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Villain: Restaurant Makeover

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains of 2007––the people, places, and things that we’ve either fallen head over heels in love with or developed uncontrollable rage towards over the past twelve months. Get your dose, starting Boxing Day and running into the new year, three times a day––sunrise, noon, and sunset.
Now in its fourth season, Food Network Canada’s Restaurant Makeover—wherein both established and struggling restaurants are overhauled with a prohibitively limited budget and time—is still riding strong on their adopted mandate of putting Toronto restaurants out of business instead of picking it up for them. Even if you’ve never caught an episode of this somewhat entertaining garbage can of a show, you’re no doubt aware of its dubious reputation as the kiss of death for most any establishment it touches (Taste T.O. even recommends playing “Restaurant Makeover Deathwatch” with your food-nerd friends). Since its inception, we’ve seen the post-makeover demise of Jeremiah Bullfrog’s on Queen, Oasis on College, Innocenti on King, Via Oliveto in the Annex, Lüb on Church, Eduardo’s (formerly Latitude) on Harbord, and Mississauga’s Rubicon Grill (to name a few). Some before the episode even makes it to air.
Add to that the recent closure of The Office at Islington and Bloor, widely recognized as one of the first sports bars in the city, after its makeover only succeeded in alienating what regulars it had left (middle-aged sports dudes just don’t need brie nachos or sandwich breads they can’t pronounce). Le Cafe Vert on Queen East reportedly completed their makeover and re-renovated to undo the changes. Grapefruit Moon threatened legal action and accused the show of crafting their makeover into a ratings-grabbing “Shocker Episode.” (From “Her requests to keep the aura of the original place were ignored as the show painted over the exposed brick wall with a metallic silver and the new equipment was not ready by the completion date.”) Even Massimo’s pizza—named by Torontoist, a leading source in pizza criticism, to be the greatest delivery pizza in the city—has suffered from its makeover.
We couldn’t be luckier that this nationwide show with such a high fail rate films the the large majority of its episodes in our city. Though to be fair, the shelf life of a Toronto restaurant is negligible to begin with, so for already struggling establishments, there isn’t much that can keep them in business. Either way––note to Toronto restaurants: Don’t do it! It’s a trap!
Photo of Church’s Bulldog Cafe by beenbair from Flickr.

This article originally claimed that the Living Well Cafe on Yonge was one of the restaurants that was renovated for Restaurant Makeover. It was not. Torontoist sincerely apologizes for the error.


  • Green Sulfur

    The show might be a villain but the establishments that participated are stupid for putting their business in the hands of people with shoddy reputations.

  • james a

    I would assume that most of the places that go on the show are close to death to begin with, and that’s why they are trying to redefine themselves, which is a always a risky proposition- tv show or not.

  • Ryan L

    I doubt the majority of the time it is Restaurant Makeover’s direct fault for the failing of the restaurant.
    A restaurant is tough to run. You have to have incredibly good business skills, and even better luck to stay afloat.
    Restaurant makeover makes us believe it’s as simple as changing the interior design and the food, when there could be (and likely are) many other reasons behind the restaurant’s failure, such as poor money management, location, staff issues, etc.
    The only thing they are guilty of is failing to save a restaurant that was doomed to failure in the first place.
    They should be taking closer look at the reasons behind a restaurant’s failing and avoid ones they can’t help, because they are certainly capable of helping ones that meet their specific needs (Montana for example).
    Then of course the poor business managers will likely still blame Restaurant Makeover for their demise based on the fact they DIDN’T take the restaurant on.

  • tommertron

    Okay, it’s true running a restaurant is tough and the chances of it closing are high anyway, but it doesn’t mean the people on this show aren’t still kind of idiots.
    My sister-in-law worked at Stoneys at Yonge and Sheppard when they went through a “Restaurant Makeover.” The place was also kind of a sports-bar with a lot of regulars, and they made it over to be really chic with white tables and chairs. It didn’t drive off the regulars, but it still wasn’t at all appropriate for what the place was.
    According to my sister-in-law, they also made one of the bartenders the ‘chef’ because he was apparently better on camera. And the purported budgets they put on the show are also fairly made up. I’ve heard some other experiences of people on other makeover renovation shows, and they’re all pretty much the same. Everyone seems to agree they got screwed and the producers where shady. Stay away if you ever have the chance.

  • Miles Storey

    Hmm, I’ve never seen this show but some of my photographs are being hung in the latest Restaurant Makeover project in Kensington Market. If that place goes bust I hope I won’t get blamed.
    I can’t say what it will look like, it was heavily under construction when I went in.

