Divino’s never managed to fill Terroni’s shoes

Divino Pizza
Divino Pizza
Sorry, I've never developed a taste for chicken pizza

After perennially-packed Terroni moved out in late 2010, Divino moved in in early 2011. But the newcomer has never managed to fill Terroni’s very large  shoes and whenever I go there — mostly to pick up takeout — I wonder how much longer Divino can hang on.

Divino definitely has some good dishes — the casareccia with homemade spicy italian sausage, garlic, rapini and red peppers is a personal favourite — but it’s not something I want to eat all the time. So why did they take the angel hair with lobster off the menu just when I was getting addicted? And do they really think that the lobsterless linguine di mare that has replaced it will make us forget what came before?

Along with its shifting menu and lack of white pizzas, Divino also has a service problem. Wait staff are friendly, but they’re not particularly efficient and meals, no matter what time of day, take much longer than they should. Even when we were the first arrivals for the newly revived brunch, we waited forever just for coffee. Yes, it was a nice bagel with lox and cream cheese, but I could have assembled things faster at home and that’s including a trip to Montreal Bagel to buy the ingredients.

If  Divino’s going to succeed, they’re going to need to staff up properly, find a menu that works for them and then quit changing it. Oh yes, they could also add a few killer desserts, which neither Terroni nor any of the other neighbourhood Italian joints do particularly well.

Divino Italian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

The Monk’s Table: Don’t take that poverty vow if you want to hang here

The Monk's Table on Yonge St.
Everybody would be happy to know your name

The Monk’s Table is one of those places where you get the feeling that everyone is trying very hard to be a regular, even if they’ve only really been here two or three times before.

In theory, the Monk’s Table should be great. The food is supposed to be way better than the average pub fare (a reputation earned in the days when this was still the Abbot on the Hill), it’s a good space if a tad cramped, and the staff are chatty enough that they reinforce the feeling you could easily become a regular. But there’s a problem and it’s this: Once you leave, the whole experience becomes eminently forgettable, not to mention that you spent more than you bargained for. In short, you don’t care if you ever go back or if you become a regular.

This is not to say that the burgers and the curries aren’t decent. And items like crème brulée pâte do indeed zing up the menu not to mention sticky toffee pudding for dessert. But, compared to Wylie’s down the street, it’s far more expensive and not really worth the price premium. In short, it’s hard to get by on a monk’s stipend here, which might explain why they’re always auditioning regulars who eventually decide they’re not cut out for the Monk life.

The Monk's Table on Urbanspoon

Harry’s Social Kitchen: Why oh why isn’t it what I wanted it to be?

Bang bang shrimp at Harry's Social Kitchen

Bang bang shrimp at Harry's Social Kitchen
Another Harry misfire: Bang bang shrimp ($13) are tasty enough, but too much (cost and portion) for an appetizer and too little for a meal
Yonge and St. Clair is way overpopulated with sushi joints and Italian restaurants. We desperately need a diner or a Lady Marmalade or a Rushton, but it seems we’re not indy enough or the rents are too high or both, which means, instead, we got Harry’s Social Kitchen.

Maybe I’m bitter because I had high hopes for Harry, that there would be comfort food and cocktails for not unreasonable prices, that it would serve a great weekend brunch and that it would be a fun place to hang out. Alas, those dreams have been quashed. Harry is stingy on the tuna and cod, serves frozen fries, calls his sandwiches “handhelds,” doesn’t do Saturday brunch, and, as of late, has been completely closed on Sundays.

I do give Harry’s credit for trying but after six months, it doesn’t appear to have hit its stride and I’m wondering if it will even be able to survive much longer.

Won’t someone please give us the restaurant we need?

Harry's Social Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Holy Chuck: Average burgers with interesting but pricey shakes and sides

The Holy Chuck signature burger

The Holy Chuck signature burger
The Holy Chuck is ithe signature burger
Call me old fashioned, but when a burger, fries and shake get up into the $20 range, I expect either a little bit of atmosphere or an extraordinary eating experience. Given that Holy Chuck, the new(ish) burger joint at Yonge and St. Clair is a classic flourescent-lit, order-at-the-cash-and-eat-in-an-uncomfortable-chair-at-a-table-that-may-or-may-not-have-been-wiped-clean type of place, the onus was on the food to turn in a spectacular performance. All it managed was a “meh.”

To save room for the other stuff, I chose the Jr. Cheeseburger (all dressed, hold-the-hot-peppers) for $5.99. It was fine but my tastebuds couldn’t tell that the meat had been ground on the spot.  When I saw the $4.29 price tag for the sweet potato chips, I thought twice about ordering them but then caved. They were good enough that I had them on their own a week or two later only to be disappointed when they arrived slightly soggy.

If you choose the cheaper French fries at $3.29, know that they’re seasoned with thyme, a practice I disapprove since, at best, it does nothing to improve the fry experience and, at worst, it detracts from it.

Holy Chuck’s crazy milk shake flavours seem tailor made for a bucket list, but after trying the Reese’s Pieces and Banana, and the Bacon, Fudge and  Sea Salt, I no longer feel that I’ll have to return to sample the Peanut Butter and Jelly and Grandma’s Apple Pie. At $5.49 each, that $11, I can spend at Greg’s.

