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A Word of Winterlicious Warning

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Photo of Canoe Restaurant by Sylvain Dumais from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


Winterlicious, which runs from today until February 12, is like going home with the perfect lover only to find yourself waking up beside a big mistake. For a city that loves its restaurants, the promise of Winterlicious is enticing—an opportunity to taste a classy three-course meal at either a new restaurant or an upscale restaurant that would usually be too expensive. Unfortunately, the taste it leaves behind is often a bad one for both patrons and staff. So why doesn’t Winterlicious work the way we’d like? We took a look at the real Winterlicious, what’s new for this year, and selected our picks and pans of 2009.


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Photo of Chocolate and Raspberry Tartufo at Baladini by Jen Chan from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Ah, Winterlicious. Mention the name to anyone in the food industry and watch the vitriol fly. Restaurant staff—most of them—hate Winterlicious: the two week period of the promotion wreaks havoc on the normal culinary culture. From the kitchen side of things, the sheer volume of visitors necessitates pre-preparation of dishes, creating more work and compromising quality. The lower cost of the prix-fixe menu “deals” forces restaurants to serve smaller portions and use lower grade product in order to meet their budgets. We heard a story about one chef who was so angry when told his restaurant would be taking part in Summerlicious (Winter’s warmer partner) that he punched a hole through the restaurant’s plaster wall.
The Winterlicious experience is mostly miserable for wait staff, too. Restaurant servers perceive Winterlicious patrons as cheap tourists who are ignorant of restaurant etiquette. Customers clutching to the bargain of the meal don’t order drinks and often tip poorly. And again, with the huge volume of Winterlicious patrons, servers find themselves working three times as hard as for customers who show half the appreciation.
No wonder we found a wealth of disappointment when we asked restaurant-goers about their past Winterlicious visits. There’s nothing like sitting down to a pre-heated meal, pre-hated by those who serve it, and the typical experience was one of unappetizing food and bad service. Too often the prix-fixe menu advertised was not what was being offered. Add to that the insult of “upgrades” at extra cost or over-priced drinks, and it’s not surprising that Winterlicious often fails to bring in repeat customers. One diner told Torontoist about a previous favourite: “We were left with a poor impression, and don’t plan to return.” Another avid restaurant-lover declared to us that “my experiences were so bad that I gave up on the whole concept.”
So if the promotion is a failure for both restaurants and diners, what’s the point? One restaurant worker, reaching hard for something positive to say, offered: “I guess it gets people out. It must be good for the TTC.” But then she admitted the bitterness was a little unfair, given that this time of year is typically slow, and at least the two week period of Winterlicious keeps restaurant staff working. Not all the dining experiences were negative either. Newer restaurants seem to try harder to leave a good impression—advice that was offered and panned out for our Winterlicious experience at Rosebud last year. Another good piece of advice came our way this year: “I often find it easier to go at lunchtime, where you seem to get more attention, and people don’t push the booze as much.”

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Photo of salmon entrée (restaurant unknown) by catekustanczi from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


In an effort to improve the ‘licious experiences for 2009, eligibility criteria for participating restaurants has been modified. All restaurants must now possess a valid green health pass (this new rule disturbs us as it implies that a passing health grade was unnecessary until now). Chains and other multiple-locale restaurants must choose only one participating location. All restaurants must prove that the average price-point—based on the restaurant’s regular menu—meets the festival’s price categories. Finally, the number of participating restaurants, once deemed eligible, has been capped on a first-come, first-serve basis.
We have some recommendations of our own. This year, Winterlicious patrons should consider ordering a glass of wine with dinner if it’s in their budget. If not, at least tip well (the standard is about fifteen percent, after taxes), and appreciate how hard your server is working. If you have a good experience, make a point of going back again on a night when the restaurant can really shine. On that note, here are our picks and pans for Winterlicious 2009, as chosen by our Roxanne Bielskis:

