Toronto’s Okonomi House restaurant has been serving up savoury Japanese pancakes since 1978. Not even the pandemic has slowed it down

On a quiet side street just off of Yonge Street, south of Bloor, the red lanterns of Okonomi House have been glowing for more than 40 years at 23 Charles St. It’s a staple in the city and a bit of a downtown relic amid the arrival of glass-covered condos and fast food chains along Yonge Street. As its name suggests, the restaurant is best known for its okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake made of a milky, flour-based batter mixed with shredded cabbage, meat or seafood, and topped with a tangy tonkatsu-like okonomiyaki sauce, homemade mayo and bonito flakes that oscillate when reacting to the heat of the pancake. It’s slightly chewy, a bit crunchy, sweet, salty and tangy; it’s hard to describe everything in each bite.The small menu remains unchanged, and is one of the earlier examples of regional Japanese cooking in the city arriving at a time when sushi was still unfamiliar to many Torontonians. The okonomiyaki is best eaten immediately, before it gets soggy. With dining rooms closed and restaurants hanging on with takeout, it’s not the ideal food to sit in a container for a long time. This, along with many longtime Toronto restaurants closing for good during the COVID-19 pandemic, had diners worried that Okonomi House would be next. On the contrary, owner Ryo Tamaru says he’s surprised that he’s been seeing a steady stream of customers. “I thought we’d have zero-sum days, but it’s been better than I thought. We’re on the (delivery) apps now and it helps,” he said. “We never had a website, we didn’t even have Wi-Fi.”He attributes the longevity of the restaurant, which his mom previously ran, to the accessibility of the okonomiyaki, typically served in a cook-it-yourself diner setting in Japan and considered a casual, affordable meal. The restaurant’s exterior helps too, which is immortalized in a painting by local artist Peter Harris. Tamaru says it’s also become a popular Instagram backdrop in recent years. The property is owned by the University of Toronto and is surrounded by housing for international students, so he isn’t too worried about any developments kicking the restaurant out.Tamaru isn’t quite sure about the restaurant’s origins as he was born the year the restaurant opened, but he says his parents worked there for as long as he could remember with the original owner, Kenji Nose. His mother, Kumiko, eventually took over the business. Tamaru started working at the restaurant around 2006, after working in other restaurants and travelling to Japan to study cooking. He thought about opening his own Japanese restaurant in the city, perhaps something higher-end akin to an omakase spot, but family circumstances led him to help out his mother.“I didn’t want to take over because it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I just ended up being here,” he said. “My mom is retired. The business is good and it’s been loved for a long time, and if no one does it, no one would.”When the Toronto location originally opened in April 1978 it was supposed to be the first of many throughout North America, according to a May 1978 Star article by food writer Stephanie Cameron, but it ended up being the only.“This place is a pilot project for my company in Osaka,” then-owner and restaurant manager Nose told the Star. “There are 1,500 okonomi restaurants in Osaka and we hope to open four more in Toronto and one in most major Canadian and U.S. cities within the next few years.”When the restaurant first opened, it cost $1.50 for a mushroom or green pepper okonomiyaki; $1.60 for beef, pork, chicken, ham and salami; or $1.80 for seafood toppings. Nose sold the restaurant in 1989 and Tamaru’s parents became in charge. Currently, the okonomiyaki is still underpriced as a $10 meal in the heart of downtown Toronto.As for Nose, he’s 77 and retired, currently living in Tsawwassen, a peninsula south of Vancouver. When the pandemic is over, he plans to fulfil his lifelong dream of sailing around the world in his custom boat (he originally came to Canada to study naval architecture in Newfoundland). “I liked cooking and I liked restaurants, so okonomi is a very popular food in Japan, especially in Osaka. You ask everyone in Japan what’s the famous food in Osaka and they’ll say that,” he told the Star over the phone. “I was hoping to franchise it, but it never happened. But I think it’s still a possibility to open another one in Vancouver. I’m too old to do it now. I sold everything. I want to finish my dream first.”Like Nose, Tamaru too has dreams beyond the restaurant, but he’s not leaving any time soon.“There are other things I’d like to do, but it would be outside the restaurant. If I have another opportunity while still being able to keep the restaurant, maybe,” he said. “I wouldn’t change the place. It’s been working and nothing about it is broken yet.”The Mainstays is a weekly series highlighting long-standing restaurants and neighbourhood favourites of Toronto. Food reporter Karon Liu offers recommendations for delicious takeout wh

Toronto’s Okonomi House restaurant has been serving up savoury Japanese pancakes since 1978. Not even the pandemic has slowed it down

On a quiet side street just off of Yonge Street, south of Bloor, the red lanterns of Okonomi House have been glowing for more than 40 years at 23 Charles St. It’s a staple in the city and a bit of a downtown relic amid the arrival of glass-covered condos and fast food chains along Yonge Street.

