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Restaurants

Guu Izakaya

Posted by Bryce Daigle / Reviewed on December 23, 2009 / review policy

Guu IzakayaGuu Izakaya is the first Toronto outpost of the popular Guu group of restaurants from Vancouver. It's located in an otherwise unassuming strip mall on Church Street, though the striking design and warm atmosphere give it a distinctively cool vibe once inside.

The izakaya concept is simple - small plates, raucous staff, plenty of booze - and Guu Izakaya gets it all right. The menu ranges from classic Japanese dishes to more modern offerings, with prices starting at $4 for appetizers and ranging to $9-10 for some of the more substantial dishes. For truly adventurous eaters, they even offer one dish with natto, a Japanese delicacy made of gooey fermented soybeans that, to my unrefined western palate, smells like old gym socks and tastes only marginally better.

Menu itemsI went down on a Monday night with a few friends to check it out, and as soon as we walked in the door we were greeted with enthusiastic shouts from the kitchen staff and servers. The atmosphere is lively - you might even go so far as to say "rowdy" - and the menu encourages more liveliness with a good selection of sake and shochu (sake's evil distilled cousin), and cheap mugs of Sapporo (regularly $5, on for $3 during their grand opening promotion).

We had no problem getting a table when we arrived at 6:00pm, though the place soon filled up to capacity shortly thereafter.

20091223_guu-tunaED.jpgThe best way to experience the food is to go with a few friends and order a bunch of dishes as most of them are designed for easy sharing. We started with some maguro tataki ($7), a plate of lightly seared tuna served with ponzu sauce and crispy fried garlic chips. The textural contrast between the smooth, buttery tuna and lightly crispy garlic chips made for a top-notch dish that disappeared from the table in short order.

Ikapiri - deep fried squidThe ikapiri ($6) is a plate of deep-fried squid with spicy mayonnaise, which was well cooked with a satisfying spiciness that provided a good excuse to order more beer.

Karubi - garlic short ribsNext up we tried the karubi ($7), garlic short ribs served with a green onion sauce for dipping. The ribs were well seasoned with a bit of sweetness, but didn't quite stack up to the two previous dishes.

Daily chazuke with salmonChazuke ($6) is a traditional Japanese dish made with rice and a simple kombu dashi broth, served with a rotating selection of toppings. The topping of the day was salmon when we visited, and the dish had a nice clean seafood flavour that was the most "traditionally Japanese" of the dishes we tried. Unfortunately, there were a few tiny, dagger-sharp salmon bones in my bowl, which made eating it a bit of a chore.

Buta kimchi bibimbapThe most filling item we tried was the buta kimchi bibimbap ($8.50), a big helping of rice, pork and kimchi served in a sizzling hot stone bowl with a raw egg yolk on top. Our server gave us about two seconds to admire the presentation before digging in and mixing it all together into a big, delicious mess. When asked for his opinion on it, my otherwise articulate friend paused just long enough to mutter "good" before inhaling the rest of the bowl.

20091223_guu-udonED.jpgFinally, we tried the yakiudon ($8), a plate of panfried udon noodles and beef with green onions and a tasty, umami-filled sauce.

Overall the individual plates are affordably priced, though if you plan on filling up on some of the more exotic dishes, it could turn into an expensive meal.

Frozen grapesThe kitchen sent over some complimentary frozen grapes to finish things off as we were heading out, which was a nice touch. The service was very friendly throughout the evening, though things got a bit hectic as the place filled up. It's tough to fault them for that though, as the chaotic energy is all part of the charm.

