On a weekday afternoon, the kitchen is bustling at Badshah Grill.
Owner Mohammad Shakil points out the different grills, stovetops and a tandoor oven where cooks make an assortment of traditional Pakistani dishes, from savoury lamb shanks to fresh-baked naan bread to lahori cholay, a herb-filled chickpea curry.
The eat-in restaurant near Kennedy subway station in Scarborough just opened in June, and Shakil is yearning for more business amid the traffic-snarling Eglinton Crosstown construction steps from its front door.
"I just need people's support right now," he says. "That's it."
But like many restaurant owners in Scarborough, he's not familiar with a major industry publicity tool: The city's Summerlicious and Winterlicious programs, which offer multi-course prix fixe meals at eateries across the city.
During the last round this summer, around 200 restaurants participated — and only two were in Scarborough.
"We have a very culturally diverse food sector here, which parallels our population, and I think we can do a better job," says one of the area's councillors, Paul Ainslie.
In a new letter, written out of "sheer frustration," he's calling on council's economic and community development committee to support more outreach and encouragement for Scarborough restaurants to showcase their food in the popular city programs, which typically have low involvement from restaurants in the suburbs.
Ainslie recommends city staff report back on city-wide marketing efforts for the program, and what's being done to specifically boost Scarborough's participation. Those recommendations are on the agenda for the committee meeting on Wednesday.
'Beautiful micro-cuisines from around the world'
Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, agrees restaurants outside the downtown core should be showcased. "There needs to be more awareness of areas like Scarborough," he says.
But others say the Summerlicious and Winterlicious programs might not be the best fit for the community's food scene.
The way the initiatives are set up, they're meant to allow customers to dine at high-end restaurants for a lower cost, says Joe Baker, dean of Centennial College's school of hospitality, tourism and culinary arts.
"I believe the core reason Scarborough restaurants are left out of those programs is because they're already very value-driven," he says.
For Shakil, more promotion would be a good thing, but not if it means lowering menu prices beyond his current offerings, which include lamb, beef and chicken dishes for under $15.
"The food cost is getting high now... and here, people are looking for a reasonable price," he says. "And if you go for a reasonable price, you cannot maintain your food quality. That's an issue."
He does want more patrons finding his restaurant, though — and believes more eyes should be on this rapidly changing corner of Toronto.
"Scarborough is growing now. It's not like before," he says. "If you're talking about five years ago, 10 years ago, Scarborough is like a village. Now it's like a city."
What that means, Baker says, is that city staff should consider re-thinking the approach to Summerlicious-style programs to draw in more restaurants from the area — or develop a different way to highlight the rich food scene in Scarborough, like a map to explain where to find all the hole-in-the-wall outlets that don't pop up in tourist guides.
"There are so many small restaurants, and the geography is so different from the downtown experience," he explains. "You can't just walk down the street and experience a few restaurants."
Instead, Baker says people typically need to drive around to find the strip malls where restaurant owners offer "beautiful micro-cuisines from around the world," from Vietnamese pho to Armenian dumplings.
"It requires a certain amount of adventure," he adds. "And what's required from a Scarborough food-based program is: How do you get people to experience something they've never experienced before?"