As its name suggests, the restaurant is best known for its okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake made of a milky, flour-based batter mixed with shredded cabbage, meat or seafood, and topped with a tangy tonkatsu-like okonomiyaki sauce, homemade mayo and bonito flakes that oscillate when reacting to the heat of the pancake. It’s slightly chewy, a bit crunchy, sweet, salty and tangy; it’s hard to describe everything in each bite.

The small menu remains unchanged, and is one of the earlier examples of regional Japanese cooking in the city arriving at a time when sushi was still unfamiliar to many Torontonians.

The okonomiyaki is best eaten immediately, before it gets soggy. With dining rooms closed and restaurants hanging on with takeout, it’s not the ideal food to sit in a container for a long time. This, along with many longtime Toronto restaurants closing for good during the COVID-19 pandemic, had diners worried that Okonomi House would be next.

On the contrary, owner Ryo Tamaru says he’s surprised that he’s been seeing a steady stream of customers. “I thought we’d have zero-sum days, but it’s been better than I thought. We’re on the (delivery) apps now and it helps,” he said. “We never had a website, we didn’t even have Wi-Fi.”

He attributes the longevity of the restaurant, which his mom previously ran, to the accessibility of the okonomiyaki, typically served in a cook-it-yourself diner setting in Japan and considered a casual, affordable meal. The restaurant’s exterior helps too, which is immortalized in a painting by local artist Peter Harris. Tamaru says it’s also become a popular Instagram backdrop in recent years.

The property is owned by the University of Toronto and is surrounded by housing for international students, so he isn’t too worried about any developments kicking the restaurant out.

Tamaru isn’t quite sure about the restaurant’s origins as he was born the year the restaurant opened, but he says his parents worked there for as long as he could remember with the original owner, Kenji Nose. His mother, Kumiko, eventually took over the business.

Tamaru started working at the restaurant around 2006, after working in other restaurants and travelling to Japan to study cooking. He thought about opening his own Japanese restaurant in the city, perhaps something higher-end akin to an omakase spot, but family circumstances led him to help out his mother.

“I didn’t want to take over because it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I just ended up being here,” he said. “My mom is retired. The business is good and it’s been loved for a long time, and if no one does it, no one would.”

When the Toronto location originally opened in April 1978 it was supposed to be the first of many throughout North America, according to a May 1978 Star article by food writer Stephanie Cameron, but it ended up being the only.

“This place is a pilot project for my company in Osaka,” then-owner and restaurant manager Nose told the Star. “There are 1,500 okonomi restaurants in Osaka and we hope to open four more in Toronto and one in most major Canadian and U.S. cities within the next few years.”

When the restaurant first opened, it cost $1.50 for a mushroom or green pepper okonomiyaki; $1.60 for beef, pork, chicken, ham and salami; or $1.80 for seafood toppings. Nose sold the restaurant in 1989 and Tamaru’s parents became in charge. Currently, the okonomiyaki is still underpriced as a $10 meal in the heart of downtown Toronto.

As for Nose, he’s 77 and retired, currently living in Tsawwassen, a peninsula south of Vancouver. When the pandemic is over, he plans to fulfil his lifelong dream of sailing around the world in his custom boat (he originally came to Canada to study naval architecture in Newfoundland).

“I liked cooking and I liked restaurants, so okonomi is a very popular food in Japan, especially in Osaka. You ask everyone in Japan what’s the famous food in Osaka and they’ll say that,” he told the Star over the phone. “I was hoping to franchise it, but it never happened. But I think it’s still a possibility to open another one in Vancouver. I’m too old to do it now. I sold everything. I want to finish my dream first.”

Like Nose, Tamaru too has dreams beyond the restaurant, but he’s not leaving any time soon.

“There are other things I’d like to do, but it would be outside the restaurant. If I have another opportunity while still being able to keep the restaurant, maybe,” he said. “I wouldn’t change the place. It’s been working and nothing about it is broken yet.”


The Mainstays is a weekly series highlighting long-standing restaurants and neighbourhood favourites of Toronto. Food reporter Karon Liu offers recommendations for delicious takeout while also sharing stories of how restaurateurs are faring in the pandemic. Craving something in particular? Email kliu@thestar.ca with what you’d like to see him write about in the future.

Karon Liu is a Toronto-based food reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu

Source : Toronto Star More