Cafe Cool

WINCHESTER CAFE (161 Winchester, at Sumach, 416-924-4362) A former ice cream parlour, this pleasant parkside eatery recalls Grandma's cottage, complete.


WINCHESTER CAFE (161 Winchester, at Sumach, 416-924-4362) A former ice cream parlour, this pleasant parkside eatery recalls Grandma’s cottage, complete with doilies and antiques. Locals like to keep this inexpensive dinner spot their secret, so shtum. Complete meals for $35 per person ($17 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday 5:30 pm to 10 pm, and for brunch Sunday 10 am to 2 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, short step to small washroom. Rating: NNN

Rating: NNN

An apology to the gentry of Cabbagetown: for three years Winchester Cafe has been your secret eatery, a cozy spot down by the dog park, far from passing traffic. Folks from other nabes might remember this cabin kitty-corner from the Necropolis as an ice cream parlour called Jeremiah, founded in the mid-70s. You conspiratorial locals know otherwise.Foodies dream about joints like Winchester Cafe. Imagine an intimate yet inexpensive eatery serving competent but far from flashy fare where reservations are rarely needed. A close-to-home cantina that’s so low-profile, no one but regulars knows it exists. My own brother has lived two blocks away for 20 years and only yesterday insisted there’s no restaurant at the end of his street.

A conspiracy, I’m sure.

Make no mistake — Winchester Cafe is not for fabulosi or fashionistas. There’s nothing stylish or cutting-edge about these dowdy digs. Think Grandma’s summer cottage circa 1942. Low-ceilinged and L-shaped, the smallish room is decked out in forest green walls hung with period oils, beige linoleum floors and faded Axminster carpets. Comfortable tub chairs ring floral-linen-dressed tables, a velvet settee invites by the vestibule and a bay window overlooks a courtyard through gauzy suburban sheers. Time truly stands still. According to an unwound grandfather clock, it’s permanently 5:52.

Enlisting Fearless Eater’s legendary appetite, we disguise ourselves as CBC Radio listeners (tweed jackets with suede elbow patches, trousers with bicycle clips, rolled up-copies of the Globe under our arms) and infiltrate the C-Towners’ clandestine cafe for brunch. Once past security, we down Caesars ($3.95) — perfunctory renditions perhaps, but at these prices it doesn’t pay to be sober.

I inhale a pair of delish if slightly greasy, golden-crusted crab cakes topped with lightly poached eggs dripping with mild Hollandaise. Fearless surges ahead into his Gypsy Omelette (both $7.95), three fluffy eggs folded around breakfast sausages, peppers and onion. Both are sided with crunchily excellent deep-fried home fries, toasted English muffins and mesclun in vinaigrette. Before I can make a withering comment about the fruity garnish on each plate, Fearless polishes it all off, proving that there are people who actually eat this stuff.

Service is quick if a little too friendly. But then, chef Bernard Dunford (ex-Idefix and Mango on Church) and owner Jeffery Trieloff probably think we’re local. We’re practically family by the time we return a week later.

Slipping into our seats like a pair of loafers (the shoes, not us), we chill to Winchester’s pre-boomer hit parade — Billie, Frank and Bing (whose White Christmas suits tonight’s unseasonably chilly weather) — and dig into a basket of warm bread.

Fearless starts with a surprisingly spicy butternut squash soup ($5.75) traditionally dolloped with sour cream and chives, while I tuck into warm shreds of Crispy Duck ($8.25) coupled with cool mesclun greens. Following in theme, my Crispy Pecan Chicken ($14.25) is a thick, moist boneless breast coated with whole hickory nuts as promised and sauced with a mild Dijon mustard cream.

Fearless’s deftly executed 10-ounce triple A strip loin with peppery demi-glace ($19.50) gets joined by feckless frozen fries instead of the excellent lumpy garlic mash that accompanies my main.

After finishing off the last of our reasonably priced plonk (Henry of Pelham Baco Noir, $6.25 glass/$25 bottle) and a fabulously caramel-rich slice of Toffee Coffee Cake($5.75), we vow never to tell a soul about our newest discovery.

Absolutely no one. stevend@nowtoronto.com

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