Dining tours offer a way to not only visit and explore unknown cities, but also to find their hidden culinary treasures. So this is the first post in a series called “Dining Tours – ?” where the ? will be replaced with the fabulous destination we ate our way to and through!
Our first location is home to one of my favourite restaurants, Garlics. If you live in South Western Ontario you may know this place because it is frigging wonderful and is located in London, Ontario. With roughly 400 thousand residents, London is a perfect sized city to accommodate every palate, budget and picky eater!
To keep any biases at bay and to try something new Garlics was not chosen for this tour! DAMN IT!!!! Instead we scoured Urban Spoon and selected three establishments based on their price point and type of restaurant. Now before we get into the details I should mention, that without a ton of time to perform said dining tour, Q and I felt we could complete it within one day. Yes you heard me right. Not including breakfast, we scheduled our visits beginning at noon and then every three hours there after for the next destination. Here is my warning – DO NOT EAT A MEAL EVERY THREE HOURS! Nibbling every three hours – fine. Grazing every three hours – I’m sure is healthy. But eating every three hours requires your body to constantly be digesting and let me tell you it is exhausting. Not a word of a lie, I had to nap between restaurant 2 and 3 and actually slept the 2 hour drive home when the tour was completed. Ok that’s my warning!
Getting back to the details, all three restaurants chosen (which neither of us had ever eaten at), all had similar scores (which I now realize can change on a daily basis), were rated as moderately priced and were categorized as bistro style restaurants on Urban Spoon. Our picks were:
The Early Bird
The Sweet Onion Grill
Before heading off to eat ourselves into oblivion, we defined our rating system which we would use to score the areas of service, ambiance, food and price:
1 crap – can’t believe I actually walked in here; get up and leave
2 mediocre – not good enough; wouldn’t come back
3 satisfactory – was ok; may come back
4 really good – what you hope for and then some; would come back
5 exceptional – surprise, blow you away; don’t ever want to leave
First up was The Early Bird located in a busy, downtown location. Eccentric, psychedelic diner style is the best way to describe The Early Bird. With fluorescent pink and lime green walls, skull wallpaper in the bathroom, tiki bar, vinyl albums as art, animal print seats, this quirky restaurant seemed more interested in shocking you with their decor rather than dazzle you with their food.
But the place was packed! The weird part was that 98% of the patrons were very young and appeared to be college/university students (t’s and sweatshirts gave it away). Here is why this is weird. This restaurant wasn’t close to any school really and it sure in hell wasn’t college budget friendly! There were no families, i.e. small children at all and I could literally count those who were definitely over 30 on one hand, without using all of my fingers!
I felt like I was at a grunge party or screamo fest when I saw that the wait staff were dressed in wife beaters, toques, piercings/stretchers with any exposed skin doodled with tattoos. People use their appearance/dress to express themselves which I don’t mind, but if this is not your style you may feel a bit out of place. Actually, if you’re over 25 you may feel a bit out of place. The music was loud forcing you to speak louder which ensured everyone heard your conversation. Plus being crammed into the place like sardines made it not only easy to eavesdrop, but you’re so close you could even steal a fry from the table next to you.
The menu is riddled with the chef’s play on common classics such as the Turducken club. Club sandwiches are good. Club sandwiches with a spin (that works) – totally awesome!
Now I don’t know what antiquated algorithm is used to determine the rankings or what they may be smoking down at Urban Spoon but this place was anything but moderately priced! Prices ranged from $12 for a portobello sandwich to $13 for a burger and none of the burger/sandwiches included a side. That’s right! You had to spend another $6 in order to get fries with your sandwich! WTF? My jaw hit the table.
Because we would be eating at three restaurants in one day, Q and I decided we would order one entrée, appetizer and share. For our entrée we ordered the portobello sandwich which again came with nothing! As our appetizer we added the fries which came with garlic aioli. They had no sparkling water so we both had coffee. Here are our rankings and review for The Early Bird.
Service: Rated 3.5
Hostess and waitress were friendly and attentive.
Ambiance: Rated 3.5
The bizarre decor gives you something to look at since you really can’t hear your partner. This place is a novelty, not somewhere you go for a quiet, one on one dinner. It was very interesting, clean and cozy and was an obvious hit with the under 30 crowd.
I liked the portobello sandwich. It had good sauces, the bun was fresh and it was a nice twist on a boring mushroom burger! The fries were ok, lightly dusted in some kind of seasoning, they didn’t wow or disgust me. The garlic aioli was good but let’s get real – it’s garlic and mayo how do you screw that up right? The presentation was great, serving size of each item was good and I felt full when we were done.
