Festival season approaches! This exciting fact means that the bums of serious moviegoers may soon grow larger. Not necessarily due to an excess of sitting, mind you, but more because of the festival diet. There are eleven days of movie-going bliss during the Toronto International Film Festival; however, TIFF can be murder on a healthy diet. Proper and efficient eating can greatly enhance one’s festival experience, though, so please familiarize yourself with The Festival Diet in preparation for the event. In TIFF speak, this advice is all about “Where Film meets Foodie.”
To make a long story short: if you aim to see more than three films a day at the festival (as one should), you will eat poorly. I think there was at least one day during TIFF’11 where I consumed nothing but three Grande bolds and a bagel. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I say, but it’s best to be smart and pack a lunch.
Even though dinner is the most costly meal of the day, keep in mind that lugging food around all day can be a chore. A helpful festival attendee I once met in line said that she makes a stack of sandwiches before the festival and puts them in the freezer, and then grabs one or two on her way out the door. It’s a good idea, and one that saves some time and money. Last year, I even cooked some chicken fingers before heading out to see We Need to Talk about Kevin at the Winter Garden. I cooked some extra nuggets for Tilda, but she didn’t bite.
If you can’t pack a dinner, just fill up early. Eat some fruit for breakfast and maybe something else, too. Save the bagel for lunch since it packs easily and is conducive to eating while on the go. In addition to the bagel (you’ll eat lots of carbs these eleven days), pack some cereal bars, plus some nuts/trail mix for protein and, if possible, some dried fruit. Just pack anything that can be eaten in line or while en route to the venue. It’s good to have a variety of carbs, protein, vitamins so that you can satisfy whichever craving appears. Make sure to pack a large water bottle as well, which will come in handy more often than you think. Lastly, a good way to get your daily servings of fruit is to stop by Booster Juice when you’re near the Visa Screening Room. Be careful when you time your visit, though: last year my brother made a trip for a smoothie and it cost him a sighting of Brad and Angelina. (I caught them!)
Food courts are a convenient way to eat a balanced meal during the festival. They are also a better way to balance the budget. Eating out can up the ante of your festival expenditure considerably, so visiting a food court between films gives you good grub (ish) and it lets you avoid the extra expenses of trendy food of tipping. (And beverages if you’re smart to bring your own water!)
The best places for festival food courts includes the Cineplex Young & Dundas, which has a decent range of fast food to comparatively healthy options. Likewise, a trip to Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre, or the TIFF Bell Lightbox could be combined with a pit stop at the food court in the underground path/concourse. (It’s near the Festival Box Office.) Plan carefully, though, since this food court is closed on weekends. The best place to eat and run, however, is the Urban Eatery at the Eaton Centre. Urban Eatery houses the widest menu of fast food joints, with options from Thai, Chinese, and Cajun cooking, right down to the handy standby of Micky D’s. This court is the best place to get a warm meal for under $8. It’s easily accessible by the subway, too, so it’s hardly out of the way. This is an ideal stop for festivalgoers who need to refuel before/after catching a screening at the Visa Screening Room, the Winter Garden Theatre, Cineplex Yonge & Dundas, or Ryerson Theatre. (Side note: attendees of daytime screenings at Ryerson can also use the comparatively lesser College St. food court under Winners. If you’re going here, I recommend Duck. [They serve duck.])
If you’re in the mood for a full sit down meal, however, it might be best to do so whilst catching a film at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Located in the heart of The Annex, The Bloor is in close proximity to plenty of options for cheap eats of acceptable quality. The best bang for your buck near The Bloor, I think, is Sushi on Bloor, which offers great sushi for unbeatable prices. The service is usually pretty quick, so it’s an efficient choice. My personal favorite eatery near The Bloor is Southern Accent. Southern Accent is located on Markham St. just south of Honest Ed’s and it serves a sinful spread of Louisiana-style Cajun cooking. They offer a great prix fixe that gives patrons an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $25. (Make sure to get the pecan pie.) Among the tasty offerings at Southern Accent are Blackened Chicken Livers and the occasional serving of alligator, and their Voodoo pasta is always a safe bet. They also have a Tarot card reader on site for added novelty. Service is usually a bit slower at Southern Accent (you can’t rush a good simmer), so this is an ideal stop for an extended break or après-film meal.
If you are eating in the Lightbox/RTH/PoW hub, Luma and the Canteen at the Lightbox are always good options. Prices are a bit higher in this district, but the quality usually is too. King St. W. also features a strip of restaurants directly across from the Lightbox, and Hey Lucy! in particular offers a good menu of sandwiches, wraps, and salads for festivalgoers in search of a casual meal. Be careful in choosing restaurants in this strip, however, for some places survive on location alone and sling overpriced, sub-par slop in chintzy portions. (I'm looking at you, Kit Kat!)