  • Ben

    There was a letter about how they screwed up Massimo’s in last weeks Now.

  • lex

    We’d love to see a Restaurant Makeover Reunion show, where restaurants who have been made-over come on and talk about what worked and what didn’t about their makeover.

  • davedave

    Which place in Kensington are they doing?
    The show is ridiculous – in some episodes the 30 grand wouldn’t even cover the electrical and plumbing issues they uncovered. Obviously the show kicks in more $ than 15000.
    I agree with the people saying most of these places were already dying and were doing the show as a last kick at the can…

  • spleen

    I remember when they ruined Jeremiah Bullfrog’s, it actually was a cozy little place before with no signs of struggling. I wasn’t a regular, but it was close to work for lunchtime pints, and usually seemed full most evenings after work.
    But it was awful when they finished the reno and I never saw anybody in there.
    After watching the episode I learned the interior designer was some 21 year old ditz fresh outta school, with no patience and tons of attitude. It was a shame really….

  • Miles Storey

    davedave, they did up Kensingtons, not sure when it’s re-opening.

  • Mark Ostler

    I’ve watched a few episodes of the show and found that, though renovations were necessary in the restaurants, the new decor that the designers come up with is often questionable. To reiterate tommertron’s comments above, turning a standard bar or “bar and grill” into a chic, slick looking place isn’t always a good move. Not everything has to look flashy and hip to be nice.

  • Gloria

    Maybe it’s also the fact that Restaurant Makeovers mean audiences get a look at restaurants that’s much closer than they want. People are squeamish about places where they eat, and even knowing they *used* to be have plumbing issues (or whatever) is a little off-putting. Of course, we’d be naive to believe every restaurant is the picture of sanitary practise, but don’t ask, don’t tell …

  • panko

    I agree with previous posters that causal linkage between “Makeover” and the demise of restaurants is a too much of a shortcut. After all, there are plenty of eateries around that go under, TV show or not.
    On the other hand, I remember some pretty boneheaded design choices that probably didn’t help the places stay open.
    Alas, challenges in running a food and drink establishment are far greater than one show.

  • james a

    Do you mean Planet Kensington? If so, it’s open now, but it’s now called Freshwood Grill.
    I haven’t been, but the other Freshwood Grill on Roncesvalles is absolutely awesome.

  • paigesix

    Come on…. you cannot blame a TV show for the demise of already questionable restaurants.
    Anyone willing to put their business in the hands of strangers are more than likely looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to keep the place going.
    What’s the next villain going to be–Slice’s Newly Wed Nearly Dead for causing 2 out of 3 couples to divorce post-broadcast?

  • Kristin Foster

    Thanks to having worked in reality tv for a short time and to a chunk of friends who work in it as well, I’ve come to understand on a new level how unreal it is. That includes things like having a bartender pretend he’s a chef, fabricating design problems for dramatic effect, et cetera.
    I agree that Restaurant Makeover is pretty ridiculous and boy am I tired of seeing familiar eateries pop up on that show. What’s worse is that the overall quality of Toronto’s restaurants barely make par with many, so it seems like a lot of fuss for a lot of mediocre food in the end, at best.

  • Johnnie Walker

    Did that terrible Kensington Cafe at Baldwin and Kensington get renoed? I can’t imagine it becoming worse as a result.
    The real shame is that places like Oasis, Massimo’s and Grapefruit Moon are being effed up when they were all lovely and popular to begin with. Oasis used to be the best/cheapest tapas in town, and whatever has replaced it now is always entirely deserted and bereft of charm.

  • Miles Storey

    Yeah, it’s the one at Kensington and Baldwin. Can’t say I had ever been in there before, walked past it a million times though.

  • Doggiez

    I regularly watch and enjoy (to varying degrees) Restaurant Makeover. The most irritating part of the show, however, is the predictable faux-panic midway through, when one of the designers starts wailing about “More work needs to be done!” or “We’re not halfway finisheed, and the reveal is tomorrow!” God, how obvious! I also wish they wouldn’t smash all the “terrible old furnishings” (lamps, chairs, bars, cupboards, etc.) to pieces. This is terribly wasteful, since a lot of these items can be refinished and recycled. Just because the upholstery is old and ugly doesn’t make a piece of furniture trash, people!
    To state that RM has been the downfall for these places is an overstatement. The owners had a choice to accept or deny menu changes. That said, if RM and crew comes anywhere near The Tulip at Queen and Coxwell, I’ll get ‘em!

