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Photos by Tanja-Tiziana
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The Maple Leaf has rye-and-ginger cocktails on tap.
I try not to keep tabs on disappointments, but I do have a tiny roster of regrets.
Among them is the fact that, despite my dive bar fixation and job reporting on the Toronto bar scene, I never made it to the Maple Leaf Tavern before it was restored.
The bar reopened last week after almost three years of renovations and, no doubt, an astonishing outlay of capital. Sadly, I have no personal context for just how spectacular the transformation of this historic tavern, built in 1910, really is.
But I can make an educated guess. Word has it that the Maple Leaf was one of the city's dodgiest dives before owner Todd Morgan (also behind Port in Pickering) selected it as a worthy revenant. In condo-crazed Toronto, where the general attitude to architectural and cultural landmarks is to strike a hot deal, demolish the old and erect something new and hideous as quickly as possible, Morgan has a fresh but traditional approach. The Maple Leaf, which aims to act as a local but will likely become a destination, holds the potential to share its revitalized energy with the neighbourhood.
True to tavern ethos, the improved Maple Leaf intends to be as welcoming as possible. It's lovely inside - modern but unforced, traditional sans stodge. Cloistered booths and a warm wooden bar gleam in muted light from sconces and mini oil lamps. An open kitchen equipped with a custom wood-fired grill and flanked with countertop seating is crowned with an emerald maple leaf in original stained glass, rescued from the facade. A magnificent old cigarette machine, a relic from looser days, hawks phantom packs of Player's Light and Export A in the entrance.
Executive chef Jesse Vallins (The Saint), well respected in the industry for his broad knowledge of food and drink, has designed a menu that showcases quality local ingredients via comforting fare that has everyday appeal.
The cocktail program, developed by prominent NYC barman and drinks writer Naren Young, is simple, classically driven and accessible. Manhattans and spicy rye-and-ginger highballs (both $11) are available on tap, alongside timelessly crushable margaritas ($13), Pisco Punch ($9) and tall drinks that pose no threat of TKO. One of the best is the stupidly simple Garibaldi ($9), which combines just two ingredients (Campari and fresh whipped orange juice) to make a perfect drink. Non-alcoholic cocktails are also on offer.
The wine program, curated by sommelier Will Predhomme, winks at wine geeks with a selection of excellent natural and biodynamic wines while aiming to please anyone who walks through the tavern's doors.
If all goes smoothly, a cocktail bar in the basement will be open by the time the weather takes its annual nosedive. A side patio, overlooked by 28 feet of original signage, is set to open ASAP, and two more floors and a rooftop space are in the works.
Once a busted and bygone watering hole, the Maple Leaf is brimming with new surprises.
Hours Daily 3 pm to midnight
Access Two steps at entrance, washrooms on main floor
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