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Just Opened: Guu Izakaya slings Japanese beer and comfort food on Church Street

Get inside: Guu's interior mixes comfort and modernity (Photo by Renée Suen)

Get inside: Guu's interior mixes comfort and modernity (Photo by Renée Suen)

The year 2009 was an offal one in Toronto. The success of The Black Hoof, Buca and Local Kitchen showed that are many adventurous diners left in this city. December’s most anticipated opening shares that adventurous spirit. Tonight, doors officially open at Guu Izakaya, the first Toronto location of Vancouver’s intensely popular Japanese watering hole. Will the diners that embraced the offal trend take to Guu’s fusion of Japanese flavours?

The izakaya concept basically boils down to a Japanese version of a pub. Guu is casual and affordable, loud and infused with energy—staffers shout out greetings and orders. Expect a crowd of Ryerson campus dwellers, office workers and Vancouver expats. The charcoal-grey storefront and heavy wooden doors block out the garish strip mall surroundings, sealing in the sake bar, open kitchen and four long communal tables. Come summer, there will be patio seating on its northern exposure. Vintage signs and posters imported from Japan add colour and character.

Chopped salmon natto yukke, a “seven friends” mixture wrapped with nori seaweed (Photo by Renée Suen)

Chopped salmon natto yukke, a “seven friends” mixture wrapped with nori seaweed (Photo by Renée Suen)

For drinks, Guu offers competitively priced beers (Sapporo on tap from $4 a mug) and an extensive selection of sakes, shochu (Japanese vodka), chu-high (Japanese vodka sodas), ume-shu (plum wine) and original cocktails featuring Japanese soft drinks. Chef Natsuhiko Sugimoto, who comes to Toronto from the original Vancouver Guus, prepares an array of hot and cold bar food; such favourites as edamame ($3) and karaage ($5.80) are listed alongside non-standards like kakimayo (oysters grilled with spinach, garlic mayo and cheese, $6.80), gyu tangue (grilled beef tongue, $6.30) and chopped salmon natto yukke ($8.30). Although yakitori finds no place on the seafood- and mayo-laden menu, palates will be stimulated by such hearty fare as oden (slow-cooked hot pot, $1.50 a piece; six for $7.50), udon noodles ($6.80–$7.80) and bi bim bap rice bowls with kimchee and pork ($8.50).

Guu Izakaya, 398 Church St. (at Gerrard St. E.), 416-977-0999,

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  • drusilla

    Guu was pretty lame. And I say that as a fan of the original Vancouver one.

    * 70+ minute wait for a table (when originally told 45 mins)
    * 4 full tables (22 seats or 1/3 of the restaurants) reserved for 40 minutes when there were over 30 people waiting
    * No waiting area, no getting drinks or even water while waiting
    * Waiters who don’t speak enough English to communicate (Me: What kind of broth is in the oden? Waitress: Broth is soup. Me: Is it a chicken broth? Beef? Waitress: Is many things, even eggs.)
    * Food that’s basically the appetizer menu off a decent Japanese restaurant (Raaw in Liberty Village, to me, is just as good if not better)
    * Very pricey – one drink and tapas for 2 was $65

    Some food – i.e. the salmon sashimi – was great. Beer was cheap. But I won’t be back, at least until the place works out its kinks.

  • Tony W

    I heartily disagree.

    Also a fan of all of the original Vancouver Guu, I think it was a very solid start.

    - Opening night was fully booked with reservations. If you called before going, they told you so. They’re first response was to offer you a reservation on any other night and when I asked if we could come down and wait, they said you could, but that EVERY seat (including the bar) had been booked.
    - We arrived at prime-time – just after 8 pm and waited 10 minutes as they cleared tables. Three tables of 2, a table of 6 and a table of 5 were seated before us (a table of 2). While our timing was probably “perfect” as the first seating left, we didn’t see any very long waits (though we saw some pretty big lines) from 8ish to just before 10 pm. We were pleasantly surprised as we expected to wait quite a bit longer.
    - I suspect that drusilla arrived before us probably during the first seating around 6 pm — so expecting to walk-up and get a table on opening night of one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in town is a bit much, especially since reservations had filled up nearly a week ago. If you made a reservation a week ago, would you want them to give your table away? Heck, walking into ANY “hot” restaurant in Toronto on Friday night during prime time and expecting a table right away is foolish.
    - No waiting area, but how many pubs do you know that actually have a waiting area? Or get you a beer when you’re waiting for a table on Grey Cup weekend?
    - English was clearly EVERYONE’S second language, but we didn’t have any trouble ordering anything and service was quick, efficient and friendly. The problem was the question – Oden IS a soup that that is made with MANY things – kelp, fish, mushrooms, Japanese spices – it was probably hard as there is no direct translation for it in English. A better answer is it’s made with similar ingredients as miso soup, but the recipe is unique to the chef.
    - I find the comments “very pricey” and the comparison to “Raaw” very biased. We had NINE dishes for around $65 for the two of us; including the most expensive item on the menu ($9 for sea urchin special) and were stuffed when we finished. At Raaw, I think that $65 would be very close to the bill for ONE person.

