Mandarin ? restaurant chain in the GTA

This article begins in Toronto a few months ago, when I dragged the friends I was staying with into a Mandarin with me for old time’s sake (mine, not theirs; they all seemed unclear on what Mandarin is, despite all being from Toronto).  But before I can explain what happened then that precipitated us leaving without eating, and me being glad, you probably need more general context.  I feel like you might. First let me install some ambiance–it’s a story about ambiance.

There, thats pretty.  I’m here to tell you about Mandarin–for all I know it’s what I exist to do in this life.  This is actually a long story. The tldr of it is, it’s a chain of restaurants well-known to a certain broad demographic of Southern Ontarioans–an AYCE buffet that used to be (until post-covid inflation/pre-crash jitters hit the whole supply chain) crazy good value (ie high quality, vast array of options, low consumer cost) presented in an absolutely magical atmosphere.  This story is ultimately about how beautiful the environmental design of the interiors of Mandarin restaurants is.  All this would never have happened if it wasn’t like walking into wonderland every time.

Briefly, this is what they’re doing unimpeachably right and what everyone should copy regardless of what their establishment even is: there’s a huge water feature right at the entrance of every Mandarin, often this will take up half the pre-seating lobby/host-station pen.  We’re talking realistic rocks, real plants, koi, often some kind of fountain or waterfall or bridged/walk-over stream or all three.  Then, you’re led through a thematically decorated (they’re big into repping seasons and annual festivals; it really brings the whimsy, you know? That certain enchanted glow way down in the cockles of your heart) corridor with a ceiling ubiquitously painted like the sky, past the room of food that evokes the bath-house in Spirited Away, into one of the many, usually-pointedly-thematic, side dining rooms.  Liberal applications of neon and #Decor abound here, it’s all a fair bit alike to a place Tony Bourdain once called post-ironic. (Except that it’s nicer.)

So five stars for the ambiance.  If the food were even remotely sustainable this place would be my model of prototypical mainstream futuristic sensualism. [/tldr] I think history will regard these types of places as having predated on their customers’ ethical naivete and moreover, on an outdated paradigm of resource valuation (including employee labor value), and I think that ultimately, all such predatory businesses (eg fast food, the pulp paper industry as a whole and its buyers at every level, etc etc) will be deemed to have willfully and negligently–obstinantly–contributed to the pressures leading to what today’s capitalists will consider economic apocalypse.  And so will I be deemed as such, because I kept going back.  Off with our heads, no?  I’ll be deemed a devil myself because I was negligent in my continued contribution, if not my willingness.  Paradigm collapse could look all kinds of ways, maybe talking about the whys and the maybes and the coulds of it, is me trying to be less negligent about the impending fact of it.  I’m a decelerationist, but not when I’m at Mandarin.

Mandarin isn’t anything like anywhere in B.C.  that I know of, have ever heard tell of, etc.  It’s not like anything anywhere else I’ve been.  I really can’t say that I understand how their business works.  I’m guessing that most places it doesn’t work, or these things would be everywhere, these identical guilded palaces of insatiable hedonism.  If you like AYCE and/or buffet dining (eg, you consider “AYCE” offers to be a cost-analyzed bet against you), correct me if I’m wrong but, I would be surprised if there was anywhere else on earth that has it down to the exact science–and art–that these guys do.  A seat for the lunch service used to cost under $15, ten years ago.  I’ve seen regulars eating plate after plate of cold unpeeled cocktail shrimp and nothing else, inside the GTA cluster…all those moments will be lost in time.

Now let’s try to sum up my personal history with Mandarin quickly.  For posterity and transparency and all those good things.

Two months ago was the tag end of my first visit to Toronto since 2017, and I knew I had to go to Mandarin and get Mandarin merch so I could explain what Mandarin is to people in B.C.  The friends I went with are a three-queer-polycule (I’m rooting for two of them to get back together so I can just say thruple) or triad, two of whom are vegan.  I used to be vegan, when I first moved to Toronto. We’ll circle back to that.

So, we go in and it’s like any Mandarin; I’m ecstatic.  We sit down.  My one friend asks the server a question about whether there’s nonvegan ingredients in something.  Ominous clouds appear on the horizon; the server immediately defers to another, and that one then defers to another.  Wow, things are getting hectic.  The manager shows up as we are walking gamely toward the plates in the room of foods anyway–manifest, right?  Well, not this time; the manager asks what we want to know exactly, and responds by explaining that not only is there chicken-based powder in the thing we’re asking about, there is chicken-based powder on everthing they serve; he makes a sweeping gesture like this powder actually comes out of him and he’s just pixiedusting the current offerings for good measure.