Interior - Guu Izakaya

Guu Izakaya's unassuming location

Guu Izakaya - menu cover

Discussion

45 Comments

TokyoTuds / December 23, 2009 at 09:48 am
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Can't wit to go! In this context "guu" means "good" in the contemporary Japanese vernacular. I love the rowdiness of a proper izakaya, but I doubt here I can stuff myself and get hammered for under $30 all in as in Tokyo. Oh well, the pictures are delectable and I am really up for a visit to Guu!
magicmittens / December 23, 2009 at 12:23 pm
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AHHH!
I'm Japanese and lived in Vancouver pretty much all my life and I moved to Toronto this year.
I'm excited that part of my 'home' is here now in Toronto. Makes this city even better!
Kay / December 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm
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I cannot wait to go. I love the ones in Vancouver so I am super excited about this place. I went to Finn Izakaya at Yonge/Eglinton the other day and thought it was quite authentic but the menu did not seem as diversified as Guu.
mrsleny / December 23, 2009 at 06:11 pm
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I'm intrigued but I imagine Izakaya offerings are not very veg friendly. Can someone confirm?

Cheers!
JasonM / December 23, 2009 at 06:44 pm
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Wow...! Can you say, "ignorant, racist di#k"? This is as authentic a Japanese restaurant as you'll find in North America. Yes, Japanese people like Korean and Chinese food, too. Hence you'll find those types of dishes at many Japanese restaurants. D'uh.
snaba replying to a comment from JasonM / December 23, 2009 at 07:11 pm
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JasonM on December 23, 2009 at 6:44 PM , replying to a comment from Mad Max
"Yes, Japanese people like Korean and Chinese food, too. Hence you'll find those types of dishes at many Japanese restaurants. D'uh.
"
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Japanese people like McDonald's and KFC, too, so, how come it's not on the menu here?
mnhtn replying to a comment from snaba / December 23, 2009 at 07:28 pm
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Snaba

Because you can get that garbage Western food from those respective fast food joints! What is the point of your question? The restaurant services Japanese cuisine, which has been historically and culturally influenced and has influenced Chinese and Korean cuisine. Thats why its there too!
___________

Mad Max

You are an ignorant bigot who needs some serious schooling.
Yoshi replying to a comment from mnhtn / December 23, 2009 at 07:42 pm
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mnhtn on December 23, 2009 at 7:28 PM
"The restaurant services Japanese cuisine, which has been historically and culturally influenced...[by] Korean cuisine."

----------------

Now, I know you're full of it, and you have no idea what you're talking about. You need to seriously read up on Japanese and Korean history.

Now, I understand what Mad Max's point was. It's particularly evident here as no one seems to acknowledge the fact that Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures are distinct. This type of attitude is disrespectful.
j-rock / December 23, 2009 at 07:51 pm
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If you'd ever been to Japan you would know that Korean BBQ or "yaki-niku" joints are extremely popular with the average Japanese diner. In fact, some of Japan's most popular dishes, gyoza (fried dumplings) and ramen originated in China. I can only assume that this post was a lame attempt to generate some type of "controversy".
dabidzi / December 23, 2009 at 08:13 pm
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Damn there's some stupid people on this thread, but idiots come in bulk. Let's talk about the restaurant.

This is the real deal. Can you get better Japanese? Sure, go to Kaji and spend four times as much (and yet... worth it). If you know, or want to know, what an 'izakaya' is (think tapas, think pub) go here. Until now, the only other 'izakaya' I'd recommend is Ema-tei... but not without reservations. Guu is cheaper, louder, livelier and the food is at least as good. Maybe $50/per at most.

Spoke briefly with the manager. Very nice guy. He and much of the staff have been sent from Vancouver, where the other Guu are. He spent most of our time there slaving in the open kitchen. Details like that make a restaurant work.

As for the spew about how authentic this is? I lived in Japan for three years and was happy with Guu, but I'm just a pale-face. My wife thought it was authentic: she lived in Japan for... twenty-eight years.
dabidzi / December 23, 2009 at 08:36 pm
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BTW: shochu is not 'sake's evil distilled cousin', though I love the metaphor. 'Sake' (properly 'nihon-shu': 'Japanese-liquor', as 'sake' can mean any alcoholic drink) is brewed: think of the beer making process. 'Shochu' is distilled: think of whiskey, vodka et al. It is more like vodka in flavour than anything else, and used in much the same way. I am partial to 'oorong-hai': unsweetened oolong tea over ice with shochu.
Lune / December 23, 2009 at 08:54 pm
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I called Guu for a reservation but they said they are not taking any this year ... (I think it's because of overwhelming response), walk-in only. According to them, the line-up starts around 7pm ... so if you don't want to wait for a long time, get there early. Opens at 5pm. :)
escubio / December 23, 2009 at 10:21 pm
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Halleluya! Guuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu! Finally, I don't need to go home to Vancouver to get my fix. I hope the atmosphere is the same as in the original ones. BTW, the stupid comments on this wouldn't fly in YVR, where good food is enjoyed, not stereotyped.
jamesmal / December 23, 2009 at 10:21 pm
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Wednesday: short line at 6, huge line from 7. Did have reservation signs on some tables, so don't know what's up. Maybe booked up?
Krupo / December 23, 2009 at 10:41 pm
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I've had mixed feelings based on my previous experience out west.