    While the food didn’t meet the standard of the Vancouver Guu for one (maybe two) dishes, it was still solid and the rest of the food was great and an exceptional value for the price. As the only izakaya place in town (Ematei’s izakaya is more traditional Japanese style, but also very, very good) – hopefully Guu inspires some copycats and we see a second location soon.

    The bottom line is that this should be on everyone’s list to try. It’s a fun environment, reasonably priced and a wonderful introduction to non-sushi Japanese cuisine.

    Hopefully drusilla gives it another look soon as I suspect once the word gets out, the lines will become a regular occurrence.

  • Drusilla

    Just two things to clarify:
    - I don’t believe I went on opening night, since my friend had already eaten there and told me it was open the night before
    - We arrived around 7:15; there were at least 4 others who waited an hour+ with us, because we were chatting – I would NEVER expect to get a table right away. I expect you to be honest about wait times, or apologetic if you get it wrong. If I ask for a glass of water, I don’t think I should be ignored. That’s pretty basic service.

    - I 100% disagree about the prices, and don’t know how it’s biased. Guu is nearly all $7-8 per plate. Most of Raaw’s hot apps are $5, unless you’re ordering sashimi – and the sashimi portions at Raaw are much larger.

    - Oden broth’s not made out of eggs. Honestly, finding out what’s in your food is a pretty basic request at any restaurant. The kids working there are not equipped to answer even basic questions (i.e. my boyfriend – what beers do you have on tap? waitress: big and small beer)

  • escubio

    Drusilla, whoa Nelly! You need to tone down your expectations on someone’s English abilities. If you don’t like the food, fine. Lay off the servers who worked hard that day to get you a table, and pass up your request for a glass of water you could get yourself before you arrived! sheesh…

  • idiotica

    Speaking as a fan of all the GUU in Vancouver as well (except the one in Aberdeen Center), I don’t think service is ever the strong point.

    It’s like all other Japanese restaurants staffed by Japanese waitstaff, you’re never going to get service as good as Japanese customers will get. At least that’s the impression i get every time i visit GUU, they always make more effort to impress the Japanese table than ours.

    Last time I went I had a server who act like she was already all burned out at 6, slurred all her English words as if she’s pretending to speak English instead of actually speaking it. Of course, she instantly perked up when a group of Japanese came in. I’m not suggesting that she’s purposefully being racist, I just think culturally they feel the need to go the extra length to make a Japanese customer feel at home while us, local Chinese kids, will come back no matter what (To be honest, as long as they deliver the food to my table, I’m happy).

    Furthermore, depending on the English ability of your server, if it’s poor, she would more likely try to minimize contact with you or, in Drusilla’s case, supply answers to what she THINKS you’re asking instead of trying to understand what you’re really asking for (I think that happens to all ESL students so I’m a bit more lenient about this). It may be a nuisance but it also part of the authenticity package that everyone bought into back in Vancouver (and soon will in Toronto) and hence will unlikely ever change….

  • Online

    So let me get this straight… we walk into a Japanese resturant expecting that thier english is perfect. And by Japanese, I don’t mean Sushi resturants that are actually run by Koreans.

    Look at the setup of GUU, I wouldn’t expect thier strong suit to be service anyway.

    As for the price, it is pricey, but quality is good. The best on the menu is probably the black cod. I’ve gone twice already since they opened, and I’ll be back again soon.

  • Brian

    We completely love Guu and are just thrilled that they are doing so well. Line-ups every night, with people coming out looking very satisfied. The food was delicious, the atmosphere fun, and the place looks beautiful. James the owner is friendly and approachable. A very welcome addition to our neighbourhood (it was a horrible burger place when we moved in to the area attracting hookers and pimps through the middle of the night). For the negative people that want to complain, please simply just don’t come back and leave Guu for the rest of us to enjoy. No one wants you around anyways. All the best to you Guu! Welcome to Toronto!

  • Matthew

    I went with two friends a few nights ago.