Finally, it’s hard to say where to eat if celebrity sightings are on your menu. Yorkville is historically the standby place for sightings; however, the festival has since travelled to King St. as its main hub, so a trip to Sassafraz may not be as worthwhile. Perhaps Ben and Jen will be dining at Lee before Argo?
Proper caffeine consumption can make or break a festival. A car cannot run without fuel, nor can a film buff festival without coffee. Although I much prefer dark/bold coffee, a good strategy is to switch to mild stuff because it contains more caffeine than bold coffee. You don’t want to be droopy-eyed when a hotly-buzzed film is about to start, but you don’t want to be charging for the bathroom, either. Budget carefully: if a thirteen-week course on Bollywood cinema taught me anything, it’s that one can hold a Grande for three hours but a Venti is too much. (Anyone sampling TIFF’s City to City spotlight on Mumbai may want to note this fact.)
Get your coffees while your friend grabs a spot in line and all will be fine. A grab and go at Starbucks is an ideal way to have breakfast if you want to get a few more minutes of sleep. Avoid the over-priced McMuffins. I find that adding a pumpkin scone to the coffee order is a good way to start the day since it contains at least three essential food groups: fruit, carbs, and icing. Additionally, make sure to note the locations of coffee merchants beforehand. Most theatre venues are in close proximity to several Starbi and there’s often a Second Cup, or even a Tim Horton’s nearby in case of emergency. Please use this handy map of the festival quarters: each TIFF marks a venue and each pink dot represents a Starbucks (the ones with letters seem to be top recommendations from Google Maps) .
It’s important to know your battlefields in order to manage food smuggling. The most food-friendly theatre is easily TIFF Bell Lightbox. TBLB is probably the most lenient in terms of outside food and drink, but don’t quote me on that. (I’ve never had a problem sneaking something in.) In addition to the aforementioned Canteen, TBLB offers a grab-and-go sandwich bar, and it has the Blackberry Lounge if you want a drink to freshen up. Last year, a heinous screening of That Summer drove me to drink, so the Blackberry Lounge is a most convenient spot to sip a cocktail while you chat/laugh about a film and watch the tweets of other TIFFers. (I recommend the Lazy Caprese at the Lightbox. It’s a tasty Caesar with bocconcini instead of celery.)
The worst venue for foodstuff is, without question, the Isabel Bader. One probably has a better chance of bringing an AK-47 onto an American airplane than of bringing a muffin into the Bader. Aside from water, the staff will tackle you if you try to slip one by. (Where Film meets Football?) The crew at the Bader rarely lets patrons inside more than fifteen minutes before the film starts – what with all the technical hiccups and gaffs that always happen there – so one can simply eat in line. Plan well and all will be well.
Ah, popcorn. It’s my favourite food, and festival season brings out the worst in me. I’ll admit that most years at the festival include at least one day where I eat popcorn for both lunch and dinner. I have never tried it for breakfast, but maybe that will be my task for TIFF’12. (It’s at least two food groups, mom!) Most venues serve popcorn, except for the Bader (obviously) and Ryerson. The best popcorn both in terms of taste and in terms of value can be found at the Lightbox. TBLB serves cheap kernels and in modest sizes. There are no garbage bags of snacks here! Butter is also free, if memory serves correct, so the popcorn at the Lightbox will sate your craving for cinematic cuisine, but it won’t make much of a dent in your budget.
The runner-up for popcorn goes to the Visa Screening Room, which offers popcorn of average taste, but serves the snack in vintage cartons. At $4, it’s worth the novelty. It makes for a fun souvenir, too, especially if a celebrity owned it. (A friend once nabbed a discarded popcorn bag that was enjoyed by Clive Owen.)
Finally, what is everyone’s opinion on the popcorn fork? I received this tool as a gift last Christmas and I only mastered the art of the fork recently. This convenient tool lets film buffs snack without worrying about the stigma of greasy, buttery fingers. The popcorn fork also hosts a built in saltshaker if your daily intake of sodium is low. The fork likewise doubles as a pair of chopsticks if you sneak Chinese food or pad Thai into the theatre.
Overall, though, I hope this advice provides some strategy. Top up that Starbucks card and make some baggies of snacks. The festival is always a fun event, so maximizing your efficiency will surely enhance your experience. Just think: there is always the chance that Penelope Cruz might be grabbing coffee too!
Are there any festival diet tips you’d like to share?