Five years on, Quetzal is a tight ship and the pinnacle of Toronto dining

Not long after it opened in 2018, the future of Quetzal seemed unclear. Today, it's one of the most complete dining experiences in the city and deserving of all the fanfare. 

The dining room at Quetzal

Five years ago, I dined at Quetzal right after it opened. I entered the restaurant on College Street, excited to try one of the year's most hotly anticipated openings. The partners behind the Mexican spot had worked together for several years beforehand, crafting a menu that they promised would be an authentic representation of the country, with dishes skewing Oaxacan and Yucatan, a variety of raw food, moles, barbacoa and vegetables cooked over a 28-foot-long fire. 

And then, less than six months after serving their first customers, the restaurant closed. Tempers flared, accusations flew, and the chef-owners stepped down to pursue other projects. Though a reopening was promised, any bets that Quetzal 2.0 would become one of the city's best restaurants and gain a Michelin star just a few years later would have had very long odds indeed. 

That is exactly what Quetzal did, though, and on my follow-up visit this October, I am sitting bar-side when the team learns that they have retained their Michelin star. Amidst all of the backslapping, I also discover that the restaurant won 2023's Exceptional Cocktail Award, and rightly so. My cocktail is just the tip of the iceberg in what transpires to be a wonderful evening.

Quetzal: What's the vibe

Step inside the minimalist white facade of Quetzal, and you're instantly transported into a humming world of warmth and electricity. The smell of smoke from the 20-foot open grill wafts over the heads of diners in this low-ceilinged space. Don't despair if you can't get a seat at a table: The bar area, which wraps around the cooking zone, is where the action is. Watch the sous-chefs prep and hear the crackle and hiss of the fire as everything from sea bream to shisito peppers are licked by the flames. It's the perfect place to bend the bartender's ear and find out what's new and shaking at Quetzal. 

Service is swift, friendly and attentive. If you're not fussy, take the stress out of the guessing game and let your server bring you plates based on your mood. Then sit back, and prepare your taste buds for a fiesta.

Octopus on the grill at Quetzal

Quetzal: What to drink

I kick off the night with some of Quetzal's beautifully balanced — and easy-on-the-eye — cocktails. Their classics are a fantastic place to start, with their wicked combination of mezcal and tequila, plus their house syrups and tonics. No Heather, It's Heather's Turn is a bright green concoction that's tart, refreshing and completely delicious. However, they're known to experiment and shake things up for the season, so we also dug a dragonfruit sipper that we sincerely hope will be sticking around.  

Though Mexican cuisine screams tequila and mezcal (and there's plenty of that, too), Quetzal pleasantly surprises in the wine department. The dossier-thick selection of sparkling, pink, skin contact and red offers diners options by the glass or bottle representing everywhere from Niagara to Chile. If that list intimidates you, take the stress out of things with beverage pairings ($90 pp). Our wine pairings were on point and took us on a journey to parts of the world whose wine I never expected to try at an upscale Mexican joint.

Steven Molnar at Quetzal
A butterflied fish at Quetzal

Quetzal: What to eat

Don't expect tacos on the menu. While it's true that some of the dishes include a side of heirloom corn tortillas (nixtamalized and ground in-house), they are an accompaniment, not the focus. Instead, chef Steven Molnar has stacked the menu with a diverse offering of ceviche, chargrilled vegetables and succulent meats. My favourite is the unfathomably tender Australian rack of lamb, served with black garlic mole negro and a hoja santa dipping sauce.

The grilled Hokkaido scallops are sinfully satisfying gulps of herby, buttery goodness. Shoot them back and wait for your eyes to stop rolling around in your head before chasing them with any one of their colourful and confounding entradas. The head-spinning seasonal selection of Canadian produce and southern Mexican  — think chanterelle mushrooms, pickled cactus, cheese, ramps — at times makes you wonder, "Where the heck am I?" before realizing after another outrageous bite that you don't actually care a jot.  

Dinner and drinks for two: Around $300 before taxes and gratuities.