Jessica Blaine Smith
Photo by: Jessica Blaine Smith | http://jbsmithphotography.com
Bar manager Josh Lindley (above) and co-owner Dave Mitton recall when mixed drinks had no profile.
After nearly 10 years, the Harbord Room has announced its last call. On Saturday (October 29), the well-loved bar and restaurant packs up its stemware and overturns its heavy wooden bar stools for good, a difficult but amicable decision necessitated by its partners moving in new directions.
For anyone who's ever developed a mild addiction to the house burger, enjoyed a few too many well-made cocktails, scribbled nonsense on the washroom chalkboards or laughed too loudly in the tiny pink room, this is devastating news.
Besides attracting a devoted dinner crowd with chef Cory Vitello's locally focused dishes, THR transformed Toronto's cocktail culture. We now take for granted that bartenders at the Keg can navigate a decent Old-fashioned, but 10 years ago it was out of the norm to incorporate fresh juices into drinks, let alone serve three ounces of stirred and bittered brown liquor.
"The Harbord Room has done a lot of things that people either don't know about or have forgotten," says current and final bar manager Josh Lindley.
"I've gone there once a month for 10 years, and in the past six months, I've been there all the time. It's always top of the mind to go to the Harbord Room for drinks," Lindley laughs, noting that THR opened within a few months of the Black Hoof, also oft-overlooked as an influencer of Toronto's cocktail scene.
Intimate, informal rooms have become a fixture in the current hipster-snack-bar craze, but THR's knowledgeable tattooed and T-shirted staff were serving classic cocktails in a room built for 30 people long before it was the norm.
Harbord Room co-owner Dave Mitton.
"It was a different city when we first opened," reflects Dave Mitton, co-owner, original barman and a former partner at now-shuttered Czehoski.
"There was no Black Hoof, no Ossington or Dundas scene. At Czehoski [in 2005], where the first drink list included Negronis, Old-fashioneds and Manhattans, people were outraged that there was local wine on the menu and would complain that the cocktails were too strong."
Now the global ambassador for Canadian whiskies like Lot No. 40, J.P. Wiser's and Pike Creek, Mitton helped galvanize T.O.'s original cocktail community. Inspired by the camaraderie and mutual support he observed amongst bartenders and mixologists in cities like New York, he reached out to those taking bartending seriously, closed THR for a night and invited a crew of about 30 bartenders to an industry forum.
"Everyone showed - I couldn't believe it!" Mitton recalls.
"There was laughing and fighting. There was lots of talk and lots of drinking. Everyone brought a bottle of something special. That was the first night Mike Webster (of Bar Raval and Pretty Ugly) made me a Trinidad sour, and I was blown away that a cocktail could contain a full ounce of Angostura bitters. By the end of the night, we'd learned from each other and agreed that we would keep communicating in order to put Toronto on the map."
Mitton became the unofficial godfather of the bartending community, distributing information about spirits tastings, cocktail competitions and other industry events to his list of industry contacts, which has grown from the original 30 to include 500 people throughout the province.
"While we were getting back into the craft of the cocktail, people were also getting serious about the service aspect," says Mitton. "Bartending was becoming a career again."
Walk up to any bar in Toronto and chances are good that a cocktail list will slide in your direction. The Old Fashioned is the new vodka soda, tiki cocktails have banished Sex On The Beach (forever, hopefully). Thank places like the Harbord Room for this seismic shift in drink quality.
One of Lindley's first projects as bar manager was to compile a list of signature recipes from some of Toronto's OG cocktail bartenders like Rob Montgomery, Renata Clingen, Christina Kuypers, Sandy De Almeida and Webster, an homage to those scene pioneers.
The Harbord Room serves its final flips and fizzes Saturday, but a small part of its legacy lives on in bars and restaurants where proper cocktails have become standard issue.
Our fave THR cocktail
The Harbord Room has pumped out tons of memorable cocktails during its tenure as one of Toronto's top drinks destinations. Over the years, a handful of recipes from THR's bar team have become so well loved that they've been inaugurated into the city's liquid lexicon, mixed and requested behind countless other bars. One of my favourites is the Lady Sniper, a potent and bittersweet three-ingredient drink from THR's original barman, Dave Mitton. As easy to drink as it is to make, she'll sneak up on you if you're not careful.
- 1 oz Tequila Tromba Blanco
- 1 oz Yellow Chartreuse
- 1 oz Cynar
- Slice of lemon zest
Combine first three ingredients in mixing glass, add large ice cube so mixing glass is ¾ full and stir 15 to 18 times. Strain into a chilled glass. Squeeze lemon zest across the drink to release the oils, give it a twist and place it in the drink.