It's funny, for example how the reviewer calls the grapes a nice touch - and if you're in a good mood I'm sure they would be.

They felt like more of an insulting attempt at a dessert treat after what could be best described as a train wreck of a visit to Guu in Vancouver this past summer - half the menu being sold out, staff being generally unhelpful in suggesting alternatives, and assorted other lesser calamities that built up into an evening that was only fun because of the company.

I'll grant that the rowdy staff made things amusing despite the food angle being off that night. And let's ignore pricing - admittedly hard to do if you just got off a flight from seemingly anywhere in Asia where you can get just as good or better for a seventh the price! :P
Sean / December 24, 2009 at 12:50 am
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I've been checking the Guu site everyday since I heard news of a location opening here in Toronto. Definitely one of my favourite restaurants from my former home in BC! I hope that they have kimchi udon on this location's menu. Great authentic Japanese food with inspired influences from other countries around the world - just like Japanese culture in general.
TokyoTuds / December 24, 2009 at 09:49 am
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MadMax, after eating in izakaya weekly for 15 years in Tokyo, I can categorically say that there are many non-Japanese dishes available. You also get some of the most creative and amazing fusion of Japanese and western cuisine there.
TokyoTuds replying to a comment from mrsleny / December 24, 2009 at 09:52 am
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mrsleny, for vegetarians it depends how strict you are. Sometimes chicken broth is used in preparation, but the visible ingredients do not contain meat. I bet Guu is more accommodating and knowledgeable about this than in Japan. I was with a vegetarian friend once in a Tokyo suburb, and when he asked about what appeared to be meat in his vegetarian dish, the staff said, "no, that's not meat, it's pork" .....
TokyoTuds replying to a comment from Yoshi / December 24, 2009 at 09:57 am
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Yoshi, I don't think anyone disputes that Japanese, Korean and Chinese culture are distinct. The question is: is it authentic for an izikaya to serve some Korean or Chinese dishes along with the Japanese fare? The answer is emphatically yes! If someone wants pure Japanese cuisine, then don't go to an izikaya, but instead go to a ryotei or a place focussed on one speciality like sushi. Am I right?
Anonymous Guy / December 24, 2009 at 01:05 pm
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$8 for some fried udon? Give me a break.

Kalbi and bibimbap? Why would you order that when reviewing an izakaya, which is a rarity in Toronto?

I want to know what makes this an izakaya, exactly. Is it the shochu, the hot towels, or what?
dabidzi replying to a comment from Anonymous Guy / December 24, 2009 at 03:24 pm
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You know what? I'm not qualified to comment on what is authentic Bengali cuisine... so I don't!

If you want to know what an izakaya is, Google it, or spend some time in Japan, better. If you want to criticize the authenticity or prices, knock yourself out. From what I can tell, the people on this thread who like it are the only ones who sound like they have any idea what they are talking about. If you didn't like it, or don't like the sound of it, stay home killjoy.