    Across the board we felt the food was very good; pretty close to as good as the Vancouver locations. I don’t think it was particularly expensive, or at least when compared to other similar styled restaurants. We had two pitchers of beer, a bottle of sake and nine items; our total before tip was $120. I’d say that is pretty reasonable.

    There were some service kinks that need to be worked out. It was sometimes a bit tough to get our server’s attention and at one point we ordered some food and she forgot to put it in, but given that they JUST opened and they have probably been lined up for hours each night since opening I have no problem cutting them some slack for what was still a great experience.

  • Henry

    Don’t understand how anyone can say that a menu that is priced under ten dollars is expensive.

  • Bif

    so Guu rocks. hardly a surprise. knew them from vancouver and all i can say is “god bless guu”

  • Joe d

    Have gone with friend who reps celebrity chefs and eats at the best restaurant all over. Gotta say we both were impressed with quality, taste and prices. We tried many things on the menu and was never disappointed. A few nights later she brought a couple of her celebrity chefs in for drinks and appetizers- They loved it. It is a great addition to Church St- Summer there will be amazing on the patio. I can’t wait!!!

  • Joe d

    LOL- just read my comment- english is my first language so sorry for the messed up tenses-

  • jay

    To Drusilla & TonyG: the waitstaff should be able to clearly spell out the ingredients in any dish in case of allergies. So waitstaff, learn to speak English!

  • Jim

    To echo all the comments above — food was excellent and lines were looooong.

    Reading the reviews, I find it funny that Drusilla doesn’t believe that she went on opening night — yet the article is about the official opening night of the restaurant!! Guess she’s never heard of a soft opening. LOL!

    As for the Oden ingredient questions, I think I fall on the lenient side — “What is in Oden?” (It can be anything – fish balls, eggs, etc. are among the items you can order on the menu) versus “What is Oden made of?” (I suspect what Drusilla’s question was like) are two pretty close questions that I think some English-as-a-first-language wait staff would have trouble with. Anyways, speaking as someone with mild allergies, the manager is pretty good about checking and explaining things when we went.

    Can’t wait for a second location to open!

  • Pell Bortmundsen

    My companion and I waited around 40 minutes to be seated, all the while standing uncomfortably along the wall like we were waiting for a firing squad. If you can’t be seated there immediately or given a time to return, I’d suggest you don’t bother. On top of that, we had the pleasure of spending that 40 minutes watching several tables which would have accommodated us if patrons were properly managed by waitstaff. One table for four was sitting empty apart from one woman who was just sitting there waiting for her friend to arrive. No food being served, no drinks. Just waiting. The “seats” in this cramped dining room, by the way, are nothing more than uncomfortably hard, flat wooden benches and stools at undersized, basic wooden tables. If you have more than two in your party, you’d better hope only two of you have legs. And what restaurant would you go to that only gave one menu to two people? I had to wait for my companion to finish before I even got my first look. Drinks were slow, as was everything else, though the server was cheerful, even as she brought the wrong food to our table. The greetings shouted in unison by EVERY MEMBER OF THE STAFF to EVERY SINGLE PERSON THAT ARRIVES is fun when it happens to you, because it’s the first time you hear it. After the third or fourth time, you begin to pray nobody else comes for a while. There’s a fine line between atmosphere and pretense, and the shouting bit dances right over it and out of sight.

    Sadly, the absurdity doesn’t stop at the menu. No sushi? Fine. But making me order off-menu for a bowl of steamed rice you should be providing with every entree? Ridiculous for a Japanese restaurant. The Tako Wasabi, which is essentially a tiny bowl of wasabi-stem-and-octopus salsa, came with four little sheets of seaweed to eat it with. Problem is, the dish is far too spicy for you to eat more than a little bit at a time, and eating it at that rate means that, if you’re sharing, the seaweed runs out immediately (two bites!) and you have to either eat the rest with the one tiny serving spoon they give you, or- get this- pay ONE DOLLAR for FOUR MORE TINY SHEETS OF DRIED SEAWEED (each about the size of a business card, and whisper-thin). I found myself surprised that the server actually said it with a straight face… I almost wanted to ask how much an additional napkin would cost.

    The Chicken Karaage was more disappointing- Giant deep-fried hunks of batter with a chicken nucleus, served dry and somewhat greasy with a tiny ramekin of plain mayonnaise. You can’t really eat them with chopsticks, and there’s no knife to cut them. They’re too big to dip in the mayonnaise, not that you’d want to, since mayonnaise isn’t exactly the cure for greasiness. All of it is served on pretentious crockery the tiny tables have no room for. I began to feel sorry for the huge line of people on the firing squad along the “waiting-wall”, wanting badly to make eye contact with just one so I could silently alert them to what they were in for.

