Fine dining is over: How comfort food is keeping Toronto restaurants afloat

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If you haven’t noticed, fried chicken sandwiches are having a moment. 

We’re looking for culinary escapism, but not the kind that comes from intricately composed dishes that challenge our palates. We want crispy batter, fluffy buns, savoury sauces. We want that first bite to feel like a warm hug. 

It’s understandable: the uncertainty of last year hasn’t dissipated as the months under lockdown have stretched on. If anything, that hunger has been exacerbated. We’re in a state of limbo with no definitive end in sight, fuelled by a stilted vaccine roll out, concern over new coronavirus strains and increasing animosity. 

It’s no wonder we’re craving comfort.

Restaurants across the city are reacting to the increased demand for simple and familiar fare as they try to remain afloat in a year that has been acutely fraught for their businesses. 

It’s not just fried chicken. Comfort food of all kinds is de rigueur. Even fine dining restaurants must amend and adapt their menus.  

“People have enough change going on in their lives, what they’re looking for is a return to normalcy, something that they can expect,” said Craig Wong, chef and owner of Patois and Bar Mignonette

In times of crisis, humans want what is warm and familiar. Following the 2008 recession, there was a boom in mac and cheese. All of a sudden, menus across the city had a variation of the cozy dish. Sometimes the only semblance of solace and stability in life is a steaming mouthful of pasta coated in four types of cheese. 

Familiarity and affordability seem to be the most important measures in the way Torontonians are ordering food now. Budgets are tighter and, as Wong mentioned, we’re craving what once was. We’re living through a time where so much feels completely out of our control. It only makes sense we would want to indulge on food that brings joy. A serotonin boost from the first bite of a juicy burger feels like a tiny win against the doldrums. 

People are giving themselves a break, seeking the instant gratification comfort food provides and feeling no shame about it. And restaurants are continuously adapting to what consumers want. On top of being comforting, dishes must now be delivery-friendly. But unlike the 2008 recession, the lockdown has restricted movement, causing destination restaurants to shift into neighbourhood spots, and fine dining to morph into something else – in some cases, for good.