Twice a year, the city’s best food dips down within reach of the unmoneyed eater
Various locations around the city. Three-course prix-fixe menus for lunch ($10-$20) or dinner ($20-$30) at 80 Toronto restaurants. Beverages, taxes and gratuities extra. See for details.

I can tell you exactly where and when I became a good-food junkie (that’s good food, not health food, which is only good if your definition of good includes crap): May 31, 1999, my 27th birthday. I was working as a short-order cook downtown and the woman who would become my wife, a coffee-shop barista at the time, wanted to take me someplace unreasonably expensive for my birthday.

Throwing a dart at Toronto Life’s top 10 restaurants list, we wound up at Accolade in the base of the Crown Plaza Hotel. It’s gone now, but it was my Damascus.

I was blinded right off by the amuse bouche — a raw oyster — and converted by what followed: rabbit ravioli in black truffle consommé, soft-shell crab, seared Quebec fois gras, sautéed sweetbreads, line-caught John Dory, Isle Vert rack of lamb — each course was like a tour of a new and uncharted region of a paradise I had never known existed. This was food I didn’t just taste in my mouth, but that I felt in the front of my brain and that sent tingles into my extremities.

It wasn’t just better than any food I had ever tasted; the garnishes alone — finely constructed herb salads, say, or bright green parsley oil — were better than anything I’d ever eaten. This three-hour meal was better than almost anything I’d ever experienced. The way the textures and the often constrasting flavours blended like the different instruments in a piece of music, the appearance of the artfully stacked food items on plates dotted with brightly coloured oils, the way the flavours of both the wine and the food changed when taken together opened me up to the idea of dining as art.

Here dining made the leap from the visceral to the aesthetic; this food was created with ambitions well beyond sating hunger. It provided an experience for the eyes and the tastebuds that described something larger. What I had considered fine meals up until then — steak dinners at Mom’s house, gourmet sandwiches from trendy cafés — were revealed as the culinary equivalent of interior design: fulfilling a specific function in a mostly pleasant way. But the food I had at Accolade was like walking into an art gallery and realizing that paint could be used for more than just covering a wall and setting off the furniture; it could capture a place and a moment, attempt to map out some element of the human condition and provoke an emotional reaction.

That meal cost about $300, which at the time was roughly what each of us earned in a week.

Later, when I was sous chef in a casual restaurant and my wife had begun serving in places where wines required decanting, we justified the expenses as research. Recently, we’ve had a harder time keeping a straight face while trying to justify our addiction in the face of mounting debt. And yet, every few months, whenever we’re within shouting distance of being able to afford it, we go out and eat properly. Then we bum bus fare from our friends for weeks afterward.

Some people spend money on furniture, others on clothes, art or music collections. Most folks wouldn’t think twice about dropping $50 or $75 on a concert or a game. We spend our money in nice restaurants.

I can’t quite claim real expertise — I was a bit of a hack as a chef and I’m more of a fan than a critic — but I’m an enthusiastic evangelist for the good-food cause, which is harder than it sounds. I’ve always had a hard time persuading my mostly broke friends that they should — at least once — go out and eat good food. They hear the words “$200 a head” and their brains stop processing information rationally.

But now the Winterlicious Festival (stupid name, great idea) provides a handy piece of ammunition in the war to convert the masses — perhaps the first time the government has helped me to justify and promote my vices. Running Jan. 30-Feb. 12, the festival involves 80 restaurants offering three-course prix-fixe menus for insanely low prices. The semi-annual festival (there’s also Summerlicious) is aimed at getting people out of the house, and it’s a perfect opportunity for those intimidated by the price tags and snobbery of fine cuisine to experience what all the foodies (a term I hate in the way I would hate calling readers “wordies”) are always yammering on about.

It’s like a drug dealer handing out free samples of crack near the schoolyard: the price gets you to try it, the ecstasy gets you hooked. That’s what happened to Amber Authier, who’s organizing the festival with the city, who last year had what she calls the best meal of her life at lunch last year at Jump (which is offering a $20 lunch and a $30 dinner this year) at 18 Wellington W., and realized there was a whole level of cuisine she’d been unaware of. Since then, she tells me, she’s been out spending more than she should in restaurants.

Heading up the savings file is Avalon (270 Adelaide W.), easily one of Toronto’s 10 best restaurants, where a dinner comparable to the $30 Winterlicious offering would normally run to about $65. Chef and owner Chris McDonald’s insistence on French and continental tradition (I’ve heard members of his staff dismissively call Susur “that Chinese-food joint on King”) is legendary in Toronto restaurants, and his offerings of oxtail bouillabaisse and crispy braised pork belly, among other things, should provide exotic entry points for the uninitiated.

Canoe (on the 54th floor of the TD Tower at Bay and Wellington) is famously the hardest table in town to get at lunch or dinner, as much for the clear-day view of the Niagara Valley as for the food. But chef Anthony Walsh’s food — famous for its innovative takes on Canadian ingredients like caribou — would easily run you twice the $20 for lunch and $30 for dinner charged here, and is a luxury usually only experienced by the wealthy or people with expense accounts.

The only better view-with-food would be the 360 at the CN Tower, which is offering a $30 menu for dinner. Since the $18.99 trip up the CN Tower elevator is included in the price, if you’ve ever wanted to take a trip 500 metres up anyway, you’re only really spending an extra $11.01 for leek and potato cappuccino with Milford Bay smoked trout, followed by wild boar ragout and banana cream pie. If you’ve got a little left over, you may want to take advantage of one of Canada’s best (and definitely its highest) wine cellars.

Another participating restaurant, Centro (2472 Yonge), was one of the first to bring real dining to Toronto back when it was a steakhouse town in the mid-’80s, and it’s living up to its reputation for flamboyance now. Even though celebrated chef Marc Thuet decamped for The Fifth (shamefully not participating in the festival), new exec Bruce Woods (who has Michelin stars on his sous resumé) has been drawing rave reviews with his French- and Asian-flavoured Italian cuisine.

Those hoping to participate should act fast, though. As we were going to press, reservations were already filling up.

Originally published in Eye Weekly January 22, 2004.