Picks

7 Numbers Danforth (307 Danforth Avenue). A fun and homey atmosphere, amazing Italian dishes, and staff who really care about food. Their Winterlicious menu also has a rare choice of sides for the entrées.
Epic at the Fairmont Royal York (100 Front Street West). Let’s face it: the best thing about Winterlicious is going to places you can’t usually afford. Bust out your best H&M knockoffs and the shoes you got at Town Shoes on boxing day and get over to Epic. A menu consisting of mostly locally sourced foods and a website bragging that “you’d be lucky to have only five (waiters) catering to your every whim” sounds rawther elegant indeed, non? This is also the first Winterlicious year for Epic, so there’s a good chance they will be making an effort.
Horizons Restaurant at the CN Tower (301 Front Street West). When was the last time (not counting the time that your aunt and uncle from Tennessee insisted on taking you) that you actually went to the CN Tower? Horizons’ focus is on local, regional food that’s fresh and in season. It’s an extra $10 bucks for the elevation fee, but that’s only around half of what it usually costs.
La Maquette (111 King Street East). Incredible French food and an inspired Winterlicious menu. It’s in the highest price category ($45 for dinner, $30 for lunch), but worth it.
Paese Ristorante (3827 Bathurst Street). Okay, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but the food is well worth it. Even the vegetarian entrée (beet & ricotta cheese frittata braised winter greens & mascarpone polenta), which is usually the weakest of the Winterlicious offerings, looks delicious.

Pans

5th Elementt (1033 Bay Street). While 5th Elementt is a lovely restaurant and well worth going to, they frequently have specials (including 2 for 1 deals and a regular $27 prix fixe menu) which are much better deals—and usually better meals—than what they have on offer for Winterlicious.
Fred’s Not Here (321 King Street West). This Theatre District restaurant is strictly meh at the best of times, and promises to be more jammed and noisy than usual during Winterlicious. The jumbled, mismatched menu is a pretty good indication of their dilettante-ish approach to food.
Lone Star Texas Grill (200 Front Street West). Why bother going to this salty, heat-lamped chain that feels like Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag come to life (with the addition of obnoxious Texas-themed nicknames, y’all!) on a regular night?
Alice Fazooli’s Italian Grill (294 Adelaide Street West). Ditto (sans Texan theme).
Azure Restaurant (225 Front Street West). Reports from last year were of a classy restaurant in a beautifully designed space serving horrific food. There are plenty of wonderful spaces in Toronto where it doesn’t cost $45 for the added bonus of starvation—or worse, nausea.

Comments

  • http://null rocketeer

    I’ve been to a fair share of restaurants for Winterlicious/Summerlicious and I’ll admit it’s definitely a mixed bag. I probably never would have gone to Canoe otherwise and once I get my diploma (and hopefully a salary) I plan to return. On the other hand, I had an immensely underwhelming experience at some place called Filet of Sole a few summers ago.
    I think the two most important things to keep in mind are to be discerning about where you go (chain restaurants are a pretty obvious warning sign) and to not make the staff think you’re a total cheapskate. You’ve already got the fact that it’s Winterlicious working against you, ordering a glass of water will close the deal.

  • http://null piccola

    I’ve never quite gotten the appeal of these kinds of festivals. For me, the prix-fixe is inevitably more expensive than ordering à la carte, because I’m never hungry enough to get three courses. And, as the post points out, vegetarian options usually suck.

  • Karen Whaley

    LOL! That salmon with boiled egg and…(is that…beef??) looks revolting!

  • http://null _momo_

    People are beating down the doors to give you money and all they can do is whine? If restaurants can’t handle a full house, they should not seat so many.
    As for restaurant patrons being cheap — that’s just mean & petty. Each person is free to order as little or as much as they want from the menu. Maybe I’m not that hungry, or maybe I can’t drink alcohol. There is no reason to treat anyone with anything less than courtesy.