As for vegetarians, go to a vegetarian restaurant and stop pissing in our soup. I respect your choice, but it's not my problem, nor the non-vegetarian restaurant's. If they have accommodated you on the menu, that's because they thought it made good business sense. If they didn't, they don't. Stop whinging and find a place that accommodates you, rather than creating a scene in front of your long-suffering friends and waitstaff every time you go out. Do you need attention that badly?
escubio replying to a comment from dabidzi / December 25, 2009 at 12:07 pm
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Here, here! Well said.
mrsleny replying to a comment from dabidzi / December 25, 2009 at 04:15 pm
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Sorry if I offended anyone. I just wanted to know if there were veg options. It's something to consider when going out with a group.
piccola replying to a comment from dabidzi / December 25, 2009 at 05:09 pm
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Whoa, settle down, there. You don't have to spend years in Japan to critique a Japanese restaurant; otherwise, hardly anyone would be able to comment on more than one or two cuisines. And asking about veg options isn't pissing in anyone's soup, to use your lovely expression - it's making a polite enquiry about a business's offerings. How else can they "find a place that accommodates" them?
TokyoTuds replying to a comment from mrsleny / December 25, 2009 at 08:53 pm
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mrsleny, I understood your veg question .... just asking .... Japanese food is pretty good for vegetarians, but ironically has those hidden meat ingredients. If you are very strict, I would be wary, but if you just like to avoid meat as a main component, I bet you can do well at Guu.
mrsleny replying to a comment from TokyoTuds / December 25, 2009 at 09:21 pm
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Thank you very much, Piccolo & TokyoTuds. I know Japanese food tends to use dashi stock in many dishes, hence my question. Your comments & suggestions are very much appreciated.

Happy Holidays!
Smiley / January 6, 2010 at 03:19 am
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I was at Guu tonight and it was Tuesday night around 6:30pm, and the place was PACKED! This is not a large place so it fills up quickly. We waited for about 15 minutes to get seated. The floor greeter will keep track of customers by your name as you wait for a table so no worries for someone who came later getting ahead to be seated. By 8pm, the place was still packed with even more people waiting (inside) to be seated. They had 2-hour max service time for each table, which was quite enough to enjoy your meal. The sound level of this izakaya is very high, so if you are considering a fancy quiet night, this is not a good choice. Food is good and well prepared. Portion is small but reasonably priced so you can order many small dishes and share it with your company. I would expect to spend 25-30 bucks for food per person, plus additional for drink. Tonight I hesitated to ask for specific attention to my orders (vegetarian, food allergy) as the kitchen looked very busy so I compromised and limited my order, but I have every right to request and I'm sure they'll do their best to accommodate your needs. It is izakaya after all so maybe you could drop by for some beer and if you ask for simple otsumami dishes you're all set. Big mug Sapporo beer (about 2 pint) was 9 bucks, not bad. Service is very friendly (typical Japanese izakaya friendliness) and fairly prompt, despite the full house galore of people. Pretty good selection of sake (hot and cold) is also available. Parking was occupied but there was a private parking right beside it for 6 bucks.
Laura Bee / January 6, 2010 at 10:44 am
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We got a reservation on a Tuesday night at 5:45 for this place. It was empty when we got there, but PACKED with a line up by the time we left (at our 2 hour mark).
I went with a big group of friends, and we had an AMAZING time. We just ordered a bunch of random items off the menu and tried everything. The tuna was amazing, the oysters were great, and the beef tongue was exotic but tasty. I highly recommend going here in a big group, and being adventurous in what you order.
It was also SUPER loud, as the whole staff greet you when you walk in. Definitely a unique experience.
Anonymous Guy replying to a comment from dabidzi / January 17, 2010 at 07:58 pm
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Late reply... my apologies.

Living in Japan at the moment. Thanks though.
j-rock / January 18, 2010 at 03:13 pm
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I tried to get in over the holidays, but it was just too full. I went back last week with 3 friends, and had a great time. All of us had spent between 5 - 10 years living in Japan at different points, and we agreed that it was by far the most authentic Japanese dining experience we've had since leaving. There are some great Japanese restaurants in and around Toronto, provided you're willing to drop at least $100. Kaiseki-Sakura and Sushi Kaji simply aren't affordable enough to be regular destinations, and the cheap all-you-can-eat sushi places are only for people who don't know any better.