Now, I’m deeply prepared to be a good sport about this, because I actually hate eating at Mandarin.  Not that I don’t have a great deal of respect for the non-food aspects, and not that I don’t have a bunch of recommendations for how to optimize one’s Mandarin dining experience specifically (outlined below).  Just that I feel like I’m actively racking up bad luck when I’m actually engaged in eating the food there–I feel like God is watching me and shaking her head and sighing, when I eat at Mandarin.  That’s the pull-quote of this whole piece, I think.

So the others sheepishly apologize and such, to me and the staff although I’m cheerfully insisting that idgaf, and somehow it feels like the four of us make as big of a scene clearing back out as it’s possible to have done while also failing to complain, raise voices, harass other patrons, heckle the staff, etc.  Somehow there’s an atmosphere of having made a spectacle, but as I said I feel like a spectacle (before God) here usually.  On the way down the sky-ceilinged corridor of floating paper parasols, I create a snarl in our smooth egress by insisting on buying merch, like I came for.  This part too, we’ll circle back to.

Let me take you into the more distant past, right to why I know about Mandarin at all:

In 2010 I was working at one of the headshops that used to line the Queen West strip (speaking of lost in time) and my manager was this weird hickishly Ontarioan gabber girl.  And she was really into playing tourguide, a trait she shared with a few genuine Torontonians I’ve hung out with since then (she, however, was from a direly suburban small town several hours north of the GTA where, the only people I knew who were there at that time, hung out smoking bath salts out of a lightbulb all day because there’s “nothing to do” there, apparently, when you’ve been to Toronto for 12 seconds and done Any Of It and nothing is enough like being in a gang in Akira or a Love and Rockets comic, or a movie about clubkids, anyway–in some ways a common affliction among the youth of the suburban outposts immediately adjacent the GTA. I got the impression that this is just The Ontario Story if you grew up anywhere just outside the urban hub).  These are all people who’d been in the city long enough to have developed opinions about what’s good, and to have seen the inexorable procession of changes to formerly institutional places.  So they were keen to share their insights, for a variety of reasons.  And I happen to find that really valuable; it’s the kind of thing that interests me, advice on how to optimize my fun intake efficiency.  So when the gabber immediately asked me “do you live near a Mandarin” when she found out I was commuting to work from the hinterlands of North York, I was engaged.  Admittedly, the way she said the word Mandarin somehow conjured all the mystified exoticism anyone ever baked into the concept of orientalism itself but in that horrible post-ironic way that a lot of people find funny when they’re knowingly/wilfully participating in an ism.  She went on unprompted, regaling me with tales of her semi-famous semi-ex boyfriend taking her to Mandarin every so often.  Like, I think it was a thing of, he would rent a car and show up and be like “where do you wanna go, baby” and she would always say “Mandarin.”  I was under the impression that it was kind of a bit.  You know? A little beguilingly childlike love of wonderment to sweeten the lowkey-ratchet tsundere stew she had bubbling for a personality.   She also explicitly knew that her ex would repeat the behavior of taking her out more often if the overall cost was actually as low as possible, and that it kind of did something for him to think of her as provincial in that way (ie the imagined scope of her concerns/the scale of her ambition being small appealed to him).  It really softened her, in his eyes, I think, all the little gimmicks.  Like she was smart, her rizz wasn’t immaculate but it worked.  She knew how to be cute. She could easily spot (for example) whatever kind of blue collar cred or everyworker-values cache was on the table that could make her ex or our boss or whomever, like her more (and excuse xyz fucked up compulsive thing she had done).  She knew that in Toronto, value is in perception–class status is something you can perform a kind of reversal on, if you’re canny.  Everyone who isn’t rich wants to believe everyone who is, is a bigger dumbass than they are–that it’s all nepo babies and phonies and unfair luck of the draw shit–until its time to claim their own improved status as proof of the hustler meritocracy. And when you got a bad start maybe some dents in your heart of gold are par for the course, too.  Maybe it’s not a lack of ambition or an excess of bile.  Hey, I buy it.  …when it doesn’t cost me much.

But it made me curious, the way she was hyping the place to me; casually outlining the way in which she accessorized with it for convoluted image-based reasons, even as she insisted that it really WAS worth the trip and she really DID get off on it.

I was vegan (The Typical White Vegan) and so were my three rommates from B.C. but we all ended up at Mandarin anyway on the premise that we could just eat our weight in wakame and veggie maki and tempura (we hadn’t made ourselves aware of the fact that egg is usually a component of tempura batter, and even after later finding out, we uniformly chose to pretend that it just “didn’t” have egg in it at the places we went, and didn’t tend to ask, because tempura was a major cornerstone of our ability to eat anywhere).

I remember insisting that it was worth it and mainly agreeing with myself, but also listening to my shoulder-devil when it insisted that eating dairybased desserts directly off the buffet table when no one was looking, really didn’t matter.

Around the start of summer 2011 another B.C. transplant moved in with us and adopted the clique-standard “vegan” diet out of a sort of tacitly bemused sense of experimentation or even subcultural tourism.  There was a hakka buffet about four minutes walk from where we lived and we dragged the new kid there one day because they were big into meal sharing and it didn’t register really that they thought it was better when we cooked for and served one another, exclusive of the payment, estrangement from process etc typically attendant to the restaurant dining experience.  So throw on the thing of only being able to eat the broccoli and the noodles, and the new kid was lowkey cranky with it.  (It read like a stormcloud on a summer day, anyway.)  Instead of reading the room I cranked up the funshine: if the hakka place was no good because we could only eat two things, what if we went to ~*Mandarin*~ where we could eat six or seven things?  I laid the hype on thick, building it up like it was Casa fucking Bonita.  The others I think implicitly knew it wouldn’t go well but apparently I only needed to convince the new kid, and the new kid could hear enough about it all from how I said it, to wonder if it was seriously worth the showmanship.  This was now a test of how full of shit I was vs how convincing I seemed; this would perhaps become the standard against which all my future displays of enthusiasm were gauged for their “true” relevance.

So, the five of us went to Mandarin.

Once again, I secretly crammed nonvegan desserts in my mouth directly off the trays.

The new kid found Mandarin even more depressing than the hakka place; it wasn’t about the quality or the variety.  It was the whole damn system, man.

I suspect everyone’s rules for what’s okay or why what they’re doing is or isn’t okay, are all equally incoherent.  No one knows the exact rules of Her game, we’re all just caught on a learning curve of trial and error.  Maybe that’s projection.  I’m on a learning curve.  I think we make our own luck insomuch as God makes choices about how to roll with our choices.

I wasn’t able to convince anyone I lived with then to go back very many times, maybe at all. It was too depressing–to the others.  Not to me, not quite.  Because despite everything that is horrific about the experience of eating there (and horrific about being the target of “the new kid’s” radiation of galaxybrained judgemental “non-judgement,”) it is also simply astonishing.  And I might find that irresistible.  You know, personally.  Even if what’s astonishing is really how profoundly wasteful it all is–though I struggle to accept that grocery stores are significantly better and almost no one avoids grocery stores–and what an affront to any higher power struggling against entropic misuse of resources, it all must be.  The new kid pointedly got us all into Food Not Bombs, at this juncture, which is a thing that sounds like a farcical altright meme if you don’t know how seriously people actually take it.  I’ve always wanted to spend more time thinking about Mandarin, anyway; always wanted to know more than I do about it.  I’ve never thought that my individual consumer-level decisions about how to interact with the chain vis a vis my dollar-votes, would matter at all in any grand scheme, so I’ve never dwelled long enough on the feelings of guilt it inspires (nevermoreso than when you’re there with a nonvegan who can’t stop making a face like the morally-hysterical incoherence of their new flatmates is actually a very bitter pill) to give up on ever eating there again.  I could say, “it’s for research.” Because it has always felt like that, like I’m investigating it, or maybe just archiving it as a visceral experience to try to conjure for an audience, for some reason–any reason, really.  I can’t stop talking about Mandarin, have you noticed too?  Now that I’m writing (or have written) this, I guess we know what the research was for.  Brings me back to, last time I was in a Mandarin, I gladly left without eating.  I don’t think I can learn more by eating there again. Maybe some greater force intervened, defending my soul’s future from myself, but we just went to a different AYCE place in the same stripmall anyway (that’s another story).

This is the part of the story where 9 months of the new kid’s feverishly critical psychic emanations (and a few choice verbalizations of same), precipitate me going nonvegan.  “No ethical consumption under capitalism,” right? Well, “maybe I had a total misapprehension of how to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk”, was more at the heart of what I was/often still am banking on for when I have to plead my soul’s case to the Goddess; ie, no one who still eats industrially produced meat wants to talk about veganism with a vegan.  But, breaking from it was too much of a relief and I got too kooky with it, for my motives to seem anymuch more than “highly suspect.”  Martha may be polishing brass on the Titanic but I’m tablescoring the dining lounge; it’s all going down anyway, baby, sink with it or swim.  That’s how it seemed in particular then, looking out at the future from 2012; we were half expecting the world to go pop on December 21st simply because Terrence McKenna had told enough people to believe it.  (We had all done our own share of incresingly dubious research chems by then, too, it wasn’t just the suburban Ontarioans.) The food culture of Toronto is as different to Vancouver Island as the whole of the U.S. is to the whole of Canada.  I felt like a rat at a fair.  It was an alien experience; everything was so decadent and excessive yet also affordable.  It feels like nothing in Victoria is or has ever been any of those things let alone all of them.  (Maybe high tea at the empress is decadent.  It’s not excessive or affordable.  Oh wait, cakes from Patisserie Daniel are decadent, excessive and affordable, I stand corrected.)

One of my first stops after breaking vegan is naturally Mandarin. The pain of quasi-keeping vegan there the other times was too great, apparently, and I had to heal it.  That’s tongue-in-cheek. Another completely different way of putting it is, I could use the language of addiction triggers and relapse and such, or I could go catholic and talk about temptation to sin, I could psychobabble about self-denial and delusional frameworks.  Regardless, it is dazzling to have–to allow one’s self–that much choice in portion size and food type; I built intricately chosen plate after plate, like a tengram box of mouldering shame and carnal joys; always the same but different, the rearranging beads of an ultimately rather simple kaleidoscope.

I dragged the person I was dating at the time to different Mandarins, virtually fanatical about the price of a run at the lunch buffet vs how much I could stomach or cram into a hidden plastic bag.

After skidding out into a shot career with no sidejob and an entirely different domestic crowd shortly thereafter (hmm!)–a process that included, finally, lastly and ultimately, the person mentioned immediately above dumping me, and them all having moved back to B.C.–I was living in town near Drake’s old highschool and didn’t even have Mandarin money.  Eating for free in Toronto is actually more like being a rat at a fair than working minimum wage and having Mandarin money, but it can feel like a fulltime job, itself. Regarding my 2013 breakup, which was the end of a four-year relationship and very public two-year engagement: having to keep going to Mandarin with someone isn’t a universally flattering light, it turns out …in fact I would say that, in the accounting of it all from a sort of presumptive meta-narrative standpoint, it’s looking like Mandarin’s a cursed place and that I get cursed when I eat there.  Why on earth did I try to take people there again?  I’m from Canada and I might be slow, eh.

We did go around “Canada Day”…

Yeah I dunno it’s some kind of fairy-magic lair.  You can only eat there if you’re dining with a hobo you offered to pay for so you can listen to his stories or something. (I’ve taken myself a few times and eaten alone; this is how I began to understand that there were other regulars who went even more often, and they had highly formalized Systems for beating the house.)

That reminds me of a date I was on at the Eglington location with another skid a year or so later, in late 2014 or 2015; by then I had my  shit juuuuust enough together enough to make lunch at Mandarin seem plausible.  My friend seemed to find the ambiance lacking and the exercise depressing, what else is new, right?  Lbr, the Eg location is a little dire.  Anyway, it seems like people who think about systemic collapse a lot HATE eating at Mandarin. Go figure!

We can fast forward past a bunch of Mandarinless time here about a year or two, to 2016.  I now have a job that involves driving around smalltown Southern Ontario with a couple of coworkers.  We’re staying next to a Mandarin, and by now I’m unconsciously used to the Mandarin curse, but my natural enthusiasm shows just enough to somehow be paradoxically tantalizing when I say something like “oh holy fuck it’s a Mandarin, that place is so nuts, like it’s trippy. Weird place, is all; possibly evil?”  Turns out it’s one co-worker’s birthday and the other is weirdly hyped about going to Mandarin about it now.  I swear, it was the one time I didn’t put on a whole three-ring circus to try to sell the concept.  Anyway we went and my coworkers were like, confused about why I felt so weird about Mandarin.  I was probably like “I used to be vegan” and then refused to be less obscure in some effort to sound mysterious or existentially conflicted, or something else with some kind of flavor to it.  Or just because I was sick of thinking about it all, at the time.  So much has happened since I moved back to B.C. myself a year later, that I’ve become nostalgic for Mandarin, even moreso than I preemptively was at any past time.  And I was curious about what had changed.

I was about to say, I got a souvenir the last time I went to Mandarin before moving and maybe I did, maybe I bought the same charm twice.  Because, I suddenly remembered, my original one was older than that time, and I just forgot until right now.  I guess I was more attached to the thing itself as an artefact that felt magical, than I was to the circumstances of when/why I had nominally bought it to begin with–I felt like it was bad luck to lose it, anyway.  So, on one of the dates to eat at some Mandarin with my ex-fiance, I had got a plastic fortune cookie souvenir; at one point we had a kinda shitty used car and I guess I made my ex drive to a Mandarin and afterward I hung the silly merch I impulse bought, off the review.  When we promptly sold the car I grabbed it, and had it around for ages, through my next half dozen moves around Toronto and that breakup.  At some point it got lost, along with the Mandarin branded teacup I found somewhere; so far as I’m aware, it’s gone.  For me, the years leading up to covid were a total frenzy, because I strongly suspected there was about to be some kind of freaky plague event and everyone would go all Omega Man.  Luckily, that didn’t happen as bad as I anticipated but I lost some stuff and people in the shuffle.

As far as I can tell from going back to Toronto in the so-called aftermath of the great plague of the 20s, all that happened bigpicturewise is, Mandarin had to raise the prices by $10+ across the board.

Which means the core client-base of Mandarin addicts (oh, I’ve seen them.  “Of course I know him, he’s me”) is probably 90% of their business now, because the only reason anyone else was there was the price.  People don’t trust buffets.

Let me tell you why you should trust the buffet at Mandarin.  (Hint: it’s not to be picking only the most ethically produced/sourced agricultural products.)

Here goes:

Mandarin serves very inoffensively prepared, very fresh food.  They’re actually changing out half-trays of buffet items so frequently it’s alarming.

Yes, you have to extra pay for drinks. However, the soda is bottomless.  The cocktails are not, and they’re not worth it to begin with.  They’ve left the cocktail prices at 2012 rates though, that’s something:

So, once the beverage order is settled it’s food time, seems like we’re going in the same order here.

There’s a grill station: you want to concentrate on it, particularly the grilled sausage and bacon.  If you like shrimp, make like the shrimp freaks and just eat whole plates of whole shrimp.  Don’t bother peeling them, just sauce and go.

If you feel like filling up on stuff that is tasty but has distressingly good margins for the house, their breadrolls are truly excellent, as is the chowder.

I always go in for some shrimp salad and some of the sussy-ussy New Zealand mussels, too; they’re trustworthy (in terms of, they’ve never given me food poisoning).

Last time I actually ate there I kept filling up on wakame because, again, I had apparently developed a healthy-sized but as-yet unconscious suspicion that I was getting cursed somehow in the process of patronizing these establishments.

The rest of it, you could find on virtually any newer midrange smorgasboard across Western Canada.  I’ve had similar, post-covid even, in nowheresville B.C. as of last summer.  That girlfriend broke up with me shortly thereafter, if you can call that a coincidence.

The desserts, they’re kind of lackluster.  There’s a scoop your own icecream bar with eight or so selections, the usual squares and tarts and honeydews.

Once you’ve really, really surveyed the actual food options, the disorienting effect of sheer abundance dimishes enough for you to get a handle on the fact that they’re really only doing a few things well, and you could probably do those things better at home.

(Don’t miss the salmon, though…that fine Ontario salmon they intermittently offer.)

So that’s it.  Ive never understood what’s significantly more depressing to my friends about Mandarin than anywhere else; they find the operatic aesthetics too surreal, too uncanny?  But that’s what’s awesome about it!  Everywhere else has the same horrible products, the same complicit relationship to capitalism, but Mandarin brings it to you in style; is it ME, do I just seem too enthusiastic, too Stockholmy?  I can’t figure it out!  What’s not to love?  Same shit, better package!  Y’might as well like the package you’re buying the shit in!  That’s the very thing that makes it worse?  Let’s all just lie down and die then, from the famine of beauty.

When I snarled up the leaving drama during my last visit to a Mandarin, it was only to buy three new fortune cookie charms.  They don’t really have merch; I can’t buy branded items really, except this one ugly purse.  Strongly favoring the pearlescent orange cookie charms over the ugly white leather purse, no buyers remorse on that one.  I will cherish them always, or until circumstances mysteriously part us ?? ? I think they capture some of the magic of the place, anyway.  The ambivalent, ambivalent magic.

Here’s hoping they work!

Remember,

“There’s chicken-powder on everything!”

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  1. […] shit I was just complaining about how Mandarin doesnt charge $13 for lunch anymore and then I move walking distance of this […]

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