Nighttime view of the Mother's Dumplings sign and storefront.

Outside Mother’s Dumplings in Toronto.
Photo © Carolyn B. Heller.

With Toronto’s thousands of restaurants, from modest noodle shops to wildly experimental bistros, choosing where to eat can be more complicated than naming your first child.

Here, then, is not a top 10 list, a best-buy list, or a top-spots-to-eat-pig-ears list. Instead, it’s a short selection of delicious dining rooms, where whatever your mood or your budget, you can always get a good meal.

Where to Hang Out

If I lived in Toronto, Enoteca Sociale, a sociable Italian wine bar in the city’s west end, would be one of my local haunts. Choose from a large selection of wines by the “taste” or the glass, the better to pair with the rustic Roman sharing plates, like a tomato panzanella (bread salad), or the homemade pastas, perhaps trecce with spicy octopus and sausage. Book ahead if you can; this piccolo place is always busy.

I’d also hang out at Gilead Café & Bistro, celeb chef Jamie Kennedy’s casual eatery near the Distillery District. I’d join the arty types and laptop-toters for coffee and pastries in the morning, or stop in later in the day for soups, salads, and mains like pork schnitzel with anchovy mignonette or Moroccan chickpea stew.

Where to Chow Down

Jiaozi, the steamed dumplings that you find all across northern China, are one of my comfort foods, so when I’m looking to chow down on hearty Chinese fare, I go home to Mother–Mother’s Dumplings, that is. I love watching the deft dumpling makers wrap up these puffy pillows of egg and chive, cabbage and tofu, or pork with pickled cabbage. Pair your jiaozi with spicy kimchi, tofu strip salad (bean curd dressed with peppers and cilantro), or other refreshing cold dishes.

In the Entertainment District, perpetually packed Khao San Road serves up big, bold Thai fare. Try the popular khao soi, noodles topped with chicken or beef, swimming in a coconut-lime-curry broth, or the chef’s special pad Thai, amped up with roasted peanuts, dried chilies, and fresh lime. Unfortunately, they’ve stopped taking reservations, so expect to wait, but line-ups tend to be shorter Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Tip: If you don’t eat meat, ask for the separate vegan menu.

Where to Dress Up

For a stylish Italian experience, I’d find my way to Buca, in a classy brick warehouse off King Street West. Start by sharing the fried smelts or a platter of house-cured salumi. Pastas, creative pizzas (like zucchini with shrimp), and heartier dishes, like grilled sea bream with olives and preserved lemon, or veal and ricotta meatballs, round out Chef Rob Gentile’s au courant menu.

When you can’t face one more molecular gastronomy experience or hipper-than-thou server, it’s time to dine at Epic, the gracious, white-tablecloth restaurant at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. The menu includes just enough contemporary touches–a bit of foam here, a sous vide there–to keep things interesting while still offering options for more conservative palates. Order whatever is local and in season, whether it’s a salad of Ontario beets and pears, or Blue Mountain trout with red quinoa.

Where to Veg Out

Long before it was trendy to be vegan, Little India’s Udupi Palace was cooking up south Indian vegetarian and vegan fare. I like to come for their massive dosas, crisp pancakes stuffed with potatoes, onions, vegetables, or paneer (cheese).

Sometimes, you stumble on first-rate food in the most unlikely places. Behind the Bloor subway station, Camros Organic Eatery is a cheery cafeteria serving Persian-influenced vegetarian stews, rice dishes, and salads. The selection rotates, but you might find gheyme (a yellow lentil and potato stew flavored with limes and plums) or cabbage rolls stuffed with minty rice. If you’re a fan of leafy greens, it’s worth hunting down this spot just for the lemony fresh kale salad.

Do you have your own food favorites in Toronto? Please leave a comment and share the goodies!