Besides the food, which was very good, Guu succeeded in capturing the "vibe" of a real izakaya. And that in some ways might be even harder than getting the food right. That's much closer to how real Japanese people eat and socialize. Until very recently in this city, it was almost sushi or nothing. With the opening of the downtown Kenzo ramen location, and now Guu, the Japanese food scene in Toronto is starting at least, to gain a bit of much needed diversity. A gyu-don shop would be a great addition, but we might still have to wait for that. I wish Guu all the best, and I fully intend to head down there on a pretty regular basis from now on.
Chenyip replying to a comment from Krupo / January 19, 2010 at 03:49 pm
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Been going out to Vancouver for some time. There hasn't been one time where I went and didn't visit one of the Guu locations. Every one of them has me - hook, line and sinker. Now I get all tastes differ, but to say "you went to Guu and were thoroughly disappointed" is kind of a blanket statement. As anyone who has been to them knows, all the Guu's are VERY different. The food and experience at Garlic will be different than Gastown as it will be different from Thurlow. The only thing that might be the same are the cute japanese girls working each respective location.
Michael / January 20, 2010 at 02:01 am
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I lived in Japan this year. Bibimbap was a popular dish at Izakayas in Tokyo but they didn't call it that. They just called it Korean style grilled rice. Japanese have a long history of loving grilled rice as well as raw egg yolks so it really fits in well as a final dish. The problem with Izakaya food is it tends to not be filling at all: after all thats what the beer is for. Its not meant as a meal for a big western person remember but for a tinier Japanese person. In Japan after going to the Izakaya it was pretty regular to stumble into any number of all night eateries afterwards and get either a real meal or my booze and some fried stuff! A deadly good combo, especially when you get to the osake in a juice box level :P And yes I know that stuff is gross, but hey only in Saitama.
Valeria / January 29, 2010 at 07:27 pm
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Oh God, why on earth does everyone compare Natto to gym socks? Has the author even tried it seeing as how they're taking text from other sites? I see how stereotypes are formed. It's not a Japanese delicacy, it's a breakfast food and at least this place doesn't have california rolls slathered in mayo that cater to the "western palate"
maurice / May 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm
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totally agreed with Valeria!! California rolls are north american invention.. it's NOT japanese food!! it's actually a joke in local Japan.
stephanie / November 5, 2010 at 12:21 pm
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Great atmosphere, totally understand why this establishment is a hot spot being the first of it's kind here in Toronto.

Went on a Tuesday night around 9:30, waiting list, didn't get seated till 10pm, with a 2 hour seating limit, it was perfect timing since they closed at 12. we had a table of 4

the lighting was really nice, cozy and warm. Staff is enthusiastic and extremely vocal....i don't even know how their voices and keep up with all the yelling and screaming that they are CONSTANTLY doing haha but kudos to them for having voices of steel.

now...the FOOD.
I don't recommend going to this place on an EMPTY stomach, oh god, bad choice on my part...the tapas are quite pricey considering the portions you receive are very small, and being that it was our first time there we did share our tiny portion out to our friends....my boyfriend and I only got one bite out of our $7 dish...it was a little heart breaking but it was all for the experience..beh...
at the end of the night between me and my boyfriend we spent $50ish with no alcohol. still really hungry we refrained from ordering anymore knowing it was going to break the bank.

another thing i'd like to point out was although the food was good, i wasn't really impressed, we ordered the beef and tuna takaki and both were soaked in onions more onions and garlic. I was really sad knowing that this little expensive dish was mainly onions...although i do love onions and garlic, i was hoping to taste the fish and beef.
my favorite dishes of the night was the eel on rice and takoyaki. everything else we ordered were drenched with...yet again onions and garlic!

anyways, I'm not sure if i'll go back to Guu mainly because it's just a good place to have drinks ( in my opinion )
the food was so-so and definitely not worth its money to me.
john / April 27, 2012 at 09:17 am
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Never like the yelling order thing in Van. too noisy. Food is great though.
ScottyP / February 27, 2013 at 07:13 pm
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I can't for the life of me understand why people of sound mind and body would choose to go a restaurant that boots you out after a strict 2-hour time limit, especially after having made you wait in a parking lot for the privilege.

