"Fine dining as we know it in Toronto is no longer alive," restaurateur Armando Mano tells TORO as midtown institution Centro prepares for its final dinner service this Saturday. "It’s not without great sadness that I say it’s time for a change."

Mano is rebranding his 25-year-old restaurant to cater to the Toronto's younger diners who — thanks to chefs like Black Hoof founder Grant van Gameren — have come to demand high-end food for low-end prices.

It’s a trend that food writer David Sax elegantly boiled down in his piece, "More Bangers for Your Buck," in The Grid: "Lately, the more [I] dine out, the more I feel like Rodney Dangerfield … staring down at tiny, intricately composed, expensive plates of food and wondering why I didn’t just stay home and cook a steak for a third of the cost."

Related >> TORO TV: Centro's Provimi Veal Tenderloin
Related >> TORO TV: Centro's Beet Root Salad

"A lot of Torontonians don’t think they should experience fine dining regularly, even if they can afford it," agrees Mano. "[Centro’s] clientele go to New York and spend $65 on a main course and say, 'It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever had.' If I decided to do that, I’d be completely empty today."

Morphing Centro into a rustic, midrange restaurant had been on Mano’s mind for several years. As his younger competition profited from Toronto’s growing status as an international culinary capital, Centro’s in-house revenues teetered, prompting some financial soul searching. Through focus groups, Mano found that diners under 45 saw Centro as "unapproachable" and that restaurant their “parents used to go to.”

Centro’s model beat on against the currents of Toronto’s proletariat food revolution, where the dish drives the experience and material frills ride shotgun. Consider new Torontonian David Chang. The tasting menu at his Momofuku Shoto costs more than $150 dollars — one of the priciest bills in the city — but customers eat it at a bar in T-shirts and jeans.

"I have a great deal of respect for David; he’s a super talented chef," says Mano. "But fine dining, for me, encompasses a variety of things: linens, valet parking, glassware, silverware, fresh flowers, etc."

Mano appreciates the philosophy of chefs like Chang and van Gameren, and regularly eats in midrange restaurants with great satisfaction. But he claims that the tsunami of affordable restaurants hitting Toronto has depleted the strength of the city’s fine dining titans.

"If every talented sous chef moves and opens a 40-seat restaurant on Ossington or Queen, the talent pool gets watered down," he says.

Still, Mano is excited about the future. Set to open April 8, the new restaurant (wait for the name announcement on Twitter) showcases authentic Italian recipes. The porchetta is "off the charts," according to Mano, and the wood oven-cooked branzino and chicken particularly excites the chef.

"I cried when [former chef] Marc Thuet took a sledgehammer to Centro's original wood burning oven," Mano says. "Being from Alsace, he wanted nothing to do with it. I still have nightmares about that."

"But we’re bringing in a new oven — bigger and better."

Mano quickly brushes off the notion that he and executive chef Symon Abad would be creatively frustrated with having to source more affordable products.

"'Cheap' is a word that we’ll never use,” he says. “Just because items are more approachable, it doesn’t mean they're cheaper. Am I jaded? No, I’m realistic. I’m excited about the new challenge. We’re going to have a lot of fun with it."

2 Comments | Add a Comment
Hi Charlie, thanks for sharing your memories of Centro with the community. We look forward to April and making new memories!
It's been awhile Centro...back in the day nothing compares to one of the original hot spots. The service, food were impeccable along with the anticipated soulfoul piano lounge made it a great night. I look forward to its revival.....thanks for the good times may they continue to roll...
*Your Name:
*Enter code:
* Comment: