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IN THE THEATER DISTRICTS, THE OPENING ACT SHOULD INCLUDE A MEAL PLAN

Dinner and the theater in Toronto is a dream date for many people, but all too often, restaurants disappoint. They simply can't pull off fine dining for the rushed pre-theater crowd.

With an estimated 5,000 eating establishments in Toronto, picking the right one for a special evening is a daunting task. Many expensive "destination" restaurants deserve an evening of their own for patrons to savor the meals. And most of Toronto's superlative small storefront restaurants are in neighborhoods too far away from the theaters.

The following restaurant suggestions are personal favorites from among the many offerings near the major theaters. They all offer price-worthy and tasty meals with an eye to the theater clock. Most Torontonians would recommend them to their friends.

The restaurants are grouped geographically so that patrons can walk from restaurant to theater. All prices quoted are in Canadian dollars. A two-course meal, including tax and tip, generally is double the cost of a main course, with bar items extra. For example, if an entree is $15, the bill will usually total about $30 with the addition of a starter or dessert, coffee, tax and tip.

Reservations before the theater are always recommended, and diners should mention their destination to their waiters to make sure their meals are served in a timely fashion.

Near the Hummingbird
and St. Lawrence Centres

The Hummingbird and St. Lawrence Centres are the first theaters visitors from Western New York hit as they head north from the Queen Elizabeth Way.

A favorite choice before a show in these spaces is Penelope Restaurant (6 Front St. East). Pull into the underground garage at Wellington and Scott streets, and take the receipt for the $6 parking charge upstairs to the restaurant.

Better Greek food is available on Danforth Avenue, but Penelope is much closer and gives a $5 credit toward parking when patrons have dinner.

Appetizers are big enough to share and arrive with an individual loaf of warm bread at this white-tablecloth restaurant. A favorite entree is roast lamb marinated with lemon and oregano ($11.95). Call (416) 947-1159. (The branch of Penelope near Roy Thomson Hall (225 King St. West) doesn't enjoy as good a culinary reputation as the Front Street restaurant.)

In the same building as Penelope and offering the same parking deal is Shopsey's Deli Restaurant (33 Yonge St.). A New York deli attempt in Toronto, this place offers a fast and inexpensive mix of hot entrees like corned beef and cabbage ($9.95) as well as deli sandwiches. The downside? No reservations are offered before the theater, so lines can be daunting. Call (416) 365-3333.

The HotHouse Cafe (35 Church St. at Front) also specializes in fare at fair prices and casual, friendly service. Most pastas and salads are available in lunch and dinner proportions all day. The smaller serving usually suffices, even at dinner. Pollo Pesto is $7.95 for
the lunch serving and $9.95 for the dinner size. Pizza is good, too, but it takes time. Call (416) 366-7800.

LePapillion (16 Church St.) lets its name give away its French Canadian origin. This bistro-type spot, filled with tables covered with blue and white checkered cloths, offers over 20 crepes, with dinner types are all under $10, and dessert versions under $8. The steak frittes ($13.95) is satisfying, and tourtiere ($9.95), a French Canadian pork pie, is filling. Call (416) 363-0838.

Biagio (155 King St. East) offers more luxurious and expensive dining in this area. The white-tablecloth restaurant is complete with tuxedoed waiters and a delicious but high-priced menu. The spinach and cheese ravioli ($15) is a light choice, and a veal chop ($25.50) is ample. Call (416) 366-4040.

Spinello (53 Colborne St.) is a small space on a side street offering gourmet pizzas and pastas in addition to grilled meats. Polished wood tables set off offerings like Caponnoodles ($13.25) and Spinello Pizza ($11.95) to advantage. Call (416) 955-0306.

Near Roy Thomson Hall
and the Pantages, Royal
Alexandra and Princess
of Wales theaters

Most of the restaurants already mentioned are close enough to the Roy Thomson Hall and the Pantages, Princess of Wales and Royal Alexandra theaters on King Street to hike from restaurant to theater while the warm weather lasts.

But when icy weather settles in, diners in this year's stiletto heels will look for restaurants closer to the King Street quartet. Such as:

Mercer Street Grill (36 Mercer St.), for those who want classy dining and don't mind upscale prices. Food is sophisticated with oriental overtones, and each choice boasts a unique theatrical presentation. The open kitchen at the back is an amusing but noisy dinner companion for patrons ordering maple roasted breast of guinea fowl ($19.95) or a steamer basket of red snapper ($23.95). Call (416) 599-3399.

Barootes (220 King St. West), an attractive establishment whose menu shows the influence of its Hong Kong chef. Many try spicy Singapore vermicelli ($14.25) or grilled marinated lamb tenderloins ($15.95). Call (416) 979-7717.

The Toronto chain of Il Fornello Restaurants (one at 214 King St. West) cooks up pre-theater meals that are efficient, tasty and economical. The signature dish is pizza baked in wood-burning ovens, which are visible in all eight locations. Individual pizzas ($7 to $12) are popular, as well as a "create your own pasta" option ($9 to $14). The service is friendly and white-tablecloth, so you're not conspicuous in your theater-going attire. Call (416) 599-0312.

Near Massey Hall and the
Elgin and Winter Garden
theaters

Of course, in decent weather theater-goers can walk from this area farther north on Yonge Street to Massey Hall or the Elgin and Winter Garden from the previously mentioned places. Still, a couple of restaurants are closer, though this area of Yonge Street isn't culinary heaven.

When the winds blow cold, there's also an Il Fornello (35 Elm St.). Call (416) 598-1766.

Theater patrons additionally will enjoy Adega Restaurant (33 Elm St). The theme at this friendly white-tablecloth place is Portuguese with an emphasis on fish dishes. A cataplana stew ($15.95) crammed with all types of fish and shellfish is beautiful to look at and delightful to eat. Call (416) 977-4338.

Northern Yonge Street
near the Ford Centre for
the Performing Arts

Several restaurants have sprouted up near the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in North York since it opened in 1994, but the local reviewers haven't been kind to them. Many theater-goers stop to eat at restaurants south of this facility on Yonge Street.

For those driving to the Ford Centre, this is fairly easy to do. After 6 p.m. free street parking near some great restaurants is available on northern Yonge Street and its residential side streets. After dinner, patrons proceed north to the Ford Centre parking lot.

Herbs (3187 Yonge St.), the southernmost stop on this Yonge Street route, is an outstanding example of what Toronto does so well -- the neighborhood storefront eatery. The "modern French" menu changes weekly around what's freshest in the market. Locals crowd this bustling spot for favorites like grilled swordfish with tomato fume and salsa ($21). Call (416) 322-0487.

Next in line is Coppi Ristorante (3363 Yonge), a special occasion type of Italian place that delivers a loaf of warm focaccia sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil. Rigatoni with pesto, potatoes and green beans ($12.50) competes with snapper baked in rock salt ($24). Call (416) 484-4464.

Trappers (3479 Yonge) makes an effort to "Canadianize" its cooking. Canadian maple syrup is often a seasoning agent in the nightly specials, and it jazzes up the onion soup. Rack of lamb ($25.95) shares popularity with pan-fried Muskoka trout ($17.95). Call (416) 482-6211.

Travel information

Call Toronto Tourism, (800) 363-1990.

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