If you land in Toronto and absolutely cannot wait to eat, get a hot dog. While Canada's largest city hasn't really adopted the global street-food trend, hot dog carts are everywhere and the standard Toronto wiener is shockingly good, particularly compared to its anemic New York counterpart.
Food lovers should start their eating itinerary with a stroll through Kensington Market, an anomalous area that can seem more like a museum exhibit than neighborhood, magically showcasing everything best about the city in a few blocks. What was once a Jewish community dotted with pushcart merchants has evolved throughout waves of immigration — Portuguese, Caribbean, Vietnamese — into an open-air mall and the heart of the city's food culture (while still very much a neighborhood with real people who live in it).
By day, tourists clog the sidewalks while locals flit from store to store, buying from separate specialty shops: bakeries, butcheries, fishmongers, dried-goods shops, grocers (Chinese, Portuguese, organic), fresh tortilla vendors selling by the kilo, and a store that only makes tofu. Between retailers are a collection of cafes, bars, and restaurants of such variety that they will frustrate a tourist's ability to choose lunch: There are jerk chicken, tacos, fried chicken and waffles, churros, Mexican sandwiches, Texas barbecue, Japanese crepes, German doner sandwiches, Greek frozen yogurt, a brew pub, a kombucha cafe, every week another coffee shop, and all without a single corporate-owned store in sight. During an afternoon in Kensington, you'll be immersed in Toronto's local food culture.
North America's fourth-largest city can be more of a trend-chaser than -setter, quick to fawn over the latest shiny thing. But the town has been digging away long enough for gems to have emerged. For the tried, true, and utterly essential dining experiences of Toronto, read on.
August 2018 Update
Toronto does not sit still. Restaurants close, fall off in quality, or are simply outshone by new competitors, their you-must-eat-here essentialness lost to the rising tide. For that reason, we say goodbye to a dozen onetime favorites, like Momofuku Daisho, Jacobs, and Anne’s Magic Kitchen. In their place are new entries (Pinky’s Ca Phe, White Lily Diner) plus some old standards that deserve recognition for maintaining quality over time (Lion City, Centre Street Deli).