One of the toughest things about eating healthy is being in control of our food choices – especially when we go out.
A lot of us can keep our diets in check when we eat at home, but going out is a whole different ball game.
Suddenly, our food choices are dictated by the tastes of the masses and the margins that restaurants need to make to keep their doors open. And even when we want to make healthy choices, the healthy menu options often sound and taste unappealing.
That’s why it’s so exciting when restaurants like Insomnia, who already have a solid reputation for delicious brunches and tasty food, offer a menu that serves the masses and the health conscious alike. Here is a restaurant that understands that healthy food IS delicious and doesn't need to be confined to "healthy eateries" alone. And it serves it in a super cool atmosphere that says “Everyone is Welcome.”
I spoke to Daniel Quintas, President of Insomnia Restaurant, who was inspired by his son to change his restaurant's menu without compromising on taste or service.
THRIVE: Insomnia is an award winning restaurant with a strong following. What are you famous for? Why do people come to your restaurant?
DQ: We've been around now for almost 20 yrs and people come for comfort food and great service, that doesn't break the bank. Our most popular menu is our brunch that we serve every day, Monday - Friday: 10am-3pm and on the weekends: 9am - 3pm.
THRIVE: Yes, your brunch is fantastic. What kind of crowd do you get coming through?
DQ: We get everyone coming through from all age groups and walks of life: families who are attracted to our service and we have stuff like colouring books for the kids; local residents too and a younger crowd in the evening who like our lounge. We give students 20% off all the time. So really - we get everyone!
THRIVE: Sounds like a really vibrant crowd. That's great! As you know, I’m a nutritionist and I try to make healthy food choices when I go out. But I also recognize that the people I go out with don’t have the same priorities as I do. The reason I like your menu is that my husband who loves his full English breakfast brunch, my child who has a wheat/gluten intolerance and me can all eat here together. Can you tell me how you make that magic happen?
DQ: So the magic happens a few ways.
First, we've put a lot of thought into our menu and make sure that there is something in there for everyone, including vegan, vegetarian and people with gluten intolerance. Like for example, for brunch, we also have a Tofu Rancheros option for people who don't eat eggs.
Second, we've worked hard to make sure our kitchen is up to the task. Before we changed our menu four years ago, we had one person in the kitchen doing prep work. Now we've got two because we make almost everything from scratch. Even our dressings, like our hollandaise for our brunch dishes and the lemon tahini dressing that goes on to our kale salad. It's delicious! And our gluten-free buckwheat pancakes, which are amazing. We make that batter from scratch. And we don't want to compromise on taste, so for example, we've got a "secret sauce" that we use for our home fries. That sauce used to have gluten in it but now we have perfected a gluten-free version that we serve instead. All these details take time but we're committed to the change.
Third, we also strive to accommodate everyone's requests. I tell my staff that Toronto has a great dining scene and we should be lucky that people come to our restaurant. That's why for us, service is a number one priority. So if people want their burger with no bun, that's fine. We also have a lot of built-in options so you can always add grilled chicken or salmon to any of the salads. But the key really is that we make pretty much everything from scratch - and that really is crucial to being able to accommodate people's requests because we are in control of what goes in to the dish.
THRIVE: Sounds like you've really thought things through, Daniel. I can imagine it's hard to strike that balance between customer service, healthy eating and the right price point too. Has the change in menu been good for business?
DQ: Well, it's true that our margins have narrowed. But that's the cost of doing business. And the truth is that this change has been great for business. We've shown that we listen to our customers and we have a loyal following. Moreover, we have a great reputation for delicious comfort food at fair prices that attracts new patrons.
THRIVE: I believe it! Loads of restaurants have come and gone around you in the last 20 yrs but you guys go from strength to strength and getting a table for brunch is really tough on the weekends! Can you tell us a bit about what drove you to change the menu?
DQ: Well, you know if you can't get in on the weekends for brunch, you can always come during the week. We serve brunch every day from 10am-3pm. But, in terms of what drove the change: about 4 yrs ago we discovered that my son was gluten intolerant so that - together with the fact that we were already starting to notice people ask for gluten-free options - really inspired us to rethink our menu and make changes in our kitchen as well. So for example, we try to be really careful about cross-contamination and have things like separate cutting boards, toasters and deep-fryers for gluten-free ingredients.
THRIVE: Gosh, I hadn't realized that keeping separate kitchen tools for gluten-free cooking was important. I think it's commendable that you go to those lengths. Do you find a lot of people ask for gluten-free options?
DQ: Yes, definitely. Before it used to be that it was mostly women asking for gluten-free options, but now a lot of men are asking as well. The gap is definitely narrowing. I would even say that the male-female split is probably about 40/60 now. And families and students and the younger generation are definitely going more and more gluten-free.
THRIVE: How do you try to address the issue of hidden sugars in food? I’m not talking about the obviously sweet stuff like desserts, breakfast pancakes,waffles, etc. I’m more trying to address the hidden sugars in things like salad dressings for example, which is a big thing because in a lot of restaurants you order a salad and you think you're doing your body good but then the dressing is full of sugar.
DQ: Well, as I mentioned, we make all our sauces from scratch. And I'm just going to pull up our ingredients for our lemon-tahini dressing, which is really delicious and we use a lot for our salads. As you can see - there is no sugar in it. Same with our shallot dressing. We do have a "secret sauce" and I can tell you that has sugar in it but not a lot. Where we can sub refined sugar for maple syrup, we do that as well. The truth is - and I've always believed this - when you use quality ingredients, you don't need to mask the taste with sugar. And in Toronto we are so lucky to have such a great choice of produce to choose from. We never have issues sourcing great ingredients.
THRIVE: Ain't that the truth! So just to finish off Daniel - what's your favourite dish on the menu?
DQ: I definitely have to go with the St Albans Classic poached eggs with peameal bacon on the Manami patties. Our homemade gluten-free patties are so delicious and it's what we use to substitute for the English muffin that is the staple for that dish. It's also served with some greens seasoned with lemon-tahini dressing. It's amazing!
So, there you go Toronto peeps. If you're looking for a great restaurant that serves classic comfort food that won't break the bank or your dietary comfort zones -- look no further than Insomnia Restaurant, 563 Bloor Street West, Toronto (near Bathurst Subway Station). How can we export this model all around the world? Maybe that should be Daniel's next big project!