The Best New Restaurants in Toronto for 2016
Otto’s Bierhalle (ranked #1)
Location: 1089 Queen Street West
Atmosphere: Industrial neon disco
Well, it has finally arrived: my last ever article for the Obiter Dicta. I’m feeling rather wistful about it—though there is no love lost between me and law school—because I am really grateful for the opportunity I had to write for this paper and for the friends I’ve made through it. I decided to save this restaurant for my last review because I was really excited about checking it out (mostly because I knew they had a beer from my favourite US brewery on tap). Unfortunately my experience wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but that’s what I get for going to Queen West on a Friday night instead of studying for exams.
I had to work late so didn’t get to Otto’s until about 8:45pm and was told at the door it would be about an hour wait. We proceeded to go down the street and drink our hunger away in a bar called Dog and Bear that I ended up really enjoying. For one, I could tell it was an industry bar (where servers and chefs go to drink after their shifts: this is a good sign). With high ceilings and a very long wooden L-shaped bar, there was plenty of room to watch the Raptors and the Jays and the atmosphere was pleasantly unstuffy. It’s a good thing I liked the place, because two hours later we still hadn’t gotten a call from Otto’s, so I figured we should cross the street to see if it was possible to sneak in before 11, when the menu changes to its late night version.
We did manage to get a table, although I am quite positive if I didn’t show face I would have never gotten a call. Otto’s menu is modelled on a German-style beer hall, but that’s where the similarities end: the actual ambience was more like a warehouse rave with lots of plants and unique light fixtures. In the bathroom, there is a giant button on the wall, and when you press it the room turns into a glow-in-the-dark disco party. The owners (who own a lighting company as well) also have a small lunch spot in Kensington called Otto’s Berlin Doner with the same bathroom trick.
Beer is the highlight here, but after two hours at another bar I wasn’t really up for much. The drink menu is expansive, with over twenty-five taps, half of which appeared to be Canadian, and at least fifty bottles and cans. It was a great (if overpriced) selection that I wish I could have dived into more, but as it was, I just got my precious Ommegang Hennepin: a refreshing saison brewed with ginger, orange peel and grains of paradise that sits at a hefty 7.7% alc/vol and doesn’t taste like it at all. Side note: if you ever happen to be in Cooperstown, NY, the Ommegang brewery might be even better than the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I say this as a huge baseball fan. They have concerts in the summer (I saw Bright Eyes there) where you can camp overnight in the fields surrounding the brewery whilst drinking their extremely strong and delicious beer and not having to worry about moving until you can. It’s a great time.
Food-wise, everything at Otto’s is served on a metal tray, and you can choose to make your own platter by ordering things individually, or instead opt to pick one of the four pre-set platters that serve about three people. We ordered the Bavaria platter, which for $55 came with schweinshaxe (a whole pork hock), weisswurst (white sausage), sauerkraut fritters, sauerkraut, potato salad, beet salad, house pickles, and roasted fennel. There is a vegetarian platter option, with a schnitzel made of portobello mushroom and halloumi cheese, fries, spaetzle (dumplings), and various salads.
I’ll start with the bad: the potato salad, beet salad, and pickles were at best extremely mediocre. Perhaps I’m being spoiled, because I often prepare these things at home and have a good handle on how to make them delicious. The weisswurst was fine, but it’s a relatively plain sausage so it’s hard to get too worked up about. The mustard it was served with had a nice, solid bite, which was definitely needed to enhance the flavour. The roasted fennel was quite good, but it’d be pretty hard to mess that up.
Their homemade white wine sauerkraut was excellent though, and the sauerkraut fritters, served with remoulade sauce, was a pleasant surprise. Fritters often have a tendency to be greasy, but these were light—sort of like a potato pancake—and the creamy remoulade was an excellent match for the tangy sourness of the kraut. But the star of the platter, sitting imposingly on its sauerkraut bed, transfixed with a knife, was the schweinshaxe. The meat was tender and perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth indulgence, and the crispy pork skin that surrounded it was a real treat.
However, I can guarantee that no one in that place was interested in pork skin, unless you meant that as a crass euphemism for sex. And that was the weird thing about Otto’s: it was full of early 20-somethings that clearly went to be seen and to pick up. A beer hall that serves various types of extremely unglamourous pork parts strikes me as a strange place to do that. I’m assuming it’s different on a weeknight or perhaps much earlier on the weekends, but the Friday vibe was total scenester. I realized that the reason the wait was so long was that no one was in that restaurant to eat. That changes things immensely, as a table of four drinking beer and looking to score will take all night if they have to.
I’m knocking on Otto’s a bit more than I should be: the food was solid, and yeah, the service wasn’t spectacular, but it was extremely packed. I’ve dealt with worse in more reasonable settings. Part of it was that I felt too old for the place. Ten years ago, when I would have enjoyed it more, restaurants, and bars like this didn’t exist in Toronto. Back then, it seemed like every bar in Toronto was either a British pub or a corporate chain. The exceptions were usually extremely divey, like Sneaky Dee’s, the Labyrinth, or (shudder) the former Brunswick House. Although there’s nothing wrong with a good dive bar, I’m happy that concept resto-bars like Otto’s Bierhalle have a place here now—even if I am past the height of my youthful exuberance, the city doesn’t have to be.
In retrospect, I should have been a bit suspicious that the best new restaurant chosen for all of 2016 opened in December. Restaurants—even the best—are bound to have hiccups in the first few weeks of service and if this place was voted most popular it almost certainly means it wasn’t for the food or the service. I sincerely doubt that Otto’s is the best new restaurant in Toronto, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the best new bars.
I hope you have enjoyed some of my reviews and if you don’t know the city too well, or even if you do, I encourage you to check out some of the BlogTO lists! They aren’t perfect, but they are a good sampling of what the city has to offer.
Adios Osgoode, it’s been a trip.
Cost for a beer and half a platter: $35.50 (plus tax and tip)
Service: 3.5/5 Dean Sossins
Food: 4/5 Dean Sossins
Value: 3/5 Dean Sossins
Overall: 3.5/5 Dean Sossins