Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a look at how Canoe became the Toronto go-to for power lunches, proposals, and everything else worth celebrating.
For more than 25 years, Canoe has been the place where Toronto goes to celebrate. With its sweeping views of the CN Tower, Lake Ontario, and the skyscrapers of the Financial District, Canoe is where you go to feel literally on top of the world when you’re already riding an emotional high.
While it would be easy for a restaurant with one of the best views in Toronto to rest on its laurels when it comes to food, Canoe’s cuisine is equally as revered as its panoramic vistas. Known for consistently sourcing some of the country’s best wild and cultivated ingredients, Canoe has helped shape the definition of modern Canadian cuisine.
Here’s a look back at how Canoe became one of Toronto’s great restaurants.
The power lunch powerhouse
In 1995, restaurateurs Peter Oliver and Michael Bonacini were approached about taking over a restaurant set on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower. Oliver and Bonacini had partnered together for the first time two years earlier to launch stylish restaurant Jump and weren’t initially interested in taking on another new project.
“Then they came back a third time with an even sweeter deal and we couldn’t say no,” Bonacini says. He remembers the first time the two walked into the empty restaurant after signing the lease. “We sat at the corner table and looked out over the lake and the city and said, ‘What the hell are we going to do?’’” he says.
The duo began to develop a vision for a restaurant focused on Canadian fare. “People would scratch their heads when I spoke to them about it and say, ‘Well, what is Canadian cuisine?’” Bonacini says. “It was a tough one for individuals to get their heads around because we had never challenged ourselves in this country with defining our cuisine.”
Canoe entered into the Toronto restaurant scene pushing boundaries not only with its menu but with its location. Today, the Financial District is home to plenty of posh spots where, pre-pandemic, well-heeled office workers would grab dinner and drinks after five. In the mid-1990s when Canoe first opened, however, the neighborhood was mainly populated with forgettable fast-food chains and casual restaurants.
With its impressive cityscape and pricey fine dining menu, Canoe soon became known as an elite hot spot for power lunches and see-and-be-seen happy hours. “It was mostly a lot of suits at lunchtime and at bar nights as well,” recalls Tracy Tucker, who began her career with Oliver & Bonacini in the late ’90s as a host at Canoe and now serves as the hospitality group’s director of operations. “It got a little bananas on some nights,” she says. “People were spending and drinking and smoking.”
The rise of the foodie
While big spending and big views were part of Canoe’s early allure, the restaurant was also becoming recognized for its groundbreaking food and dedication to local ingredients.
“We would have 20 of our kitchen team members go out and forage for wild leeks or morels and then create a tasting menu around that,” Bonacini says. “Those were all milestones, because back then, these were the kinds of things that you’d read about happening in Europe — but now we were doing it in Canada.”
Anthony Walsh, who joined Canoe in 1996 and quickly worked his way up to executive chef, is widely credited with putting the restaurant on the Canadian culinary map. “He was extremely involved with farmers and fishermen from across the country,” Tucker says. “He made sure that everybody understood the importance of what he was working with and where it came from.”
By drawing on traditional recipes cooked in family homes and communities across the country and working with high-quality regional ingredients, Walsh was creating a new kind of haute Canadian cuisine. “Whether it was bannock that we baked or blueberry grunt that’s every East Coaster’s childhood favourite, we would take these old-school dishes and either lighten them, refresh them, or put on a modern twist, while still keeping them fundamentally Canadian,” Bonacini says. That style is now a hallmark of Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality, where Walsh now serves as corporate executive chef and partner.
Canoe’s menu has evolved over the decades, but Canadian cooking has remained central to its culinary ethos. “Almost every decade there’s a major chef changeover, which brings a new vision while at the same time regarding the traditions of Canoe,” current executive chef John Horne says. “Understanding how it got to where it is is important so you can move it forward.”
In recent years, a new generation of food and restaurant lovers has begun to appreciate the restaurant that has been doing fancy farm-to-table cuisine since long before it was trendy. “There’s been a huge shift in that now there’s a much younger crowd and a lot of couples coming in for the tasting menu,” Tucker says.
“Social media has played a big part in the way our menu has been transmitted across the country,” she adds. The Ontario pigeon pithivier, a recent menu addition that sees golden puff pastry crowned with a roasted pigeon leg (claw and all) is the perfect example of Canoe’s ongoing flair for dramatic, photo-worthy plating.
A Canadian legacy
To celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2020, Canoe unveiled a multi-million dollar dining room renovation and a new menu. With granite details evoking the Canadian Shield landscape and a woven felt ceiling installation paying homage to traditional weaving techniques, Canoe’s design now reflects the same strong sense of place that its menu has long been known for.
The renovation was revealed just weeks before the pandemic forced dining rooms to close. Thanks to a pivot to takeout tasting menus and the influence of Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality, which now has 29 properties, there’s little doubt that Canoe will make a comeback.
Two and half decades after opening, Canoe holds a special place in the hearts of many Torontonians. “There are families that got engaged here, got married, and now they’re bringing their kids to celebrate milestones here,” Tucker says. “Canoe has a lot of warmth for those reasons.” The restaurant has also been a kind of culinary grandparent to a generation of chefs, known as the place where many current Canadian dining greats got their start — from La Palma’s Craig Harding and Giulietta’s Rob Rossi to Soma Chocolatemaker’s David Castellan and Blackbird Baking Co.’s Simon Blackwell — and also inspiring countless others from afar.
“I don’t think we can be super arrogant and say, ‘we’re the best because we’ve been around for the longest,’’ general manager Jane Suh says. “We have to push the envelope and continue to reinvent ourselves because we want to celebrate our 30th, our 35th, and 50th anniversary.”
Jessica Huras is a Toronto-based food and drink writer.