Unless you’re going to a concert or a Raptors or Leafs game, you probably don’t think of eating at and around The Air Canada Centre (ACC). But you should, because it’s got some of the very best food and service in this city.
Chris Zielinski, Culinary Director, F&B is the executive chef for the restaurants and catering of all the ACC and takes me on a tour of seven restaurants throughout the space, on game night when the Raptors can do no wrong.
Chef Zielinski has been here since 2009 and currently oversees a staff of 14 Executive Chefs and sous chefs, a crew of 250 cooks and 30 stewards. As if that’s not enough, he’ got to create menus and recipes for the ACC and BMO Field’s quick service outlets. And not just any menus, but ones that sports fan of all ages and backgrounds will enjoy.
While most Toronto chefs cook for crowds of 40-150 a night, Zielinski says, "We’ve got the potential of 19,000 people here at one time. That's a lot of pressure. The menus that are written have to be executable in house."
There’s also a big difference in service. A chef working at the ACC has got to be able to understand the way things work here. Zielinski breaks it down:
- The customer is not only always right, we will modify the menu whenever they ask - club members pay.
- Everyone's going to eat at the same time. There’s nothing you can do about it. The food has got to come out quickly.
- There’s still a creativity here, but you have to figure out a way for it to not impact service
With seven restaurants, more quick service outlets and concession stands than you can count, private clubs and catering facilities all under one roof, you’d think that would mean the food is mediocre. You’d be wrong. The food and wine I tried was outstanding.
Here’s a sneak peek at dining around the ACC:
Evan Tandy, Executive Chef for e11ven changes the menu throughout the year. Fans, it turns out, have a big say in what makes the final list – it’s about what people want, not what the chef wants. Tandy started as an apprentice, and worked his way up through the ranks.
Dishes are mostly sharable plates with lots of Canadian classics, where one person can have a great burger while someone else gets seafood and another orders pasta. Zielinski says he’s not looking to reinvent the concept, he wants longevity and for people to visit frequently.
The business lunch crowd fills the restaurant and they’ve got a lot of female clientele, thanks to the host of healthy options on the menu.
Tandy uses local ingredients such as Ontario corn fed cows that they hand select (e11even uses only Ontario beef) and produce such as Cookstown Greens, which is a challenge during the winter months, their busiest season. "Winter doesn't bode well for produce," he says. All food is made in house except for bread.
- Real Sports Bar & Grill
Real Sports Bar & Grill is open every day except Christmas Day. With 700 seats, it’s one of Canada’s largest and busiest restaurants. They also happen to have sports on all the time. The 25,000 sq ft that is lit up by a 39-foot HD Big Screen and 199 HD TVs.There’s a player’s lounge that seats 40, and an upper level with private areas available. Eight to ten booths with their own beer taps are on the main floor. Talk about VIP service. For us regular folks, the restaurant offers over 40 beers from over 126 draught taps.
What you might not expect is that the food is not just great, it's phenomenal. And it’s fresh food cooked from scratch. What sports bar do you know that can or does do that? And for this many people? Real Sports has 60 cooks and 250 front-of-house staff, though not all on at the same time. Executive Chef Matthew Sullivan heads up the kitchen.
Sullivan is not just cooking for the crowd tonight, but developing dishes. He’s been working on a popcorn chicken dish that is sure to be a hit - the new menu launched yesterday.
And while you can indulge in burgers and wings, the menu offers much, much more. Chef Sullivan says he was excited to evolve the menus and work on lighter options, such as the Trainer Recommended Quinoa Salad ($13), with quinoa, arugula, sweet potato, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pickled red onion and champagne vinaigrette. It’s the kind of salad you expect in the Financial District, not at a sports bar. Vibrant, fresh and robust, you’ll come back not just to see the game, but for this one dish.
And The Thai Curry Tilapia ($17) is one of the best you'll ever have. The sophisticated dish is served en papillote (in parchment) with tender meat in fragrant sriracha coconut sauce, with fresh herbs and lemongrass coconut rice.
Cocktails also get the expert touch - Sour Patch ($9) and Drop Shot Skittle Dunk ($9.25), taste just like the candy. The Dreamsicle ($8) is also a complete replica on the frozen treat. A Cucumber Basil Caesar ($11.50) is made with Tanqueray gin and muddled basil and cucumber with no spice, just a salt rim,delivering a fresher, lighter Caesar than the heavier version.
ESPN named it one the best sports bar in North American, but it is hands down, one of the best restaurants in the city.
- Hot Stove Club
The private club has been around since 1963, but you’d never know if from the $2.5 million renos that they did three years ago.
The steakhouse is full every evening with almost exclusively regular clientele. These ticket holders are known by name - with 45 home games, and preseason playoffs, you see the same faces again and again.
Kellen Crumb, Chef de Cuisine, offers everything from a Raptor’s Tip Off Menu and seafood towers for sharing.
You can come in for something quick like oysters and a glass of wine or tuck into something more decadent like a rack of lamb $52 or of course, a steak.
Steaks are a must. Aged, hand cut steaks from the meat lockers, select from USDA Prime, Canadian Prime, Kansas City Striploin (18 oz.), Tomahawk Ribeye (36 oz.) and Ontario Corn Fed cuts, hand selected by the culinary team.
