I have been to Guu, the first Toronto outpost of a Vancouver chain of izakayas, twice and feel like I’ve had two different enough experiences that I can offer some humble guidance. For my first time in early April we sat inside and had the whole dark and pleasantly-noisy pub experience. The second visit, in August, was on the much more tranquil outdoor patio.
The no-reservations policy and resulting wait is the most discussed part of the Guu experience. I understand that not booking tables keeps costs down–because they’re always full–and this is by no means a deal-breaker for me. What definitely makes a negative impression is a host or hostess’s inability to give an accurate estimate of wait times. They have a two-hour table policy at Guu and I bet the average minimum time is somewhere between an hour and eighty minutes. All this is to say that it is borderline unacceptable to be told a table will be available in at most an hour and a half only to wait closer to two and a half.
Luckily for them this wait left us in a state of ravenous hunger. While I offer my thoughts on the food at Guu let’s keep one thing in mind: Guu is an izakaya and an izakaya is a sort of Japanese pub and like North American and British pubs some izakayas are more about the food than others but in the end they should all be about the drinks. Drinks they have covered at Guu. Giant mugs of Sapporo or Sleaman’s, two kinds of the Japanese plum wine (ume-shu), and reasonably-priced sake, whose quality I’m sadly not equipped to judge.
Stand-out favourites are almost all deep-fried but again this is pub food. The fried chicken (“Karaage” to the initiated) went from our pacifier for a tablemate put off by the thought of beef tongue to one of the hottest selections. The Yaki Udon is a comforting dish that brings to mind a sort of Japanese spaghetti carbonara with its bits of salty meat whose fat flavour the noodles. Deep-fried brie is on the specials menu but it has been there forever and is such an excellent, if unauthentic, bit of everything that is bad for us that I’m not worried about it being unavailable.
I think two to three selections per diner is the right amount so that everyone feels satiated. Definitely err on the side of three for anyone who demurs from ordering one of the giant (and filling) mugs of Sapporo. Incidentally, my guess is that a party of six is the sweet spot between a variety of menu selections and a reasonable wait time.
From April to August I can only of a couple ways in which the experience has faltered. Portions might be a bit smaller–the Kabocha Karokke (pictured above) has slipped from a C to a B (on the only scale where that is a demotion)–but the menu still offers unexpected, pleasant surprises, and the enthusiasm staff show for greeting guests has not waned.
A new Guu location is rumoured to be opening across from the Bloor Cinema sometime between now and 2011. I’m skeptical about whether this will reduce wait times, at least depending on its size and until the patio on Church St. reopens next spring. Perhaps because the Annex location is not in the middle of nowhere–drinking- and eating-wise–they’ll start taking numbers for all those on the waiting list.
Putting aside the wait time imbroglio, I’m hard-pressed to come up with another Toronto spot where one can lay down thirty bones and walk away as satisfied. Nowhere else do the guilty pleasures of novelty-sized beers; really good, artery-clogging food; and such a welcoming atmosphere come together.
Guu Izakaya: 398 Church St. (a block and a half north of Gerrard); 416-977-0999