Go east … the food is getting better out there
Lower rents have helped fuel a rise in quality restaurants east of the Don, but it's not always easy to get bums in seats
Erik Joyal and John Sinopoli have learned to temper their expectations for running a restaurant east of the Don Valley. Soon after opening Table 17 on Queen Street just past Broadview Avenue in 2008, they introduced a prix fixe menu on Sundays and Mondays. It didn't make money but got "bums in seats," in Mr. Sinopoli's words, making the place look busy and therefore worth visiting.
At Ascari Enoteca down the street, which they opened in 2011, all the wine – even the fancy bottles – is half-price on Mondays. "There weren't crowds rushing to try out the new pasta bar at Queen and Caroline," Mr. Sinopoli says of his early days there.
The two weathered years of small business storms, making nice with suppliers to whom they owed money and borrowing from family to pay their debts. They watched other nearby restaurants come and go, done in by the east side's rather conservative dining culture.
So it was a bit unexpected when the duo's latest venture immediately drew a crowd. Mr. Sinopoli and Mr. Joyal are in charge of the food program at the 126-year-old Broadview Hotel, which reopened in July after a three-year, $26-million renovation. The brand-new glass-boxed restaurant on the top floor is currently a place to be seen, with tables laden with burgers and kefta during the week and a crowded bar come weekends.
"There have been thousands of people here a week since day one," Mr. Sinopoli says, while Mr. Joyal admits to being surprised by just how much anticipation there was for the unveiling of the refurbished landmark.
There are, unsurprisingly, still a few kinks: The new windows facing Queen Street East are still boarded over, as the launch of the building's fine-dining restaurant, The Civic, has been delayed.
The opening jitters are even more pronounced because they're layered atop city-wide excitement about the hotel and growing interest in the area.
"The scale is enormous and the expectations are enormous," Mr. Sinopoli says about launching the hotel's three restaurants at once. The bigger question is whether the Broadview can become an anchor dining destination, one that spreads the love to smaller independent players throughout the less trendy side of the Don.
Over the past decade, as neighbourhoods such as Trinity-Bellwoods and King-Spadina exploded, things on the east side have stayed fairly pedestrian. Today, Queen Street East is largely populated by outposts of local mini-chains such as Tabule and Lil' Baci, which offer tasty but simple food suitable for feeding rowdy toddlers while their parents knock back a glass of serviceable wine before 8 p.m.
Lately, a flurry of openings indicates that restaurateurs with more experimental ideas are finally looking east, focusing especially on a historically South Asian strip of Gerrard Street East. The draw is that they live nearby. Also, the rent is cheap. The hope is that the local population is finally hungry enough to provide them with a livelihood in a business with famously slim margins and temperamental customers.
It's fitting that these hopes have been placed on Mr. Joyal and Mr. Sinopoli, as the arc of their careers has played out just east of downtown. Along with Ascari, they own two other spots within walking distance of the hotel: the bar Hi-Lo and a four-month-old brasserie, Gare de L'Est.
The two met in New York in the late 1990s, while Mr. Joyal was studying hospitality and Mr. Sinopoli was learning culinary arts. Introduced by mutual friends, they eventually opened their first restaurant in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood in 2005 while in their 20s, a ramen spot called Izakaya.
"I enjoyed that project a lot – and I made a lot of mistakes along that road," says Mr. Sinopoli, who was born in Montreal and moved to Toronto as a child. "Like trusting the engineer to design a working ventilation system."
"The people upstairs felt like they were in a massage chair," says Mr. Joyal, who grew up in Toronto. He also recalls cooks walking out without warning during the middle of service.
"They ghosted us before that was even a word," Mr. Sinopoli says.
When looking for a place to open Table 17, the two considered St. Clair Avenue and the Annex before settling on Queen Street East. Neither live in the area, but it seemed less saturated than those other neighbourhoods – a more affordable place for still-fledgling business owners to get a start.
Now, the south strip of Leslieville is well established. Greasy spoons have disappeared as building owners have reaped the profits of gentrification.
That's a large part of the draw of Gerrard Street East, where rent is about $10 to $15 a square foot cheaper than on Queen Street East – and a third of what it is on Ossington Avenue near Queen Street West.
"For us, it was Little India or bust," says Zac Schwartz, co-owner of the 10-month-old Lake Inez, at Gerrard Street East and Craven Road. There, Philippines-born chef Robbie Hojilla offers what Mr. Schwartz calls "openly inauthentic" Asian-fusion dishes such as kinilaw, for which local fish is deliciously cured with Filipino vinegars and spices.
Mr. Schwartz and his two co-owners all live within walking distance, one of the reasons they wanted to locate here. The other reason, he says, is "more romantic – we just felt like Little India has some magic to it. The narrow streets, the late-night community. To the north, you see the old-growth trees. To the south you see the water. It has an esoteric charm."
Although classic South Asian places such as the Lahore Tikka House are still bustling, retail on Gerrard has been experiencing demographic change for a while. South Asian businesses are now concentrated in the suburbs, making this long-time immigrant hub too much of a trek for some. Vacant storefronts are common.