Crumb says he wants to honour the people who grew the produce and raised the cows with his dishes. Beef is hand selected and kept by the producer for 6-7 weeks, then brought to the restaurant where it’s aged for two to three weeks or more.
Wines are outstanding with vintages and varietals that will transport and transform you. Head Sommelier Anne Martin will knock your socks off.
One of the best steakhouses in Toronto is not in a tony neighbourhood, but in a stadium filled with almost 20,000 people.
- Air Canada Club
These seats almost beat the stadium ones. Almost.
The Air Canada Club boasts a 75-foot bar, but what you’ll gasp over are the rail seats, where you get a fantastic view of the game or concert, as if you were in the stands.
Chef de Cuisine Taylor McMeekin has to feed up to 450 guests in a very short timespan, because the club is only open just before and during the game.
McMeekin refined a formerly long menu to help ensure speed of service. Comfort food and Canadian classics are always available, but daily meat, fish and steak dishes have been added so that repeat customers will also have something new to try.
The prograin menu, as McMeekin calls it also features many options for vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free diets.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you’ll choose from either the Raptors menu or Leafs menu.
Don’t forget the wine. With 1,200 bottle wine cellar centered in the dining room and 15,000 labels available on the wine list, you’re guaranteed to find something you for your palate.
On the night of my visit, over 19,800 paid for tickets. The Raptors played so well this year, they were setting all sorts of attendance records.
Between the food, wine and the view, it’s a night you’ll never forget.
- Platinum Club
The crowd is a mix of famous and the well-to-do. At first break, the crowd rushes in, grabs drinks, pulls out their phones, and catches up over cocktails. Most will rush out back to the game in about 15 minutes, but many will return for dinner. Tonight, Drake** is at the game and is expected to make an appearance here, a regular stop for the rapper (So regular in fact that Hennessey is one of the most popular spirits sold here, thanks to him).
The fine dining restaurant is a natural draw for those looking for an elevated experience. The room is cool and sophisticated with clean lines and lots of marble. But not just anyone can enter - you have to be a Platinum Raptors/Leafs ticket holder to gain entry here, tickets which are $300 or more a seat.
The Leaf players eat here. The average guest check here is $150. "Any restaurant in the city would kill to have that number," says Bailey.
Assistant Sommolier Lorie O'Sullivan walks into the glass cellar with just under 3,000 botttles. Inside is a Riedel decanter ($6,000) that double decants and can serve ten people. It’s signed and number 49 of 100. There are pashmina scarves should you get chilly as the room is kept at a bracing 60 degrees Fahrenheit/16 degrees Celsius.
Jason Bailey, Chef de Cuisine. Bailey has been here for 13 seasons/35 years.
And while you can select from dishes including Short Braised Beef Short Rib and Lobster Salad, Bailey says,"We sell more cheese here than anything else. It’s our number one seller. We put a lot of effort into it. We work with Afrim from Cheese Boutique who comes in many times a year to educate staff on his products."
Zielinski says, "Larry Tanenbaum, owner of the Leafs, loves the food here. None of this would be possible without him. He’s a great supporter of what we do, and a pleasure to work for. He said we're doing it better and different than everyone else."
- Quick Service Outlets
While there is the usual array of nachos, pizza and hot dogs on hand throughout the stadium, (pizza and hot dogs remain the number one seller),there are gourmet items to be had as well:
Get a Cheeseburger Grilled Cheese ($12) at MacCheesy’s Gourmet Melt Shop, have fine sushi from EDO, sip on a cocktail at the Captain Morgan Rum Bar and dig into a Baldwin St. Kosher hot dog.
For dessert head to Sweet Wally's, named after Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment's Pastry Chef for 13 years, Walter Arruda. Sweet treats include a Giant Cookie, Funnel Cake Fries and Loaded Brownies.
Bonus - beer made on the premises is to come.
- In the stands
If you’re seated in the stands, you can order from a handheld tablet, where your food will arrive within seven minutes. Runners can bring you everything from Prime Rib Sandwiches to nachos to pizza. On game day, you’ll find 600 lbs. of prime rib in main kitchen.
The incredible catering division might look like an industrial kitchen but they feed all the players, the opposing team, the families and the management. At one meal, that can mean 250 people.
Zielinski says, "We have people who do nothing but cook for team and management."
45 cooks work in the production kitchen in a day. There’s a butchery station and a pot of veal stock that is made all day long. Six pastry chefs do desserts. 75% of all the food is cooked and out by 7pm. Later, apps are sent out before the game, mains for half time.
ACC BY THE NUMBERS
Last year the Air Canada Centre sold:
900,000 pints of draught beer
20,000 prime rib sandwiches
120,000 hot dogs
50,000 foot longs
360,000 pizza slices
50,000 bags of popcorn
** Sher Club
This high-end, exclusive club inside the Air Canada Centre opened in May and is branded by their Team Ambassador, Drake. The club was named in tribute to his mother, Sher. The clubs holds just over 100 VIP club members who get to sip on sublime cocktails and premium spirits, witha tapas style meal service also offered. Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous indeed.
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