    As far as value for money goes, some food was… alright, but the overall bill was not commensurate to the food served in terms of portion, speed of service or quality. An amount of ginger ale that must have been around half of what you’d get in a can, served in a tall, slim glass choking with ice, cost far too much (and with service this awful, you’d have to order about six bucks’ worth at a time just to have it last through half the meal). The kicker: At the end of the meal, with the bill, the server said “Complimentary dessert!” and set down a tiny dish just big enough to hold what it was holding, which was (NO JOKE) TWO FROZEN-SOLID GREEN GRAPES. Two frozen green grapes are “dessert” like a fart is applause. We just stared at them for a minute. It was practically an insult.

    Toronto’s full of good-to-amazingly great Japanese fare. Guu is pretty to look at, but Toronto diners are used to much better food, better service and more comfortable surroundings. The one aspect you can expect to improve is the wait time, once the word gets out and people head somewhere else for their Japanese fix.

    In the end, I couldn’t wait to say Guu riddance.

  • David

    I was thrilled to read online months ago Guu was coming to Toronto. Having lived in Vancouver for 7 years Gyoza King, Hapa Izakaya and Guu were places I loved and frequented once a week. When I called to see if they took reservations I was told no (as per usual) So we arrived early and sat in the car from 4:20. We watched car after car pull up and park on the street, but no one was getting out. And then at 4:55 like clockwork the car doors flung open and out tromped a heard of 40 diners, a sight I have never seen in Toronto. We were the first in line and last to be seated for some reason but who cares we were there and good eats were on the horizon.

    We were presented the menus and clearly told we had a two hour limit, no problem right? WRONG!
    We ordered a good bottle of sake and tea. We didn’t receive our tea until 5:35 and by the time our first item of food arrived if was 5:45 Surely they would take the slow start into account. But just to be safe I got up and asked the manager if we needed to really rush because of the two hour limit? “we want to respect your time limit but its kind of hard since we started so late” I said. He replied “don’t worry we never gonna kick our customers out” bowing profusely and smiling. I congratulated him and his team for finally bringing a proper izakaya to Toronto and told him how thrilled we were to be here and thanked him for his understanding. At this point there is a 60 person line up inside the restaurant that snakes its way between tables all the way back to the washrooms. Btw Im sure the fire Marshall will fix the overcrowding problem

    By this time we were speaking to a single diner next to us sharing plates and having a great time. At 6:45 we asked our waitress for two more orders of black cod. “No I’m sorry your time is up!” “Im sorry there must be some kind of misunderstanding, I spoke with the manger about it” said I. So I went back to the manager and explained the waitress was kicking us out. His reply “well did you get everything you ordered?” Mine was “Well yes we did but we didn’t know we only had one shot at it but besides you knew we started late and we agreed we got our first item at 5:45. So what’s the problem”?

    Now here where it goes really pear shaped. He walks us to the table looks at the start time on the bill and concludes “ITS TIME TO GO!” Bows and smiles. We have half of our $60 bottle of sake and a full beer on the table and now we are getting kicked out? I implored him. My wife implored him. The lady next to us implored him with “please you don’t understand they are having a great time here, they love it here, your making a mistake” I explained you cant kick customers out mid meal. I eventually told him he was being greedy and he should take care of the customers he has before accepting new ones.

    This is now when I raise my voice and get everyone attention including one drunk Japanese guy who is all too eager to stick up for his brethren. Now he’s yelling at me across the table. My wife is speechless thinking “can this be happening are we getting kicked out of a restaurant”??? I regret paying the bill including the sake we weren’t allow to finish. And then we were flanked out the door like some unruly customer that had been violent. I cant recall ever being so humiliated or wronged in my life.

    If you were there, yes I did raise my voice and so would you if you were in that situation. If the disruption ruined your dinner I know how you feel. I am genuinely sorry for my contribution but I have never been evicted from a restaurant mid meal before and I doubt neither have you.

    For me this was an especially painful slap in the face because I have proudly worked in the restaurant industry for over 20 years. So when we go out for dinner (which is far too much and never enough) Its rare for me not to know someone I have worked at some point and consider family(those in the industry will know what I mean by this) But this time you disgraced the industry I love. You cheated and abused the patronage of one of you own, one of the best potential customers you could wish for. I congratulated you sincerely from the heart. I tried to respect you rules when many wouldn’t bother. Then you kick my wife and I out on OUR ANNIVERSARY!

