The popularity of plant-based diets has grown rapidly in Toronto and the city’s restaurant scene has quickly followed suit. Notable Toronto chef David Lee recently announced that he’s transforming his Nota Bene restaurant to a second location of Planta, an upscale plant-based eatery. And let’s not forget there’s a group of restaurant owners trying to rebrand an entire neighbourhood (Parkdale) as "Vegandale".
But on West Queen West, the latest plant-based eatery to emerge is Hello123. Its owners are also behind the downtown lunch chain Kupfert & Kim which has become popular with the lunchtime office crowd. Hello123 picks up where the Kupfert & Kim leaves off, serving a stylish lunch and brunch throughout the week that transitions into dinner in the evening. The restaurant’s quirky name is apparently derived from one of the internet’s most popular passwords. I like the lighthearted approachability of the name in a neighbourhood that tends to take itself too seriously.
Occupying a corner spot at Queen and Lisgar, Hello123 is blessed with plenty of natural light coming in from large windows along the south and west. Hanging plants and potted succulents give the interior a fresh feel while simple, modern light fixtures lend an air of contemporary style without feeling too formal. Open brick walls accent the back of the restaurant for a more intimate and cozy atmosphere that would suit a date-night meal. Less-is-more is the design mentality of Hello123.
There’s a patio outside for dining in warm weather and I’m told that all of the restaurant’s windows open up fully to bring the outside in. However, for my mid-autumn visit, a felt curtain had been installed around the front entrance to prevent drafts from entering the interior. I chose a spot near the front to bask in the natural light but still felt a lot of cool breezes even with the curtain in place. So opt for a spot further from the entrance if the drafts might bother you. Do note that three steps lead up to the front door and the bathrooms are located in the basement so this spot isn’t wheelchair accessible. The restaurant accommodates up to 40 guests.
During lunch hour, Hello123 is the kind of place that anyone can rock up to and feel welcome. There was an eclectic mix of diners present, albeit skewing towards the hipster millennial demographic — friends catching up, businesswomen working solo with their laptop and a glass of wine at the bar and young families with babies. I fell into the latter category as my dining partner brought her one-year-old toddler who was well-accommodated by staff with a high chair and doting smiles.
Mellow tunes were playing throughout our meal at a comfortable level that didn’t intrude in our conversations. Pickup and delivery orders were at a minimum here, which, as sit-down guests, we appreciated since there was less foot traffic through the door.
Hello123 serves lunch and brunch in the afternoon and dinner into the evening while cocktails, wine and beer are available throughout. There’s a fresh and healthy west coast vibe in the menu with tons of vegetables (naturally) and "superfoods" like chia and quinoa. There are also hints of worldly cuisines with dishes like the Korean-inspired spicy bap ($14) with kimchi and gojuchang, and the chana chaat bowl ($13.50). Clear symbols denote items containing tree nuts, gluten and soy but the kitchen isn’t able to guarantee contact with any.
We sampled the lunch and brunch menu during our afternoon visit which was divided up into five sections. For the health-conscious, smoothies ($7.50-$8.50) and bowls ($10) are an efficient way to get your day’s nutrients in with "enhancers" (sprouted protein, espresso and hemp seeds, for example) available to amp up your order. Apps and sides run the gamut from pulled pineapple sliders ($8) to watermelon ceviche ($9) and messy home fries ($8). Those seeking healthy mains will appreciate the salads and bowls section, each customizable with extra protein in the form of tempeh, chana or grilled tofu. A small "hands" section features a club sandwich, avocado burger and kimchi burger ($14-$15). But we were most excited about the brunch menu because we Torontonians love our brunch and it’s an even more indulgent treat on a weekday. The dinner menu switches things up with double the appetizers and fewer bowls.
We initially selected "Three Dips, Two Chips" ($9) with smashed avocado, hummus and roasted eggplant accompanied by seedy oat crackers and tortilla chips but shortly after ordering we were informed that the kitchen had sold out. This turned out in our favour as we forgot about the soup special which was advertised on a board outside the restaurant but not on the menu. The soup was priced at $5.50 outside but we were charged $8 on our bill, which we didn’t notice until after leaving. It was the only item not listed on the menu, though, so we chalk it up (pun intended) to an error on the sandwich board which will hopefully be remedied soon.