That provides an opportunity for first-timers, says Steven Alikakos, the president of real estate firm RKF Canada. Plus, he says, Gerrard is full of buildings that already have restaurant kitchens and many of its South Asian restaurateurs have reached retirement age and are ready to sell or rent out their spaces.
"A kitchen-exhaust conversion is one of the most expensive things in a restaurant build-out," Mr. Alikakos says. "The advantage is that you can do a cosmetic renovation, versus a full build-out, and open right away."
Mr. Schwartz agrees – to a point. "We got a great hood out of it, I'll give it that," he says of the Lake Inez space, which used to be an Indian vegetarian buffet. "But it was an expensive endeavour."
Brewer Luc Lafontaine just oversaw a $2-million-plus renovation of an 8,000-square-foot space at Gerrard and Coxwell Avenue that had stood empty for more than four years. His retail store, pub and Japanese snack spot, Godspeed, is the biggest of a number of new breweries in the east side, including Left Field and Saulter Street.
"Two Tuesdays in a row there was a lineup at 8 p.m. Then, on Saturday, it died at 7," Mr. Lafontaine says of recent business. "It's a little strange. I'm still trying to understand the neighbourhood."
Formerly the head brewer at Montreal's beloved Dieu de Ciel, Mr. Lafontaine already has fans, as does Lake Inez's Mr. Hojilla from his time at restaurants such as Harbord Room and Woodlot. Both are drawing curious tourists from outside the neighbourhood, but as owners, Mr. Lafontaine and Mr. Schwartz say they're counting on locals for longevity.
That could be tricky, says Nicole Cheung, who has lived in the area since 2003 and who opened the craft-beer bar Eulalie's Corner Store in the heart of Little India three years ago. She's worked in bars since university, which is where she met her husband, Alex Bartlett, now owner of the veteran dive Betty's near the corner of King Street East and Sherbourne Street.
She says she opened Eulalie's mainly because she wanted a good local bar, though she and her chef designed a more wide-ranging menu for her second Gerrard spot, the all-day cafe Bodega Henriette, which opened last November. She says she's keeping her vision small. "I have no expectations of becoming a destination for anybody – I'm in the middle of nowhere," says Ms. Cheung, who thinks rumours of an east side boom are greatly exaggerated.
First of all, she says, few of the new places are really close enough to visit more than one in an evening – although she, Mr. Lafontaine and Mr. Schwartz are all friendly and send customers to each other's spots when they can. Secondly, the local crowd isn't inclined to bar hop anyway. "Very rarely is it a night out – it's dinner and maybe two beers afterward," she says. "It's all strollers and babies." Brunch at Bodega Henriette is much busier than dinner.
New condo projects are scheduled to open throughout Leslieville in the coming years, which may bring young, single seekers of nightlife. For now, Ms. Cheung says, "the population isn't there. There's not enough people. Not even close."
Still, she, Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Lafontaine are all trying to build lasting businesses, having negotiated long, renewable leases to keep their costs predictable. It's a sensible practice: Ascari is seven years into a 10-year lease, and Mr. Joyal and Mr. Sinopoli assume the renewal will be reasonable, as the building is owned by a friend.
Although they now have more than a decade of experience, the restaurateurs say new stresses crop up constantly. Those include recruiting good staff in a city that has undergone massive growth in the food-services industry.
"When we opened Izakaya, you could count the five to seven really good restaurants that were really sought after," Mr. Sinopoli says. Now, there are dozens of worthy independents and a growing number of bigger hospitality groups, such as the Chase, King Street Food Company and Oliver & Bonacini. "There just hasn't been a work force in the city to fill all of these positions."
They're also facing other changes in the labour market – what Mr. Joyal calls "sensitive topics, with no easy answers." Those include the imminent rise of the minimum wage to $15 an hour and industry-wide discussions about how to handle tipping, which tends to send servers and other front-of-the-house staff home with more money than kitchen staff and cooks.
"The whole structure will be unrecognizable in a decade," Mr. Joyal says. "No doubt there will be a lot of casualties. The biggest strain is on people like John and I 10 years ago."
For now, their focus is putting the final touches on the Civic, which will have a menu that looks back on Victorian-era hotel fare. Hopefully, it will open in late October. Everyone is watching.
"We used to open quietly in the east end," Mr. Sinopoli says. "There's no ramp-up any more."
New spots to eat in the east
Bodega Henriette: Small, super sweet and almost always open. Breakfasts are impressive, while multicultural bistro food is a reason to linger in the evenings. 1801 Gerrard St. E., 416-546-6261
Lake Inez: An ambitious, modern pan-Asian menu holds many exciting surprises. The beers are all from Ontario and the wine list is almost all biodynamic. 1471 Gerrard St. E., 416-792-1590, lakeinezto.com
Pinkerton's Snack Bar: Properly loud and raucous, this is the east end's most happening bar. Classic cocktails, Ontario beer and thoughtful finger food, too. 1026 Gerrard St. E., 416-855-1460.
White Lily: Half-price wine on Fridays is one reason to visit this perfect little diner. The luscious house-smoked turkey in the club sandwich is another. 678 Queen St. E., 416-901-7800, whitelilydiner.ca