  • http://null metabaron

    Yeah, what the previous guy said. I don’t like being treated like I am cheapskate. And maybe that’s the reason why I don’t go for these fancy restaurants. I like to be treated as a valued customer no matter how much I order which is something I often get at little restaurants that serve simple food.
    These restaurants should stop whining about tips and frugal customers, because no matter how fancy they are they can still fail and close.
    I never cared for these kind of festivals, but they do bring customers (and money) into these restaurants making them busy in the extremely slow season.
    Please name the restaurants that are complaining about tips, so I can put those on my not-to-visit list.
    “…show half the appreciation” – it seems to me that the only appreciation these servers want (who mind you get very good tips otherwise) is money.

  • http://null hawkblade

    Had a reservation for 9:15 at Atelier Thuet last night and didn’t get seated at a proper table until around 10:30. That however was my only complaint and was due to the “tourist” diners nursing coffee and individually playing with their blackberries hours after there meal. there must have been at least five tables of them, obviously suburban.
    having said that, the staff were kind enough to make room at the bar and buy the four of us drinks and make sure we were comfortable and felt welcome and relaxed. the food was outstanding and once we were seated the service was prompt and friendly. not exactly my smoothest dining experience but it was obvious in this case the blame belongs to the arrogant and ignorant public. i would go back the Thuet in a second.

  • http://null ms87

    I went to City Grill in the Eaton’s Centre for lunch on Friday with a few friends. A hit and miss overpriced place at the best of times. We all ordered beers but that didn’t seem to get us any extra attention from the waiter. We rarely saw him. The service was so bad that they didn’t even bother clearing the appetizer plates when they brought the main course. The food was not properly cooked (stake overdone) and the tartufo looked like pudding. We tipped appropriately and we will not be back.

  • http://null misskitty_79

    5th elementt wasn’t anywhere near the “pan” that this article claimed it would be. I ate there last night with two friends & though the food wasn’t quite stellar, it was both well presented & enjoyable. We definitely got our $35 worth & I, for one, intend to return in the future.

  • http://null misskitty_79

    It is atrocious that the servers didn’t send those people on their merry way. During Winter & Summerlicious it is entirely understandable that the table will only be available to your group for a limited amount of time.
    The place that I work at, we warn our guests at the time of booking that we will need the table back after X amount of time (where X is a variable that depends on the size of the group).

  • http://null Gloria

    I went to 5th Elementt and I wasn’t bowled over by the food. Won’t be back for a $35 meal, but I’d consider cheaper options like their 2 for 1.
    Mildred’s Temple Kitchen — another blast! Fantastically tasty food, good service, kind host and hostess.

  • http://null matt1256

    Amaya the Indian Room was fantastic. Great service (Pharoah, C. was our server), and we were seated in 10 minutes even after arriving 20 minutes late for our reservation and coming in to a full house. The food was spectacular with the veg option giving you quite a bit to eat! If you’re going as a couple, I would suggest taking the vegetarian option along with one of the meats and share, there is enough for both of you to feel quite full! You also get a plain and a garlic naan along with some of the most fragrant rice I’ve ever had. Certainly the best Indian I’ve had so far in Toronto! I’m definitely planning to return with a group of friends.
    Tutti Matti started off with a lacklustre performance by our server who took about 15 minutes to take our order and seemed to look down on us the entire time. We were there for lunch and 7 other parties were also dining. The three waitstaff couldn’t really be bothered to be attentive. The bread that came with the meal was crusty and delicious with a decent mushroom soup. The raw beef starter was tasty, while the salad portion felt like it came out of one of those mixed green bins from Costco. The fettucinni was really just okay, but the artisanal sausage was already ground up in to the meat sauce and didn’t really taste any different than your typical beef and spices. The fruit crumble was passable at best and the banana chocolate cake was good, but the tiny bit of delicious banana ice cream to the side that came with it made the cake…less appealing. I don’t plan to return, especially for the prices listed on the regular menu.

