By M. Gallagher

‘Tis the season once again – no, not THAT season – another run of Winterlicious is set to begin at the end of January.  Reservations will open on Tuesday for AMEX cardholders, and Thursday the flood gates will open for all.  What is Winterlicious? Well, on the surface – it would seem like a sweet deal, no?  Some of the top restaurants in the city, and others too – over 150 of them – offering reduced price menus ranging from $15-$45 for lunch and dinner.  It is a busy for restaurants, indeed most of any income gained during this time is based on volume versus guest cheque.  But there is always a collective groan heard throughout the Toronto hospitality community when ‘licious is approaching.

And of course, the great ‘licious debate was in full swing this year, which makes us wonder – what is the trouble with ‘licious?  It is impossible to ignore the disparaging comments towards ‘licious, particularly when some of the higher profile food writers in the city publicly slam the festival.  It seems ironic, the very people meant to promote the culinary scene in Toronto complaining about a festival most of them never attend.

But who else is complaining?  Industry folk complain that guests are rude, tip poorly and are overtly demanding.  Guests complain that staff are rude, deliver poor service and that their requests are often ignored.  Coincidence?  I think not!  A vicious cycle has emerged, where staff become resentful as such the service and food suffers, and guests ultimately are punished for visiting the establishment to enjoy a nice meal at a discounted cost.  Then the guests become resentful and as a result tip poorly and become demanding…and so on, and so on…

No one is to blame, here.  Working during ‘licious is no easy feat, it requires patience and understanding.  And for guests, dining out at a new establishment – perhaps with a menu full of ingredients they don’t recognize – can be intimidating.

For an industry that prides itself on good service and good food – we seem to be a bit bent out of shape over something that, if done properly, can only help promote our businesses.  It should help guests remember why they should dine out at independent restaurants – instead of relying on chains or staying in.

Knowing that the OB restaurants are certainly the most popular choice for ‘licious diners – I tracked down Peter Oliver to get his perspective on ‘licious.  “Every season there seems to be a story that emerges somewhere about how unhappy restaurants are to deal with ‘Licious.  From our perspective, this is absolutely not the case.  Our people gear up for it and the Chefs become excited that so many more people are going to have access to their food.”

Accessibility is key, as Bill Simpson (GM of the Drake Hotel) concurs.  “It creates a tremendous surge in business each season and affords us the opportunity to showcase our various venues to people who may be visiting the Drake for the first time.  It also enables the Culinary team to expose diners to our special menus, featuring local suppliers. ”

It seems very bourgeoisie to slander ‘licious. If everyone was able to afford eating out regularly, we wouldn’t need to run festivals such as ‘licious.  But Toronto is a city of immigrants – old and new – and many people simply cannot afford to eat out a fine dining restaurants on a regular basis.  Convincing people to buy locally sourced, seasonal fare is difficult enough – it always comes down to a matter of income.  Establishments should be immensely proud that they are able to offer the best for less, even if only for two to three weeks.

It is time we celebrate the coming together of people to enjoy good food and good service.  No more bitchin’ and moanin’.  Once we hold up our end of the bargain – they will certainly hold up theirs.

Born and bred in the restaurant biz, maeve’s earliest memory is of hawking out freshly squeezed orange juice Sunday mornings, at the tender age of four. Maeve has a profound weakness for new zealand Pinot Noirs, overtly spicy vindaloos and beet ravioli.