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Underground Toronto restaurant takes trades instead of money

Chez Lisgar is no ordinary pop-up restaurant, as instead of buying food with money, guests are invited to trade items in exchange for dinner.

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Toronto roommates Nadya Khoja and Sarah Lee have been inviting complete strangers into their apartment for home-cooked meals. Since they always seem to cook more than they can eat, they posted on Bunz Trading Zone, a popular social media community for those interested in bartering, inviting people over to share their meal in exchange for wine. The roommates were hit with over 400 likes and 100 comments on their post almost immediately. They’ve since found themselves booked solid, with guests in their home every Friday night until the end of April (you can still request a reservation at Chez Lisgar at a later date).

At the first Chez Lisgar dinner, on Feb. 12, Khoja asked that guests bring wine in exchange for dinner, a feast of pulled turkey braised in bourbon and maple syrup on a ciabatta bun, served with guacamole-stuffed onion rings and a green salad drizzled in lemon balsamic vinaigrette. “I’m not a professional chef, but I am a good cook,” says Khoja.

Menu items at Chez Lisgar
Image: Chez Lisgar
Chez Lisgar appeals to young Torontonians’ love of bartering. “Toronto is really expensive,” explains Khoja. She says many graduates from undergrad and masters programs are “struggling to find employment that actually pays enough for them to meet their rent and have a social life.”

“It makes sense that a community would form that allows young people to still appreciate the finer things in life without having to fork over their whole paycheque.”

The price of living is particularly high in Toronto: The average monthly cost of renting a one-bedroom is $1,456.33, while the average monthly pay is only $3,419.52 after taxes, according to data from Numbeo. When you throw in a few hundred bucks for utilities, this means people are spending nearly half their monthly income on paying for pricey apartments. It should come as no surprise, then, that the underground bartering community has taken off like wildfire.

Dessert at Chez Lisgar
Image: Chez Lisgar

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Given Chez Lisgar’s wild popularity, Khoja and Lee are dreaming of expanding their bedroom enterprise into an online hub of food and dining traders — basically, an Airbnb for food. One can easily anticipate the debates at Toronto City Hall, but it’s an innovative idea that’s bound to gain some traction in a city addicted to bartering if they go through with it.

And for future dinners, Khoja is going to consider asking guests to trade items other than wine for dinner. “I think eventually we will need to move away from just alcohol, because I think I’m starting to feel it in my liver,” she jokes.

Hosting a pop-up trading restaurant in their house has intangible benefits as well — helping strangers make connections in a city like Toronto, where it’s easy to pass one another by anonymously. For anyone hoping to take a cue from Chez Lisgar, Khoja has some advice: “I would recommend it for sure, but definitely put into place a strict screening process to make sure that there are similar interests and that the people will be willing to have a genuine conversation with you,” she explains. “It’s not only about the food — it’s about the interaction and experience more than anything.”

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