The soup of the day was spinach, coconut and butternut squash. It was an incredibly satiating start to the meal (well worth its full $8 price) especially on the drizzly, blustery autumn day that we visited. The soup was thick and satisfying without being too rich. Its texture more closely resembled a puree than a cream-based soup. We tasted the coconut and butternut flavours more prominently, along with the welcome zing of ginger, over the spinach. Garnishes of pea sprouts, toasted coconut and coconut milk made for an aesthetically pleasing dish. The soup was served with a side of seedy sourdough bread. One bowl was plenty as a starter for two people and in a pinch, I could have easily eaten that on its own for lunch.
Anyone seeking assistance in getting their four-to-six servings of vegetables a day should head straight for the salads and bowls section. My dining partner selected the cauliflower tahini bowl ($14) which was a colourful and inviting array of grated veggies and greens atop a bed of quinoa. I felt like the dish was lacking in body and flavour and I’d feel unsatisfied if I were to have eaten that solely as my main. From what I could tell, the only cooked vegetable in the dish was the roasted cauliflower and I think the bowl could have benefitted from a few more cooked veggies, perhaps some roasted sweet potato or steamed broccoli.
It was a good thing, then, that we had Irene’s Massive Breakfast ($17) to make up for what the cauliflower tahini bowl lacked. This plate was heaped full of deliciousness and the star was most definitely an omelette made with chickpea flour. It was my first time trying a vegan omelette and I was impressed with the results. The sear marks on the exterior of the omelette were convincing and the texture and taste were excellent. Two tempeh sticks served as the "sausages" of the meal and did not disappoint. There was a flavourful spice rub on the exterior which was a bit on the salty side (much like their sausages equivalents in a traditional breakfast) and the tempeh itself was moist and tasty compared to other varieties we’ve tried. The pancakes come with a small jar of syrup to add your own level of sweetness and we liked its somewhat gummy, mochi-like texture. The potatoes were a bit of a flop: dry and bland (they could have definitely benefited from some of that tempeh spice rub) and the greens were underdressed. But overall we’d happily return for Irene’s Massive Breakfast when our appetites come calling.
The dessert menu is small but mighty with only three options: a chocolate avocado mousse ($7.50), berry cheesecake or mocha cheesecake ($8 each). We went for the last option and, as someone with a raging sweet tooth, this dessert hit the spot. It was rich and sweet but not cloyingly so, allowing the flavours of nut and chocolate to take centre stage. Each bite had a melt-in-your-mouth quality that was gratifying. Three layers: chocolate, a nut-based cream and crust, gave the cake visual appeal. The strawberry slices on top were lacking a bit of life and looked to be preserved in a sauce. While the berry flavours add a nice contrast to the rich chocolate, I’d rather see the slices cooked down into a jam or blended into a sauce.
There were definitely a few glasses of wine accompanying some customers during our lunch but we opted for a caffeinated beverage instead. My dining partner ordered an almond milk latte ($4.50) and she said was much smoother than the Starbucks equivalents she regularly has, which tend to get a little gritty near the bottom. Teas come from Pluck and there are also "superfood"-style beverages like a goji latte ($5.50) and a tea tonic with lemon, mint, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon ($4.50).
Alcoholic beverage options lean heavily towards local producers like beer from Beau’s, Blood Brothers and Burdock and wine from Niagara’s Southbrook and Hidden Bench along with selections from Italy, Spain, France and California. The cocktail is light, fresh and fruity. We we’re most intrigued by the kombucha thyme ($12) that pairs lemongrass and ginger kombucha with tequila and amaro, as well as the bourbon sour ($13) that uses aqua faba (water soaked in chickpeas) to create a frothy texture in place of egg whites.
The restaurant was half-full when we arrived at 12:15pm on a Tuesday afternoon. We were seated promptly and the server was happy to accommodate our request for a table near the front windows. As the restaurant progressively got busier over the 90 minutes we dined, almost reaching capacity by the time we left, we did have to flag a staff member down a few times to order dessert and grab our bills, which was understandable. The only flub was that I had actually ordered a tea with my meal but it never came. Since our appetizer arrived so quickly I didn’t bother to put my tea order in again. Otherwise, service was polite and friendly without being intrusive or neglectful. Empty plates were taken away quickly and one staff member even picked up the toddler’s water bottle after it fell.
While neither of us follow a plant-based lifestyle, we were both impressed by our meals and how satiating and flavourful it was from start to finish, especially the brunch option for a cuisine that’s very meat and egg-centric. While there are a fair number of casual takeout or lunchtime food court spots for vegetarians and vegans, the number of nicer sit-down options for a nice meal out are slimmer so we’re happy to see Hello123 enter the mix.