What else do you need to know? My teenaged eating companion really likes the Holy Chuck signature double cheeseburger with caramelized onions, which at $9.99, she should. And she’s a fan of the deep fried Twinkie, not the shakes, when she wants something sweet.

Here’s the entire Holy chuck menu.

Holy Chuck on Urbanspoon

Best Dry Cleaner and Tailor at Yonge and St. Clair

My Tailor Alterations and Dry Cleaning (mysteriously listed in the phone book as My Taylor) is hands down the best and the cheapest in the neighbourhood. The epitome of a Mom and Pop shop, they scrutinize every item you take in and will phone you up if there’s anything that could possibly go wrong.

“Pop” runs the sewing machine and he’ll fix your leather purse for you on the fly or take up your jeans in a hurry if you ask nicely. “Mom” is in charge of the dry cleaning and the expert in stain treatment.

The only caveat I have about this place is the hours. They’re not open first thing in the morning, which can occasionally pose a problem. Apart from that, I love them.

1394 Yonge St. (south of St. Clair)

XocoCava: Best croissants in midtown Toronto

I’m from Montreal so I don’t kid around when it comes to croissants. When I say Xococava’s are the best, that means they are absolutely, undeniably the best, beating Patachou hands down for both butteriness and flakiness. The only drawback is that Cava, first and foremost a chocolatier, doesn’t open until 10 a.m.

The other thing you need to know is that Cava’s Spanish-style hot chocolate is so good that if you try it just once, you will likely never drink straight coffee on the premises again. Customers are so addicted to the drinking chocolate that Cava actually stopped making chocolate croissants. Even the fiercest chocoholics couldn’t combine a chocolate drink with a pain au chocolat.

If you go in the afternoon or evening, try the churros, which come dusted in cinnamon sugar and ready for you to dip in chocolate.

There’s golden sponge toffee, s’mores, ice cream and chocolates to take home.

Wylie’s midtown Toronto pub serves decent Thai food

You don’t go to Wylie’s for the decor. You go for a pint and a curry — a Thai curry. Because, go figure, this place is some kind of strange hybrid of English pub and Thai / Malaysian restaurant. But wait, it gets even more complicated. Wylie’s also does Indian curries, and some of those come with Greek salad.

Personally, I recommend the takeout or the delivery (minimum order = $15) because I prefer the atmosphere at home and saving money on beer.

Wylie’s is definitely as good or better than some of the Thai and Asian restaurants a few blocks north at Yonge and St. Clair.

Try the green chicken curry. And I hear the breakfasts are good too although I can’t vouch for them personally.

Wylie 2 on Urbanspoon

Best hardware store in midtown Toronto: Home Hardware

So what if a huge Canadian Tire is just a kilometre down the street. Size doesn’t matter when you’re almost always out of what I want, be it a certain size of nuts and bolts or doggie poop bags. Not to mention the fact that it’s next to impossible to find someone to help you and, if you do, they’re clueless about hardware.

Home Hardware at Yonge and St. Clair, on the other hand, has amazing stock for a non-giant store. And the staff are super knowledgeable and helpful. The prices aren’t rock bottom, but they’re never outrageous and the sales are good.

I can’t recommend it enough.

Capocaccia Café: Pizza all the way

We usually get the Giuseppe and/or Dante, both white pizzas, to take out, as eating in causes the bill to add up really fast. While the pizzas are not cheap, they are excellent quality so worth the splurge.

Alas, not everything on the menu offers great value. We’ve been really disappointed by the Charcuterie plate, which was mostly prosciutto and kind of mingy.

The staff is always friendly.

And I’d like to give their brunch a try too.

Update: There have been a couple of pizza disappointments as of late. One day, the prosciutto got left off the Guiseppe and on another occasion, the crust wasn’t its usually pleasingly perfect self. When you charge Capocaccia prices, this type of inconsistency isn’t acceptable. We’re falling out of love.
Capocaccia Cafe on Urbanspoon

Groupon Toronto deals: La Passione Italiana

Can we talk about the sales tax?

I finally bought my first Groupon today. I’d been meaning to try it out for months, but the time had finally come when I saw a Groupon Now!Deal for a neighbourhood restaurant that I’d been vaguely curious about.

This was a Groupon Now! Deal

I’d only just learned about Groupon Now from an article in Vanity Fair last month.

“We want to change the way that people buy and discover from local businesses in the same way that Amazon has changed the way that people buy products,” (Groupon founder) Mason explained.

Groupon Now—which launched in Chicago in May, and has already expanded to several other cities—is an app that allows customers to access real-time deals on their mobile devices based on their location and previous buying trends. They can hit one of a few buttons, like “Eat Something” or “Have Fun.” Groupon Now will recommend nearby restaurants or entertainment venues running offers at that time.

“We’re giving customers access to more relevant deals that they can use on the fly, at the moment impulse strikes them.”

For merchants, the service is designed to act as an inventory-management system, allowing them to offer deals to fill up empty seats during slow periods or use up inventory toward the end of a night. Groupon doesn’t take as large a cut of these deals, and merchants retain more control over the timing and substance of the deals. Mason calls it “the holy grail for merchants.”

Bill Jacobs, the owner of Piece Pizzeria and Brewery, a popular Chicago restaurant, had always rebuffed Groupon salespeople. “We would never do the regular Groupon,” Jacobs says. “It’s such a busy place we’d basically be shooting ourselves in the foot.” But with the launch of Groupon Now, he decided to try the service to fill seats during slow times. Now Piece can configure its own deals and respond more immediately to sluggish periods. If business slackens on a Tuesday at two P.M., Jacobs can log on to his Groupon Now account and post a deal instantaneously, offering, say, 30 percent off pizza until 5:30. Customers in the area have access to the deal within seconds through the Groupon Now app on their smartphones and can redeem the offer, which typically expires within hours. Jacobs keeps around 75 percent of the revenue.

From here, Mason says, he sees Groupon expanding into every sphere of local commerce, from analyzing customer behavior and offering customer reviews to scheduling reservations.

So, how was my Groupon Now experience?

  1. I had huge problems getting Groupon to accept my credit card, but after a long series of back and forths, it turned out it was my bank and not Groupon that was at fault. My bank had put a fraud alert on my card but hadn’t bothered to tell me. A lot of time could have been saved, however, if Groupon had been able to tell me this right away instead of leading me down a number of false trails. (I didn’t just give up because I really want to test Groupon out and it does appear to have some great deals.)
  2. The food at La Passione was fine, but I’m not sure I would return. While Yonge and St. Clair has several good Italian restaurants,  they’re pricy and I was looking for something that offers more value so I thought this would be a good time to give La Passione, which is less fancy looking, a shot. My reasoning was that it couldn’t have survived in this neighbourhood for as long as it has if it weren’t decent. Surprisingly, its prices were not much lower than the other places although portions may have been slightly bigger. The pizza I had definitely wasn’t as good as my Capocaccia favourites, the Guiseppe and the Dante.
  3. I was charged full sales tax for $40!!! While I knew the Groupon couldn’t be used to cover tax and tip, how does it work that they charge me tax on $40 when I only spent $20?
Click to enlarge

I was uncharacteristically speechless while paying the cheque, but when I got home, I looked up the whole taxation issue and found a very interesting article in Forbes on this very subject. It asked:

When you handed over your coupon, did the merchant collect tax from you? Did he calculate the tax based on the full face value of your purchase, or the discounted amount you paid for it? Did he force you to ante up any tax in cash, or did he allow you to apply your coupon towards the full bill,  including tax?
These aren’t academic questions–the answers could affect the attractiveness of Internet-based social coupon programs to consumers, merchants, and state tax collectors.  Ultimately, the question of how social coupons should be taxed is likely to end up in court, says Veranda Smith, interim executive director of the Federation of Tax Administrators, which represents state tax officials.

I then looked for information specific to Ontario and found this piece written by Kent Mewhort, who is presently the Law Foundation of Ontario Public Interest Fellow at CIPPIC. He writes:

In the U.S., as well as for most cases for Groupon deals under Canadian tax law, merchants should only collect tax on the amount actually paid (not the regular-priced “value”).
Groupon leaves the collection practices up to the individual merchants, who may or may not follow proper procedure in calculating the tax. Perhaps Groupon should take more initiative in properly educating its partners, but it is centainly not at fault per se for any miscollection of tax.

In fact, overall, Groupon’s policies appear quite commendable from a consumer perspective. Their stated return policy is wide in scope: “if your Groupon experience ever lets you down, let us know and we’ll refund your purchase. Period.”

Unfortunately, this conflicts with a recent article, written by Benjamin Edelman, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, and Paul Kominers, in which they argue that Groupon’s policy of leaving tax issues up to the merchants makes no sense:

We are struck by Groupon’s attempts to push all responsibility to merchants. On every relevant question — discounting alcohol, honoring expiration dates, providing cashback — Groupon’s historic contract and current Merchant Terms of Service claim merchants are responsible. In our view, this approach invites confusion and non-compliance. Voucher services are far better positioned than merchants to determine what the legal system requires: Voucher services can research regulations centrally, once for each state in which they operate, then notify affiliated merchants of applicable requirements. In contrast, Groupon’s current approach asks each individual merchant to conduct its own research. If merchants actually conducted such research, it would be duplicative and potentially wasteful — thousands of small businesses re-researching the same questions. But in fact merchants typically ignore the questions, rationally concluding that these questions are too difficult for them to address on their own. Thus, by pushing merchants do to the work individually, voucher services virtually assure that the work is not done at all.

Importantly, the legal and regulatory questions flagged in this article are questions that arise distinctively in the context of discount vouchers: a merchant would never confront such questions were it not for discount vouchers. Having created the transactions giving rise to this regulatory complexity, we think discount voucher services should be expected to achieve compliance.

I will now be contacting Groupon to tell them I am unhappy with being charged sales tax on the full amount and we’ll see how they respond.