Price: Rated 2
This is where The Early Bird really took a beating! The menu looked like the chef took college pub fare and classed it up which was great, but definitely not worth the prices they were charging. I mean how much does one potato cost? They couldn’t splurge and give you fries with the $13 beef or $12 mushroom burger, or what about the nickel shy of $16 Turducken Club? And $6 for those fries. I expected them to come out with a 10 lb bag of spuds, peeled and splintered but no, it was a regular serving size. I couldn’t figure out how the hell all of these young people were in the restaurant? I surely couldn’t have afforded this place while we were in college.
Lily’s Total Score for The Early Bird: 3.2
Service: Rated 4
Host and wait staff were attentive and polite and set a very happy, energetic atmosphere.
Ambiance: Rated 4
A unique and interesting place to visit.
Food: Rated 3
I liked the menu. I’m culinary curious and I liked how the menu was different. There were many items I wanted to try and orders for patrons in our proximity that looked delicious. The sandwich we chose, although nice in presentation was bland and blah. The fries were unremarkable but were helped by the garlic aioli.
Price: Rated 2
A mushroom sandwich, fry and 2 coffees should have cost $15 or $20 if you really want to push that the burger was meant to be gourmet! Our bill came to $28 after tax and a 15% tip – ouch!
Q’s Total Score for The Early Bird: 3.3
Next up was the Sweet Onion Grill surrounded by residential buildup, the area looked like the old downtown of a smaller town before London swallowed it up.
We couldn’t have picked a more different place than The Early Bird. The restaurant is dark, with earthy tones and lots of wood. Vinyl covered tables and a stone fireplace set the mood for some sophistication. Beautiful photos lined the walls. Unlike the previous restaurant it was not packed, but that could have had more to do with the time we visited which was mid afternoon. Again no families or children and unlike the previous restaurant, 98% of the patrons here appeared to over 50. And here is what was even more bizarre – they were all women! Q was the only dude for the first 40 minutes of our stay!
The hostess, which was also our server was extremely friendly, attentive and quick! She was dressed all in black, kind of what you’d expect in this type of setting. Seeing my iPad she offered up the WiFi password before I could even ask.
The menu had a good variety and was moderately priced, which was expected but we were unsure if our perception of moderately priced was way off base compared to Urban Spoon. For our app we ordered something called Saganaki which we had never had before and a club sandwich on a brioche bun. Here is our rating and review of The Sweet Onion Grill.
Service: Rated 3.5
I got the feeling this was a family run restaurant. An elder gentleman filled our glasses with water and for some reason I felt like he was the father of the hostess/waitress. An older woman cleaned up a mess at the outside patio. Not dressed like wait staff, again she seemed like an owner. All were extremely friendly and attentive, as I stated above, the waitress made sure we had everything we needed before we could even ask.
Ambiance: Rated 3
A nice environment, it was a bit dark for day time. And like the polar opposite to The Early Bird – there was no music playing. It was stark quiet which is only slightly better than being crazy noisy.
Food: Rated 2.75
The Saganaki was flaming cheese in a bath of alcohol. I thought our waitress had set her hair on fire when she added the flame to the dish, but thank goodness she had not. Salty cheese melted in booze and lemon, you spread the cheese concoction on the supplied pita. It was alright but I think it was more of a novelty than fine dining.
Juicy and tender, the chicken on the sandwich was cooked perfectly. The bun and toppings were fresh, the sauces delicious which must make my rating seem peculiar. The problem wasn’t with each item on the sandwich individually, it was that together they didn’t create anything mouth-watering. It was just ok. Some of it felt ill-suited for the sandwich – particularly the sauce! The fries felt like when you take wedge potatoes, boil them to get that soft interior and then sauté and finish them in the roaster for a crisp outer edge. Awesome for wedge potatoes, it felt funny for fries! The food was underwhelming for sure. Ending on a high note, The Sweet Onion Grill did have sparkling water.
Price: Rated 3
We had an appetizer, meat sandwich and fries, sparkling water plus tax and 15% gratuity and all for under the cost of our previous meal.
Lily’s Total Score for The Sweet Onion Grill: 3
Service: Rated 4
Waitress/hostess was very eager for us to place our order. She was knowledgable about the menu, attentive to our needs and didn’t hover over us.
Ambiance: Rated 3
I found the environment boring and stale. It was spacious, quiet and the other patrons were all women over 50. I felt lucky to be surrounded by women but awkward for sure. The art selection was tasteful, seating was plentiful and not packed side by side but our table was wobbly and I had to fix it twice! I saw one of the owners carrying a patio table through the dining area while we ate. He was trying to be discreet but it felt inappropriate for the environment it appeared they were going for.
