WATERSIDE BISTRO (255 Queen's Quay East, at Sherbourne, 416-203-0470) Don't tell anyone, but there's a fabulous spot right on the lake that nobody knows about even though it's been there for years. Throw in free parking and three decks on the water's edge and those who fondly remember the similar but long-gone Sgana Café will make this their new summer hideout. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10 pm, Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 8 pm. Weekend brunch till 3 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
To this day, downtown denizens reminisce about the Sgana Café, the romantic west lakeshore restaurant tucked away behind the old Tip Top Tailors building, even though it disappeared years ago. No one remembers Sgana's so-so food. Instead, they fondly recall the patio's postcard-perfect marina view, more Monte Carlo than Mimico. Better yet, because of its out-of-the-way location, only regulars knew it existed. Result: a tourist-free waterside bistro.
The Sgana Café lives on at Waterside Bistro. An east-side lakefront eatery attached to a private tennis club, the Waterside has been open to the public for four years. Far from sightseeing Harbourfront tour buses and known to few of the bladers rolling past on the Martin Goodman Trail, one of Toronto's most spectacular spots hides at the end of a winding driveway at the foot of Sherbourne.
There's not too much to see at first. Follow the road around an inflated racquetball tent to a temporary clubhouse clad in rustic boards and surrounded by a tree-free parking lot. Here's an even bigger surprise: parking that's normally 10 bucks anywhere else around here is free at Waterside.
Once inside and past the club's anonymous sign-in desk, another bombshell goes off. The place is gorgeous. A bar and lounge area give way to a formal split-level sky-lit atrium complete with working fireplace. French doors open to three decks, one tented, another sunny, the third a rooftop perch. A flowering hedge cleverly conceals the parking lot so customers only see the dazzling view across the harbour to Wards Island. Sailboats serenely float by. Seagulls squall.
Unfortunately, the Waterside also mirrors Sgana's lacklustre lineup of grub with its own mainstream menu of safe tourist fare that rarely rises above adequate. Juicy Jumbo Capon Wings ($9) are better than most - hot-sauced Buffalo-style but sided with an indifferent blue-cheese dip and a brick of raw carrot.
Patted with herbed butter, Steak Frites' ($20) somewhat fatty 10-ounce strip loin comes with standard hand-cut Yukon Gold fries. The same beef applies to Thai Beef Salad ($11), especially when its untrimmed gristle collides with slimy rice noodles. And though it's cookbook-correct with its inclusion of canned tuna, Salad Niçoise ($14) is merely perfunctory, its balsamic dressing overpowering.
Barbecue Back Ribs ($13 half-rack/$19 full) improve when I get the meaty leftovers home and augment the timid bottled-tasting sauce with a shot of Dan T's soy-pepper hot sauce. Though toothpick-tassled, Waterside's Bistro Club ($9.50) turns out to be a pricey single-decked chicken 'n' bacon sandwich on a boring bun.
But who's going to dissect Waterside's pedestrian food when the sun shines and the non-reeking waters of Lake Ontario lap? Certainly not those who pack out the patio for weekend brunch. Besides, how can any kitchen botch Eggs Benedict (see Captain John's)? Waterside adds asparagus and 'shrooms to its pleasant rendition and sides them with deep-fried potato cubes ($9.50). Rote French Raisin Toast ($9) calls to mind Aunt Jemima.
Who cares? Waterside Bistro's nobody's secret now.
CAPTAIN JOHN'S(1 Queen's Quay West, at Yonge, 416-363-6062) An aging floating party boat offering ineptly prepared frozen seafood to tourists who don't know any better. The boat's an unintended riot of campy nautical kitsch (check out the cool pseudo-Art Deco lounge on the upper deck), but the fading-ocean-liner decor fails to make up for mutinous grub that deserves to be thrown overboard. Complete meals for $50 per person ($30 at lunch or brunch buffet), including all taxes, tip and a beer. Licensed. Access: barrier-free but cramped. Rating: a sunken N
docked at the bottom of yonge since the 70s, Captain John's is a tourist attraction that serves questionable seafood to out-of-towners who more than likely assume the catch comes directly from the sparkling waters of Lake Ontario. We don't know whether to laugh or cry after suffering through Captain John's all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch ($18.75). This absurd spread is so ineptly realized, I wonder if any of the kitchen staff are familiar with the concept of food preparation.
Witness frozen shrimp with their legs, heads and tails intact, and skeletal crab legs that are too much bother to fiddle with for their limited reward. Closed, broken-shelled mussels in tinned-tasting tomato sauce. Eggs Benedict so long on the steam table that their yolks are hard-boiled, their toast mush, the hollandaise curdled.
The meagre smorgasbord is set up in lidded chaffing dishes warmed by roaring flames. Try lifting their hot metal handles and finding somewhere to put them. Nothing is identified. I think I'm eating soggy lasagna until a sailor-suited server asks how I'm enjoying the yellow seafood crepe. Other servers read. Might I suggest a cookbook?
After brunch, we poke around the ship's kitsch-filled upper decks and find a fantastic cocktail lounge that would make a swell setting for a soirée. As long as no food's involved. Peering through its locked glass doors, I have a déjà vu moment.
As a cub reporter for the Toronto Star (I wrote the paper's alternating disco and punk columns - hey, a gig's a gig), I attended a record company party at Captain John's in 1979 for the Village People upon the release of In The Navy.
I guess the YMCA was full.