Inside Cafe Cancan, Victor Barry’s dreamy French bistro

Piano Piano chef does Gallic fare amid a swoon-worthy riot of pastels


The Harbord Room left some mighty big shoes to fill when it closed last year, taking a locally-groundbreaking cocktail program and Cory Vitiello’s legendary burger with it. But the new arrival at 89 Harbord, Cafe Cancan (647-341-3100, cafecancan.com), didn’t step in to fill those shoes so much as it sashayed and strutted in before downing a Lillet-laced Martini or three and yanking everyone onto the dance floor.

“I remember thinking, ‘I really don’t want this place to be anything less than it was before,'” says Piano Piano chef Victor Barry, who’s one-third of the partnership behind the space (along with his wife, Nikki Mckean, and Brendan Piunno, formerly of Carbon Bar).

“The Harbord Room has always been a space I’ve come to – being at Splendido since 2005, and the Harbord Room opened in 2007,” Barry says. “My wife and I started dating here. It was definitely a bar I frequented often in my 20s – and my earlier, before-kids 30s. It was great to so many people, for different reasons.”

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Natalia Manzocco

Initially, Barry and Vitiello were talking about launching a new project together in the Harbord Room space. “We were toying with a ‘diner and bistro’ idea, mostly. Eventually I came to the realization of where this place was going – it was definitely a French bistro.”

Barry, who was eager to revisit French cuisine post-Splendido, saw a void in terms of casual French eating in the city. “I’m not the only one who thought that, ’cause I can tell you now, there’s two or three about to open,” he says. “But there’s a resurgence of French bistros going on, which is fantastic.”

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Natalia Manzocco

The menu focuses mainly on classic dishes like escargots, French onion soup, steak au poivre skate meuniere, with a few surprises. Barry’s smoked-oyster dish from Splendido is back, an all-day breakfast platter appears on the dinner menu, and there’s even a burger (no pressure, dude). “I would say that’s the thing I was probably the most nervous about, ‘cause everyone was all about the Harbord Room burger,” Barry says. “I struggled with it, but now it’s awesome.”

Adds Piunno: “You’re going to be able to come in and understand what’s going on right away, which has always been my struggle with French in the past – it’s very standoffish. Here, it’s presented in a very approachable, fun and playful way, which I feel like we’ve built this great brand on.”

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Natalia Manzocco

The bistro concept went from zero to macaron-coloured Alice In Wonderland fever dream thanks to designer Tiffany Pratt, who also handled the overhaul of the stuffy Splendido dining room into the flirty and floral Piano Piano.

“We definitely put in a lot of trust in Tiffany at Cancan,” Barry says. “It was hard for me to let go of Splendido, whereas here, we let Tiffany do what she does. I told Tiffany on opening night, ‘Next time I open a restaurant, I’m just gonna tell you where it is, and you tell me two weeks before it’s ready to open.'”

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Natalia Manzocco

In addition to reopening the backyard (which Barry estimates will be done in a couple of weeks) and adding a front patio, the plan is to stay open from 10 am until late at night, doing everything from takeaway coffee and pastries and brunch service to an afternoon aperitif hour. But, Barry maintains, nighttime is when the space really shines.

“When it’s dark outside and all the candles are lit, the lights are down low, the music is playing, everyone’s drinking, it’s kind of loud, plates clanking, people laughing – it just feels like a busy bistro.”

Here’s a closer look at the dishes and decor:

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Natalia Manzocco

The back half of the dining room is set up as what Piunno calls “love-style seating”, with both guests on the banquette next to one another. “I guess that’s frowned on at a lost of restaurants, but here it’s encouraged. It kind of gives that sexy, French vibe to things.”

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Natalia Manzocco

Barry describes the ‘ce e cette’ ($18) as their answer to a salad course. “It’s like a crudite, but you get some extra thing – boquerones, sliced ham, soft boiled eggs, cheese. The idea is, it’s a lighter option.”

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Natalia Manzocco

“Being French, we have a foie gras menu, which is awesome,” Barry says. “Some people are against foie gras – whatever, I don’t really care. I love foie gras, I always have.” Above is the foie gras parfait ($17) – a slab of foie served with toast and Greaves strawberry-rhubarb jam. “That’s the one part of the menu, where you’re like ‘ooh, it’s a bit pricey.’ But at the same time, you’re getting a tranche of foie gras.”

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Natalia Manzocco

House-baked pastries like eclairs grace the dessert menu, while croissants and pain au chocolat will be available as grab-and-go options from the cafe counter. (Technically, Barry says, the sweets are baked across the street in Piano’s basement bakery and prep kitchen, where there’s more elbow room.)

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Natalia Manzocco

Along with a sizeable wine list, there’s a cocktail list divided into two categories: Sessionable and boozy. “We knew going in we were going to have a patio, so we wanted to have a low-proof and high-proof cocktail program so you could have a couple cocktails and not feel blown away,” Piunno explains. The Pêche Et Fleurs features rinquinquin (a peach-flavoured fortified wine) and elderflower pressé.

And here’s a couple more shots of the interior (because, come on):

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Natalia Manzocco

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Natalia Manzocco

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Natalia Manzocco

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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