronomic one. And Mazri suggests that he plans to keep that experience alive.
“I see this diversification going into a lifestyle brand.”
If all went to Mazri’s plan, that brand might have included a currently untitled Garfield documentary (on which he’s executive producer), and a Cameo for Mazri’s fans. Unfortunately for him, Viacom (which now owns the rights to Garfield) ended GarfieldEats’ licensing deal in late 2021, putting a halt to these expansions — but Mazri still managed to juice one last diversification out of the brand, putting GarfieldEats NFTs on the market for about $1 each. As of January 2022, just one had been sold. By spring, the collection was deleted.
Mazri wasn’t caught off-guard by these losses: Months before losing the Garfield license, he launched Scooby-Doo Eats, selling Scooby-Doo-themed burgers, hot dogs, and — incongruous with Scooby Doo, but understandable — lasagna via an online store. This too was short-lived.
But even Mazri’s harshest critics admit that GarfieldEats is something memorable, and maybe even accidentally joyous. “I hope it never ends,” says Mildred of Mazri’s continued efforts. “I hope down the line we see a Donkey Kong Eats, we see a Wacky Races Eats, Paw Patrol Eats, I hope it just goes forever.”
They add, “If Nathen becomes a millionaire off of this, I think he deserves it. I think he took his licks, and he made a very silly thing that nobody wants. But he got to do it. He convinced a lot of people that it would work. That’s more than most people can say.”
Tim Forster is a freelance food, culture and technology writer and editor based in Berlin. He is the former editor of Eater Montreal. Andy Bourne is an illustrator from Bristol, UK, who communicates his work through vivid color palettes and energetic compositions.