  • http://null Astin

    Most restaurants seat 1 or two seatings per night, with a variety of menu options available. The -licious events change this dynamic. As stated, many bargain-hunters aren’t going to linger with a bottle of wine, cappuccino, and a brandy. This means a table could see 3 or 4 groups at it instead of 1 or 2. Also, the prix fixe means that instead of, say, 10 briskets, they’ll need 30 or 40.

  • http://undefined Astin

    15% after taxes for a tip? I think you’ve got your order of operations backwards. 15% BEFORE taxes. There’s no reason to tip based on what the government is getting. Especially if you’re looking at a bill in the hundreds of dollars
    I’ve also had people tell me they don’t tip on the cost of drinks, as wine and beer require minimal effort. I don’t agree with this idea, as many times a wine is suggested, decanted, and glasses are kept full, and well-made cocktail deserves rewarding.
    Regardless, I use the 15% as a base amount. If service is exceptional, then 20% or more isn’t uncommon. If it’s lacking, then 10% or less. If it’s terrible, then the tip can shrink to the rounding difference from exact change.

  • http://null Gloria

    I still hate the mode of exclusively using tipping as a comment on the service. There are many preconceptions among servers about certain types of tippers (e.g. women, students, tourists being all cheap). I find that leaving a low or low-ish tip can too ambiguous and might just perpetuate the idea of poor tipping habits.
    If the service was so abominable, holding back a dollar or two isn’t much of a statement. I suggest asking to speak to the manager and make a polite complaint.
    @Astin: If you’re paying a bill in the hundreds of dollars, I’m guessing the idea is that you can afford to tip after taxes. It’s a fair practise. Some people I know quibble about “before/after taxes” on a bill of $50 or less, which I find incredibly mean-fisted.

  • http://null Astin

    Oh, if service is truly abyssmal, then a comment, or at least a comment card, could be called for. At the same time though, there would still be a lack of tip. I’ve also asked servers how tips are distributed. Does the cooking staff get some of it? Is it pooled and split evenly? Do servers keep what they get? If I get excellent service, but the meal itself is disappointing, then I don’t feel the server should be punished.
    At least I’m not like one friend of mine, who after some of the worst service I’ve heard of, left exact change and a note of “no tip for you asshole”. The server ran into the parking lot and threw a punch at the guy after.
    Tipping after taxes is essentially a 2% bonus, if I can afford that or not, why would I pay it if I don’t feel it’s warranted? I tend to round up regardless, knowing that tips make up a large part of a server’s income, but I get annoyed by a slow creeping increase. It wasn’t that long ago that 10% before taxes was considered standard.

  • http://undefined Gloria

    Maybe you got the same server as we did. I went to Tutti Matti last year for Summerlicious and had an identical experience — lacklustre food overall and service that felt strangely offhand. Never again.

  • http://undefined David Topping

    Before or after taxes, a tip of 13% or 15% or 20%—it’s a matter of opinion, not a gilded rule. (Vicky and I talked before the article was published about how to write that section, as we both had totally different opinions even about what was standard—I’ve been taught that if service is good, it’s 20ish% after taxes; if it’s okay, it’s 15ish%. I’ll tip less than 10% after taxes only if the service is brutal.)

  • http://null Diner-outer

    Here’s an idea…
    Don’t go to the restaurants that don’t appreciate the business! I would hate to say that all restaurant staff dislike the program. I would suggest that you focus on the restaurants that have a genuine positive service culture, and to me that is the Oliver & Bonacini group of restaurants. Go there, and let the other negative people get no business.
    Just a thought…

  • http://null abh

    On behalf of all the management and staff (front and back of house) at the City Grill, we would like to comment on the Winterlicious and Summerlicious programs. We are extremely happy participating in Winterlicious this year, and have relished past experiences with both the Winter- and Summerlicious programs. Our staff is excited and enthusiastic about being busy at this time of the year and the customers are having enjoyable experiences dining out in the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant in January, particularly this January.

  • http://undefined matt1256

    Was it the old Italian guy?