And yes, I'm actually one of those people. We arrived at Guu at 4:45 and waited 15 minutes for the doors to open (note - opening hours have since changed to 5:30, apparently), at which point just about everyone waiting got a table. I recommend a similar approach to anyone belonging to the anti-parking lot crowd.

As for the food? It's all right I guess, though I found several dishes to be on the salty side. I lived in Japan for 5 years and my wife is Japanese, and unlike message board warrior dabidzi above, neither of us were particularly impressed.

(Koyoi, about 15 minutes away on foot, is much less unassuming and the food considerably better - too bad they never change the menu, but that's a story for another time. The food at Guu isn't horrible, but the 25/30 score it received in Zagat is plain shocking. Some things in life simply don't make any sense.)

Anyway. I digress.

The service at Guu? Nice enough, except for that sticky 2-hour limit. Amazing, what we Torontonians will endure in the name of cool. We were slow to get served at first and even slower to get our initial order (everyone having arrived at the same time, it was understandable). But there came the server at 6:31pm to take our "last order", with a smile. Good times!

Without attempting to, uh, "piss in your soup", Guu is not where you want to be spending your valuable time, folks. There is *so* much choice now in Toronto: a beautiful thing! Even 25 staff members bleating "irasshaimase~~~" at once is patently ridiculous, a clown show that doesn't exist anywhere except in silly Canadian izakaya chains. In an ironic twist, the antics meant that our 7pm "deadline" couldn't come fast enough. An indisputable annoyance? Or merely clever tactics?

My advice? Find an izakaya in Toronto that values your business, and prioritizes food & quality over schtick & expedience. And for crying out loud, take your time! Even more than 2 hours, if you want. You deserve it.
Matt / May 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm
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Unique. Cool. A little loud - but fun. Fresh. Great presentation. Delicious. Bacon wrapped fricken scallops are unlike any others that I have devoured. Guu is guud, make it your next stop and get there early so u sont have to wait in line.
commander pizza / May 6, 2013 at 08:44 pm
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I know this website presents quality depending articles and extra data, is there any other site which gives such information in quality?
av / August 6, 2013 at 04:04 pm
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Great food, but if you're seated on the patio prepare for poor service. Somehow the servers just seemed to forget about my party since we weren't seated in the main dining area. Despite all this I've had many positive experiences at Guu so I'd still recommend it.
James / November 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm
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it was fun for the experience but for me (it was 3 of us) 2 hour seating limit is insulting. But hey no cute or sexy waitresses so we wouldn't stay anyway. not coming back sorry
Ryan / November 14, 2013 at 10:55 pm
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Why do these izakaya close so early? I want to go down starting at Midnight but they close at midnight.
Is this the pub style in Japan?
Lileth / November 19, 2013 at 12:57 am
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t’s a good thing that Vancouver has a Japanese restaurant like this. So that people here can have if they want to eat a Japanese food. The food you offer looks tasty and the place has a nice ambience looks like you really in Japan. Also, Toronto has a Finest Japanese Cuisine which is Kanji Sushi Restaurant and Sake Bar. They offer Sushi and Sake combines Traditional Japanese recipes with French and Italian influences. You can also visit their site @ http://kanjitoronto.com/#!/splash_page
james / January 25, 2014 at 10:10 pm
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The food quality has decreased since they opened. Yeah why should they care they are so busy.
And still no attractive waitresses. weird now I am thinking they really don't care
I mean if you are charging $10 for a little noodle with white sauce give me a reason
Gary / January 28, 2014 at 04:39 pm
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I took my better half for her birthday. Made that reservation and noted that it is her birthday. Also mentioned to the server upon arrival that it is her birthday. Ordered our food. Thought that there would be some celebratory signage for photo-op. But there wasn't. Our food was late and far in between while they seem to served non-Asians folks quicker. The most expensive dish "Cod" was extremely oily. The rest of the food was mediocre. Nah , I would NOT go there again. Nevertheless I tipped her appropriately. I usually do not write but this one I had to. Over-hyped!

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