  • bureaucratdotca

    I can’t argue with the track record, but I really like the show. Why make me face reality? Why?

  • chefwannabe

    I have seen a lot shows that RM has done and it seems the people are happy with what takes place. Still, most of these owners couldn’t manage a hot dog cart if their life depended on it! Doing a makeover to fix up the interior and enhance a poorly designed menu is just the beginning of the help some of these places need. In fact, it is management makeover that these owners need if they ever hope to compete with the five thousand other restaurants in the city serving the same garbage! Personally, I think we just plain need more adventurous food in this city that reflects all the ethnic diversity. It should be interesting to see what they do to Kensington’s. Is it open yet?

  • beth maher

    I agree that the problems with many or these restaurants likely lie with the management, not the decor or food – but if you think Toronto food doesn’t represent the rainbow of ethnicity’s of it’s inhabitants then maybe you need to take a closer look:
    A look beyond hot dog stands, chain restaurants and the downtown core.
    I myself live in little India and am constantly amazed at the variety of exotic options available to me just around the corner.
    Much of Toronto’s best ethnic food, like many of Toronto’s ethnic people are not found in downtown Toronto proper.
    If restaurant makeover ever attempted to touch the menus of my favourite, suburban, asian restaurants, I would not be pleased.

  • chefwannabe

    I think RM is hilarious! This is the last chance that some places will get to make or break it. The owners should have taken a culinary course and realized how hard this business can be. I read an article with Michael Bonnacini and he said that 8 of ten restaurants fail in this city and even this venerable chef has lost a couple. If you’re still serving nachos and burgers, you don’t deserve for people to feel sorry for you. Most of us can cook at home so when we go out, you better have a good looking spot and some good food to eat or else you’re doomed for sure! I think Igor has done a great service to this city and should get out and demolish more restaurants!

  • marthajane

    I enjoy watching RM occasionally. I work across from The Office (now The Longest Yard: yay!). While the regulars were likely repelled by the makeover, the rest of the ‘constituents’ are happy that a new restaurant has come into the ‘hood. Besides, there’s a Crooked Cue (2 actually), and a Firkin & something, which were too similar to The Office: one of them had to go.
    I can say that a few years ago at Yonge and Lawrence we had an opportunity to go to a post makeover Monkey Bar: nice. Before the makeover, we passed it over due to scary interior and boring menu. Post RM both were very attractive, and the bar produced some mighty fine dirty martinis. Mind you, as it’s not even close to where I live now, I haven’t been back.

  • deadrobot

    Add The Town Grill to that list. Closed abruptly the day before Valentines Day! In this instance, the makeover to $22-$27 entrees was probably not the best idea for not-so-trendy-anymore Cabbagetown. Its obvious that the producers didn’t take into consideration the changing demographics of the neighbourhood.
    The Ginger’s across the street, with it’s dirty floors, curt service and cheap food is doing a bang up job, though

  • karensbrown31

    I’m disappointed in one of my favourite shows. This is the second restaurant I know of that has gone under. No one has mentioned Flame (formally the Seashell) on Yonge in North York. GONE.
    I feel so bad for Eduardos. I enjoyed the restaurant as L’atitudes and was surprised to see it on Resturant Makeover. The night I was there it was hopping with patrons. People even lined up out the door.
    Maybe the team should work on post make-over magic like Chef Ramsey does. He always comes back, several times if necessary to make sure changes are implemented. He’s not afraid to talk about the personal issues that get in the way of success.

  • Athena

    My husbnad and I are new owners of a restaurant that was renovated by Restaurant Makeover called Hollinger’s Restaurant located in East York.
    We got the show to change our sports bar look and have gotten a great response from the area. New customers show up every day curious about what has happened to this restaurant that has existed there since the late 1940′s.
    Everyone is impressed with both the food and deocor.
    The Restaurant Makeover may not work for other restaurants because we made it clear in what direction we wanted to go- both in decor and food. From a sports bar with mostly men drinking and smoking to a more sophisticated restaurant… and didn’t mind losing anyone during our transition. Also, my husband was in the kitchen with the celebrity chef making sure that they didn’t throw in anything too avant garde or unsuitable for the neighbouhood type of place we want to become.
    Also, our food was always amazing. Our problem was getting the diners in to try the food. The new decor has remedied that problem. Everyone has become repeat customers. We just anticipate even more of an increase of business once the show airs this spring.