    I wont forget, and I will tell EVERYONE what greedy bastards you are.

  • Henry

    Funny how David neglects to mention that he was yelling and screaming every swear word in the book at the staff, the manager, and even the managers mother. And he neglects to mention he was kicking over the garbage cans in his rage outside, and to top it off he was picking fights with other customers who tried to quiet him down (even punching another customer in the face). Oh, and he neglects to mention that the police had to be called to get him off the property, which is when he ran away like a a small spoiled child.

  • GuuOnChurch

    I am writing this because David’s posting is different from what really happened.

    We always initially inform all the customers before seating that we have 2 hours seating policy if there is line-ups.
    Even with 2 hours seating policy, we don’t tell our customers that 2 hours are up if their orders are not served and they haven’t finished their foods and drinks.

    Once we checked that he finished everything he ordered, drinks and foods, we informed him that the 2 hours were up, but he refused to leave and started screaming, yelling and swearing with F-words to me, my staff and other customers. So I and our manager had to ask you to leave our restaurant immediately. We were talking to him very politely, but he still refused and even tried to catch a fight with other customers.

    After he got out of the restaurant, he didn’t stop swearing and yelling using all the possible F-words. He even used F-word to my mother and other family members. And then, he finally caught a fight with another customer unfortunately. He kicked and punched in the face of another customer. I had to call 911 to stop the fighting with other customers. When leaving, he kicked and threw all the garbage bins of our restaurant and our neighbour’s as well. We have all the contacts for witness.

    We are very sorry that this unfortunate incident happened and our sincere apology to all of our customers and hopefully, this ends here.

  • David

    Well isnt this interesting. You are absolutely right I did leave a few things out. Things I didn’t think you would want to air. Lets make a few things really clear. The time on these posts means you know each other, you aren’t a patron you are staff or friend.

    There was no swearing in your restaurant only a raised voice that said “you’re being greeding, you’re making a mistake” There was no picking fights with customers. I did say F-You and push over your recycling bins as I was leaving outside. That is childish and I do apologize

    As for saying anything whatsoever to your mother or punching a customer in the face, that is simply untrue. Statements like that are going to get you in trouble.

    I assume Henry you are the Drunk patron/friend that followed us out and pushed passed my wife to take a swing at me. I kicked you in the balls in self defense, sorry about that. You also chased us down the street kicking and punching our car. Why you felt the need to take our plate number and call 911 is a mystery to both my wife and I.

    I think I will call a lawyer regarding these statements and damage to our vehicle caused by your patrons. Lets see if a lawsuit will make you rethink the way you treat customers. I will also call the Fire Marshall regarding your overcrowding, no more people waiting inside. Ouch that’s going to hurt your lineups. What were you thinking no waiting area with Toronto’s cold winters Do you think people will wait outside for long?
    You wait and see, You pissed off the wrong guy.

  • GuuOnChurch

    Dear Mr. David,
    If you’d like to pursue a lawsuit, we will be ready.
    We are already talking to our company lawyers for this as well.
    Everything you did inside and outside was video-taped and will be presented.
    We also have lots of customers and neighbours who witnessed of what you did and they are willing to help.
    The customer you hit in the face is also looking forward to meeting with you with his lawyer as well.

  • David

    Guu owners,

    I really find the lies you are telling shocking,

    I invite you to present any evidence you have on your security system. It will show I never punched any customer in the face it was your little victim that pushed my wife to take a swing at me, for that he got a kick in the balls, that’s why his pride is so hurt. You are either listening to someone else’s account who is lieing or you are telling lies. Right from the first time we spoke about what time we needed to leave by, you lied, you did a complete 180. I have been honest and owned up to my contribution to the disruption and apologized for it. You on the other hand have just made up lie after lie. If I punched someone in the face PLEASE present the evidence I invite you to, but YOU CANT and YOU KNOW IT. Never mind about friends who will lie for you too, what does the tape say??? Perhaps Im on film yelling about being kicked out, but nothing more. Do you really think people will believe you did no wrong? You can bet after 20 years in the business I will pass this on to more than a few people, and I KNOW it will cost you thousands in lost sales.

    Im going to leave the ball in your court for now. So put up or shut up and respect your customers.

    BTW-Have you figured out where your guests can wait for an hour or will you be taking reservations soon? Or maybe you are just continuing to break the law and pack that tiny space over capacity.

    I tried to play nice but you no listen!

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