Jacob Richler on unexpected choices and unimpeachable recommendations

Maclean’s columnist Jacob Richler explains how a team of food critics came up with our 50 best restaurants
Jacob Richler
Canada’s Best Restaurants
John Cullen

One morning in June, while researching possibilities for our 50 best restaurants in Canada list, I took a four-hour drive from St. John’s to Upper Amherst Cove, on Newfoundland’s stunning Bonavista Peninsula, to visit a small, new restaurant called the Bonavista Social Club. A national magazine had just put a photograph of their Ultimate Moose Burger on its cover, proclaiming it one of five “great Canadian burgers”—although, it did not appear to be on the menu.

“No, we don’t sell burgers,” the woman behind the counter allowed, giggling. “We just have a friend who’s a food writer in Toronto, and she called up to ask if we could come up with a burger recipe for her so that she could put it in a story. Now people are calling from all over the country and we don’t even have a game licence to sell moose yet . . . ”

Read here for more on Canada’s best restaurants, including: restaurant of the year, chef of the year and best new restaurant of the year

Apparently, sometime over the intervening months this changed, and the pre-acclaimed burger at last made it into production. I cannot tell you if it is any good—but I can assure you that I used this experience for a more useful purpose. It defined the first guiding principle for the critics working on the Maclean’s restaurant guide: none of us would be allowed to write effusive reviews of dishes that our chef friends had not put on a menu.

We actually went a little further and engaged only those critics who were neither beholden nor even known to people in the industry in those cities in which they were assigned. We tried wherever possible to hire critics who were knowledgeable but not mainstream, and capable of unexpected choices. Because it seemed pointless to regurgitate extant lists of favourites from local dailies into a package that was new only in form, we aimed to produce a list of unimpeachable recommendations as varied in their nature as possible. The idea was to represent each city with the best single example of each category it tackles properly—to provide the visitor with a real range of choice, instead of alternatives within a particular ethnicity or style. Because when I travel, anyway, I always know what I am in the mood for eating, or what sort of restaurant a rendezvous calls for—the only information desired is the location of its best local example, and not a choice of them. This is the purpose that the Maclean’s guide is intended to serve.

Choosing and working with critics across the country was a good deal of fun; as the Maclean’s Taste column already attests, we have a lot of good food writers across the country. Trying to herd them all into something like the same page when it came to making assessments and star ratings was something else altogether.

Different critics look for different things and have differing priorities. And different cities come with different expectations. Even the incredibly basic concept of applying a standardized price rating of $, $$, or $$$ proved a conundrum. Because what exactly is a basic meal? Researching industry standards, I was delighted to find that the price guide in one of my Tatler restaurant guides for the U.K. defines a basic lunch to include aperitifs, three courses, a bottle of wine, a bottle of water, and some much-needed coffee. From which I deduced that maybe I shouldn’t have left London. But also, that over there, I would not have made the deadline—and that maybe Tatler was not the source for solving editorial problems in Toronto.

In the end, I decided to avoid rating the price of lunch altogether, because some people drink at midday, some don’t, and in any event Montreal is the only city in the country that encourages the civilized notion of the midday meal with a widespread, cheap prix fixe—so national standards would be impossible. We focused on price-rating dinner, with a bottle of wine.

As for standards, I did my best to visit all the restaurants contained herein that I had not already been to, and used that exposure to smooth out the ratings. On that note, be advised that I consider four stars out of four to be virtually unattainable (I found only one in the country this year), and that 2½ stars is an excellent restaurant, even if its ambition has limited scope. The culinary vision and ambition of our chef of the year, Normand Laprise, comes with no such caveats. Neither does restaurant of the year, Hawksworth at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia. In addition to recognizing the ongoing efforts of these well-known luminaries, it was exciting to have the chance to congratulate a rising star, Ben Heaton, who shows the most exceptional promise at his new restaurant of the year, the Grove.

All that said, the best part of the book might well be the area I had nothing to do with: the art direction, by Erika Oliveira (who used to do the same fine work for Gourmet magazine), and the photographer she hired, John Cullen, who travelled the country coast to coast, following in the strained footsteps of each of our overfed critics, and shooting all the dishes we ate and saw with the same stunning perspective. I think it adds up beautifully, and hope that you agree, and find the guide as useful as we hope that you do.