  • dazzlechild

    I just watched that episode! I’m so glad that things worked out for you. I’ve always wanted to see what happens to the restaurants after RM goes through. It made me so sad to hear that many of these restaurants go under soon after…


    Hey I can’t believe believe have the nerve to blame Restaurant Makeover for restaurants going under after appearing on the show. I have a news flash for people, if you watch the show, you will see almost without exception, that the owners look like a) they couldn’t finance a trip to the zoo and have had to borrow a huge sum of money to get the $15,000 needed to participate, b) do NOT have a clue how to properly manage a restaurant from food costs to rent, etc and have doomed themselves from the get go. and c) the owners are immigrants or don’t speak fluent English and as a result could not convey exactly what they wanted to stay or what they needed the new restaurant to be. I can only agree that sometimes RM does thing like changing the name of the restaurant without communicating with the owners and that is not smart. I would also like to see RM work with the owners to come to a consensus rather then a big suprise. Perhaps the show could incorporate another element beyond chef, designer, maybe a restaurant manager to the team to help educate restaurant owners on what it takes to run a successful restaurant. The RM team has done some great work and I personally thought the job at Stoney’s was great and Flame was doomed before the makeover because on Yonge St they are tearing down everything in that area building condos and I guess that was their downfall. Calling RM a curse is just stupid and idiotic and I think people need to know most of these places were probably doomed no matter what.

  • mikewoodphotography

    I also just watched the Hollingers episode about an hour ago. RM is a fav show that I have on in the background when editing. When I wanted to read up more on it I came across this post and an article in Macleans on the show. Both were quite negative. Was surprised on some levels, but on others I wasn’t. Some of these restaurants were seriously on their last legs before RM came in, and anything and everything done would have been better in most cases.
    But it is really surprising that so many of them went belly up after. I think it needs something akin to Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares show (the UK version) where some restaurants are revisited 6 months down the road. Some locations ended up closed. Most -apparently – flourish.
    RM can’t be completely blamed for the demise of the restaurants. They and many others crater every day- the RM ones just get the limelight. Though in some respects it’s sad that they end up being 15K further in the holeas a result.

  • RealityCheck

    This is the dumbest column I have ever read, obviously you have no idea of the conditions some of those places are in to begin with, if the health department would stay on task half of these joints wouldn’t be open at all. You and all the people frequenting these so called cozy, cute, friendly and affordable places are lucky not to get sick more often. I am a restaurant goer and owner and these places make a mockery of the profession
    RM rules and it deserves to be at the top of the chart

  • http://undefined felixtcat

    hi athena i love watching RM and when we travel to toronto my family love checking out the places done that we find interesting. but sofar alot we see the locations closed or went back to the old ways. how is the place doing now over a year later?
    the problem i see in the show is some pl should simply not own a place, but watching your husband and lynn cook, he truely loves to cook, and knows his stuff, i dont think i have seen an ep yet lynn loved everything the owner/chef cooked so you can see thats a good thing. other eps i swear lynn wanted to kill them after the 1st dish, or got her health card out. but yours al she complained was “not a fan of garlic powder” thats pretty good.
    hope your still open would love to stop by. should get a website to promote too

  • Mark D

    Lol, I am very late to this. I know the show is also only in reruns now. However, this article was purely reckless journalism. The restaurant industry is a very unstable one. Restaurants close all of the time. Where are the statistics comparing against restaurants that did not receive a makeover? Where is the analysis of the business acumen of the owners of the restaurants that closed. I saw the episodes you refer to. In more than one case, it was obvious the owner(s) treated it as a hobby and had no real business sense of what it takes to run a successful restaurant. I wish I had seen this article when it was written. You might want to pull out the mirror though. Because you missed one of the villains.

  • Alexander Cardosa

    I have to say that though some look good after the fact every one that I have seen I would not have gone in to eat. So many of the restaurants looked like they where in the projects to how nasty and bad they where from the beginning. I think they issue is also the amount that is put into the restaurant makeover. They need to put more effort also in teaching how to run a restaurant which a lot of these people did not seem to have any idea how to do. Its true that for some of the shows the places where better looking after the makeover but that alone could not save bad managing practices. Not sure what the failure rate is in Canada for the last few years, but here in the states is big. Limited resources is the main reason but bad management and financial know how is also to blame.

  • nevilleross

    You’re missing the point; this show is taking good restos and destroying them based on bullshit ideas of what a resto should be (and mostly because of hipster bullshit concepts that are already played out by the time the show does them to the resto in question.) Many of these places could have been left alone, and would have worked out well; they didn’t need this caca show to make them better. Just because many restos fail is no reason to do this to them.