Cool, exclusive, expensive
Today’s Toronto, a modern melting pot of cultural pockets like Corso Italia, Little Portugal, and Koreatown, are neighborhoods defined more by the restaurants lining their strips and less by the nationalities inhabiting their walk-ups. Savvy urbanites and cash-strapped students alike know that if you want authentic, affordable eggplant parmigiana, you head west on College or St. Clair. If it’s Cantonese hotpot or cheap and crispy Peking duck you’re after, you hit Spadina.
But in recent years, the combination of social capital and social media has produced an ever-sprouting crop of trendy, culture-specific restos in equally trendy areas that gentrify ethnic cuisine, marketing it in a way that appeals to a crowd that seeks to both see and be scene. While the concept of upscale ethnic cuisine is by no means a new culinary phenomenon—especially in a city as diverse and affluent as Toronto—the utilization of social media to assist in the representation of such establishments is something unique to the past five or six years.
Snagging a covetable reservation or waiting an hour at the bar of Toronto’s newest restaurant is, in itself, a form of social currency. But the millennial boom of location tagging and food photos flooding the Instagram feeds of buzz-hungry diners has catapulted a diner’s desire to show the world that they’re chowing down somewhere cool, exclusive, or expensive. If the place they’re lunching at hits one of these three targets, you can bet they’ll be sharing that Winter Greens salad with their 400 followers.
Young, up-and-coming restauranteurs, privy to the power that social media holds over consumers, have harnessed their capabilities by branding their establishments in ways that satiate contemporary society’s hunger for validation through social media. A restaurant’s branding method, enforced through its name, décor, menu offerings, and location—and paired with an equally white-gloved handling of their social media accounts—must combine to strike one or any combination of the three targets that make it truly worthy of online buzz. It must be perceived by diners as hip, alternative, or cool, it must cater to an exclusive set of people or seem difficult to get a table at, or, finally, it must be high-end and expensive— somewhere the common plebeian couldn’t even get a foot in.
After all, it’s like the proverbial “tree in the forest” adage: if Charlie doesn’t post a picture of his chilled Galician octopus, did he really even eat at Bar Raval?
Koreatown, the Bloor strip bordered by Honest Ed’s to the east and Christie to the west, boasts over 35 authentic, family-operated Korean restaurants, of which some are more reputable, busy, or upscale than others. But while it’s doubtful that the average twenty-something Torontonian has heard of Koreatown’s Myong Dong Soon Tu Fu restaurant, famous for its Soondubu soup and bibimbap, it would be safe to wager that many have heard of Oddseoul, a bustling Korean-American food and drink establishment on the Ossington strip that takes no reservations and ensures a healthy wait on most nights of the week.
A contrast to the placid mom and pop Koreans of Bloor and Christie, Oddseoul blasts funk and old-school hip-hop through vintage speakers and serves knock-your-socks-off cocktails starting at eleven bucks a pop. Opened in early 2013, Oddseoul, named after the South Korean capital, harnesses the popularity of Korean street food by serving it in a hot neighborhood, indoors and against a brick-walled, dimly-lit backdrop flanked by ’50s neon pharmacy signs and thrift shop odds and ends. To keep diners on their toes, Oddseoul’s “Loosey,” for example, takes South Korean staples like kimchi and beef short ribs and douses them in Thousand Island-style dressing, serving up some cultural irony in the form of a Korean Big Mac.
While there is nothing wrong (and in fact many things right) with creative culinary artistry and the appropriation of external influences in the kitchen, Oddseoul is fundamentally no better or no worse than the 35+ lesser known restaurants of Koreatown. Its popularity in a niche market is built on the fact that it just seems cooler. The restaurant’s founders, Canadian-born brothers Leeto and Leemo Han, have capitalized on trends such as the street food movement and the notion of exclusivity and it-factor fueling the restaurant choices of many diners today.
Oddseoul doesn’t have a website, it doesn’t have an official Facebook page, it doesn’t even have a current menu listed anywhere online. In fact, its only online presence is a sparsely-updated Twitter feed with a handful of arbitrary, heavily-filtered pictures similar to the ones you’d find on the Instagram feed of any nightlife-loving hipster inside of the city limits. Like a gallery space on West Queen West, Oddseoul’s image is carefully curated to convey anonymity, exclusivity, and maybe even a little bit of debauchery. Their calculatedly cool online presence perpetuates an infectious air of exclusivity, bringing in hungry, social media-savvy patrons to do their marketing for them. Their unofficial Facebook page, started by their customers, is nothing more than a collection of location tags, amateur food reviews, and iPhone meal pics from Facebookers who want their friends to know where they’re eating. Straight through to last call, tables are filled with diners eager to upload snaps of their bourbon cocktails and bulgogi cheesesteaks, with the Han brothers reaping the benefits.
The success of buzzed-about restaurants like Oddseoul and so many others like it stands as a testament to the business side of the restaurant business. Its owners have capitalized on many of the driving forces that bring Torontonians outside their homes on any given night of the week. None of this is to say that chain restaurants or nondescript taverns serving up simple, quality food and drink aren’t popular. However, in an era where meals are so often accompanied by a Snapchat with a side of namedrop, Susur replaces Spadina and diners leave satisfied knowing that their cheeseburger egg roll will be racking up likes long after it’s been digested.