Food: Rated 3
I was not impressed really. There were quality ingredients, fresh bun, perfectly cooked chicken breast, crisp bacon, fresh veg and a house sauce for the sandwich but the combination of them did not work for me. The app was flaming, salty cheese, in a hint of lemon juice, oil and booze with a name I can’t even recall. The wow factor of the dish ended when the flame expired.
Price: Rated 2.5
We split a sandwich, fries, fuzzy water and a cheese app – I felt like I over paid.
Q’s Total Score for The Sweet Onion Grill: 3.3
The last place on our list was Tuscanos located in the burbs of London. Tucsano’s appeared to be brand new, with modern fixtures and decor. Again an earthy palette with stones and woods accenting and dotting the restaurant, it was a very pleasant environment. It was quite loud as the place was packed. Again we couldn’t have picked anything more different from the first two restaurants. With the exception of a few tables which contained couples, every table was filled to the brim with families and friends. There were children, old people – the whole gamut.
Although we weren’t fond of the hostess, which we will get into later, the wait and bar staff were friendly and attentive. All dressed in black, they appeared uniform and professional.
The menu had regular Italian items with pizza and panzerottis taking centre stage. Q and I split a vegetable pizza and stuffed mushrooms.
Here are our ratings and review for Tuscanos:
Service: Rated 3
I initially scored them a point lower because of the hostess, but the actions of one should not tarnish the work of the many (if the many make up for the bullshit of the one). And the rest of the wait staff did makeup for the hostess. We did not have reservations to Tuscanos and silly us never thought to make any even though we visited on a Saturday at dinner.
The hostess rather coldly informed us there were no tables available with a large empty bar sitting directly behind her, in clear view. We asked if we could sit at the bar and rather tersely she replied, “if you want to”. Now maybe its just me but if I’m a restaurant in the business of making money, I would have turned a bucket upside down, threw on a tablecloth and sat your ass down. We’ve been to restaurants at dinner time without reservation that were stuffed to all four walls, and they somehow “found” a table ensuring a repeat customer. Why this broad would turn us away with an empty bar behind her is beyond me… and then there was the attitude like, are you stupid? – it’s dinner, you should have a reservation.
Luckily for Tuscanos, and here is where they get their 3, the bartender was awesome. He was polite, attentive and friendly. He totally saved the day!
Ambiance: Rated 3.75
It was very nicely decorated, lighted correctly, but it felt like every chain, Italian restaurant out there.
Fresh bread with oil and vinegar was brought to us while we waited for our app. And not only did they have sparkling water, they had flavoured sparkling water! The mushroom app was divine, fungi stuffed with cheese and bacon but who can go wrong with those ingredients.
The pizza had a thin, crisp crust and was delicious. The food was very good but uninspiring. We are culinary adventurers and I felt this was the same old pony trick I’ve seen before. Sure it’s entertaining and good but predictable!
Price: Rated 4.5
For me this is where Tuscanos kicked ass. With good food and nice ambiance I would expect to and have paid more than what our bill came to. We had two drinks and Q’s was even alcoholic, a pizza, app and the free bread and it was the cheapest dinner out of all of the restaurants we visited.
Lily’s Total Score for Tuscanos: 3.75
Service: Rated 3
I gave Tuscanos a 3 even if the hostess was a ditz, because the bartender was great and made an awesome Caesar drink. Take a mental note – if you want to ensure you can eat at Tuscanos on a weekend for dinner, make reservations!
Ambiance: Rated 4
It was a nice, new building with lots of space. The bathrooms were really nice and clean! The place was packed and it was loud!
Food: Rated 4
The mushroom app was out of this world! The pizza was delicious with a thin, gourmet crust. They were a bit skimpy on the ingredients. Caesar was hot as shit but really good.
Price: Rated 4
Excellent value! We had bread, the pizza entrée, mushroom app, alcoholic beverage and a fuzzy water plus tax and 15% tip – all for the lowest price – way more value!
Q’s Total Score for Tuscanos: 3.75
Looking at all of the restaurants altogether, I would have to say The Early Bird was definitely the most original. If you are looking for a twist on comfort food and an unusual hang out then this is the place for you.
The Sweet Onion Grill was just that, sweet. It by far had the friendliest staff!
But the clear winner was Tuscanos. With good food, nice ambiance and superb value for your money, as long as you make reservations and save yourself from the death stare of the ditzy hostess this was an awesome place to eat!
If you are in the area, try any or all three of these restaurants and let us know what you think. Thanks for the awesome day London!
~ True North Nomad
Do you ever feel online rating sites like Urban Spoon, Trip Adviser etc. get their ratings wrong? If so, tell us your experience with a restaurant that either exceeded or fell short of your expectation based on an online review!