A Toast to the Roast

A few years ago, Toronto was all over the communal dining trend. Restaurants installed big harvest tables and hoped that customers would not just bump elbows but start up a conversation with one another. But because Torontonians are mostly of the “keep to yourself, mind your own business” variety, the communal table wasn’t a huge success when it came to the average customer.

So what to do with those big old harvest tables that customers avoid like the plague? Unless a restaurant can book a large group to take over the thing, it’s kind of like a no man’s land.

Thank heavens for the resurgence of comfort food and lots of talk in the press about the importance of family dining. The idea of Sunday dinner is often romanticized by chefs like Gordon Ramsay who once created a campaign in conjunction with his F-Word series to get Britons to go back to the tradition of Sunday dinner.

It’s not a bad idea, really – most people enjoy eating a big ol’ roast – it’s all the prep and cooking that sucks the fun out of it. So a number of restaurants are now serving up family-style meals, often on Sunday, and usually, but not always, communal. Here’s a few that we found…

Cowbell (1564 Queen Street West) serves a 3-course family roast dinner on Sunday evenings from 5pm – 9pm. Cost is $25 per person. Call ahead to find out what the meat of the day is, or pretend you’re showing up at Mom’s unannounced and be surprised.

Grace Upstairs (503 College Street) recreates a traditional TV dinner menu every Thursday evening starting at 7pm. A main plus sides and dessert, served up in an Indian thali tray to simulate a TV dinner tray, will run $20 and is super hearty. They usually tweet the menu sometime during the day on Thursday.

The Queen & Beaver Pub (35 Elm Street) offers Sunday roast for a group. Prices range from $150 for a roast loin of pork to $280 for beef wellington (prices are totals based on 8 guests). Roasts must be booked in advance, no later than Thursday prior.

Victor Restaurant (30 Mercer Street) offers up the standard a la carte fare, but a restaurant with a 1500 pound harvest table is always going to be about communal dining and big groups. There’s a $45 prix fixe menu that changes daily and pays tribute to many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods from perogies and cabbage rolls on Roncesvalles and Bloor night, to Portuguese fish soup on Friday’s Dundas West night.

Yer Ma’s Kitchen at Dora Keough (141 Danforth Avenue) is a hidden dining gem. No, really, it’s in a back room behind the pub and is decked out to look like an old country kitchen. For $35 per person (minimum of 8 people) they’ll cook up your choice of items from the Ma’s Kitchen menu, including an appetizer (soup/salad), main plus two veg and two types of potato, and dessert and coffee or tea. Mains range from roast pork, ham, turkey or Atlantic salmon. The space must be booked in advance, because Ma is pretty busy.

Big Night Dinner Parties at The Big Ragu (1338 Lansdowne Avenue) are inspired by the brilliant movie of the same name. The menu isn’t always a recreation of the movie menu (hey, you can’t eat timpano all the time), but rotates on an Italian theme. The monthly event is $65 per person. And you might even get to meet Louis Prima!

Cafe Cinquecento (791 King Street West) offers Sugo Sundays, a family-style meal at brunch or dinner where people are seated communally. There’s also the infamous Notta Della Mamma on the third Monday of every month, where a band of Italian mothers and grandmothers take over the kitchen. There might also be cheek-pinching, because that’s what Nonnas do.

I’m probably missing a bunch of other great offerings – I know there’s more out there. Please feel free to add to the list by leaving a comment if you know of any other great communal meal deals or fab Sunday roasts we should be checking out.