How White Lily Diner became the best brunch spot in Toronto

The inspiration for this Queen East brunch gem came from a surprising source. Today, White Lily Diner’s creative takes on classic dishes, homemade ingredients and fluffy doughnuts still turn heads.

White Lily Diner's Southern Breakfast

Many chefs cite world-class dining rooms as the inspiration for their own restaurants. However, the genesis of White Lily Diner in Riverside, one of the best brunch spots in Toronto, was way more casual. “I became obsessed with the Waffle House,” laughs Ben Denham, chef and co-owner of the farm-to-table stalwart. “What’s more timeless than a diner? Every neighbourhood needs that place.”

Denham met his wife and co-owner Ashley Lloyd 15 years ago while working at fine-dining spot Veritas. This formal establishment was the norm back then, but Denham remembers a shift. “One of our first dates was at The Black Hoof,” he says, referring to Jen Agg’s now-closed boundary-pushing restaurant, a perfect example of the laid-back dining scene he was craving. “I just wanted to get out of this formal conception of what a restaurant has to be.”

After stumbling into Grand Electric, a taqueria in Parkdale, he reached out to the chef-owner and got in on the ground floor. “That place just took off like a rocket,” says Denham, whose passion was similarly ignited. “[Colin Tooke and Ian McGrenaghan] did it on a real shoestring budget, but everything was dialled in: the service, the atmosphere. It opened my eyes to how it’s more than just a chef creating a restaurant focused on the food. Restaurants were more than what they had been.”

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The buzzy spot attracted some of the industry’s top talent, and gave Grand Electric the confidence to start plotting out a new Southern BBQ follow-up.

“I did a little stint with Sean Brock at Husk in South Carolina. I travelled to Texas and Louisiana just to get the foundation of what we’d be doing at Electric Mud BBQ. That kind of hospitality and the people there resonated with us. It stuck with me.”

When Denham and Lloyd began looking for their own space in 2016, they weren’t sure of the specifics. But after his years at Grand Electric, Denham felt inspired.

“We were honestly shopping for locations without the concept, and it just came down to a neighbourhood spot. Colin and Ian were younger than me and had a small budget, but they really ingrained in everybody that you can make this work. If the food’s on point, the atmosphere is on point, the music and everything ties together, you can do it.”

While Denham jokes that Waffle House inspired him, what he does at White Lily Diner goes way beyond a traditional greasy spoon. In this narrow, homely space on Queen Street East, dishes are slung in front of happy customers on sunshine-yellow stools, but ingredients range from homemade hot sauce to rotating doughnuts in flavours like poached rhubarb.

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“I’ve always been into using local ingredients. Part of the inspiration becomes the season, and the other inspiration is nostalgic diner classics.”

Four years ago, Denham and Lloyd took it even further, selling their house in Parkdale and moving to Uxbridge. They got “deep into organic farming,” and their farm now supplies dozens of other restaurants with its produce.

“You can’t be at a moderate to high level in the Toronto food scene without becoming obsessed with food,” admits Denham. “When you’re 20-plus years into this obsession, the best place to live is on a farm.”

The quarter-of-an-acre farm grows hundreds of varieties of fruits and veg. “We’re not just growing pedestrian produce. We’re growing detail-oriented, flavour-chosen varieties. It’s that attention to detail that you pick up in restaurants.”

The Michelin Guide’s recognition has only increased White Lily Diner’s legions of fans, but these days, Lloyd and Denham spend most of their time at the farm.

“Obviously, it’s hard work, but it’s still driven by the same thing that drives a chef — that desire to make somebody happy through food.”

White Lily Diner's most iconic dishes

Pimento Cheese

White Lily Diner's Pimento Cheese

“Pimento cheese is a staple in the Carolinas, but I hadn’t heard of it. I said, ‘Man, I gotta get this back to Toronto!’ It’s a spread that’s usually served on crackers or bread. We serve it on local sourdough. The spread is local cheddar, cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, and then some roasted poblano peppers, which is our slightly different take. Usually, it’s got sweet red peppers. It’s something that every Southerner would have a jar of in their fridge. And then [the dish] always has a pickle component.”

Southern Breakfast

White Lily Diner's Southern Breakfast

“The base is white corn grits, similar to a polenta. We cook that pretty plainly, and then over the top of that, it gets the gravy. Gravy in the South is sausage gravy, but that’s where the translation gets lost. If you try to make that your baseline here, people look at you funny. Our baseline gravy is made with roasted veal bones and chicken bones. The fermented green is usually an Asian green — they tend to keep the crunch. It could be bok choy, Tokyo bekana or Napa cabbage. You’re eating a rich, heavy dish, and naturally fermented foods are good for digestion, so it’s a little punch of acidity. Then, there are the eggs, however people want them.”

Meatloaf Dinner

White Lily Diner's Meatloaf Dinner

“If you’ve been to White Lily, you’ve seen how small the kitchen is. We have six burners, so the grits replaced the mashed potatoes. We take a spice mix and extra virgin olive oil with breadcrumbs. We bake it like a terrine: cool it down, pop it in, then slice it and sear it on the flat top. We take those glaze components and make a sauce. It’s like a chutney of tomatoes that are cooked down with brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and hot sauce. Then there’s bread and butter pickles, our homemade buttermilk biscuit and griddled mushrooms.”

OG Patty Melt

White Lily Diner's OG Patty Melt

“That’s a day-one thing, totally stolen from the Waffle House. Some people in Toronto, like Rose and Sons, were doing their version of a patty melt. I just wanted to keep it super simple. So we take that same aged cheddar that we use in the pimento cheese, but we make the cheese like butter, essentially. It’s silky and smooth, which is our answer to American cheese. For the beef, we use chuck.”


White Lily Diner's Donuts

“I talked a good friend of ours [Sharon Hammond], who worked at the restaurant, into being our pastry chef/baker. She did an apprenticeship at Glory Hole Doughnuts way back in the day. She started working on a recipe. Our whole thing was that we didn’t want to put in deep fryers. In the spring, something resembling fruit starts coming in, so you’ll see rhubarb a few times a week. We usually do one filled and one not filled. We put sausage gravy on a maple-glazed doughnut years ago. It was good, but we won’t do that again.”