What was once a music and party venue underneath the former Parts & Labour restaurant in Parkdale is now a music and a party venue… and a comedy venue. And a bar. And a brunch pop-up. And a lot more.
It’s called Sari Not Sari, a vision that came to life through owner Justin Bella, who is best known for running the Filipino brunch spot BB’s Diner.
Bella was previously the co-owner of the Shop prior to rebranding the basement space as Sari Not Sari. When it closed, he bought out the business and created a partnership this past July with the upstairs club AMPM to launch the entertainment complex Tiger City Mall.
“What we’re trying to build here is this one element of a start-to-stop entertainment building,” Bella tells NOW about Tiger City Mall, which also features AMPM, the club that took over Parts & Labour and the snack bar Fun Time.
The partnership gave Bella the opportunity to create Sari Not Sari, a passion project he says he has been working on for more than a year. It’s among a growing number of Filipino food businesses in Toronto.
“It’s similar to the Shop, in the sense that it’s a multi-faceted space,” he says. “But I get to highlight Filipino culture.”
The name and the venue’s design alone is a nod to Filipino convenience stores – or sari-sari stores. The large mural by the dining booths is inspired by Filipino camo in the 1970s and was created by artist and tattooist Ilona Fiddy. Smaller details, like a wooden Santo Niño de Cebu statue and a statue of Mary, are placed in the bar area.
All of this is to embody the culture of Barangay neighbourhoods in the Philippines, which typically consist of house-fronts that are converted to stores, like convenience stores, says Bella.
“I was trying to transport myself to a place called Poblacion,” he says, referencing the historic arts and cultural district of Manila.
Events like Thursday night comedy shows featuring comics like Big Norm, Toronto Raptors basketball game viewings, parties and concerts featuring emerging artists are some of the ways Bella wants to promote Filipino culture with the space. Private event bookings for family parties and other celebrations are also welcome.
“A couple of weeks ago, we had a party during the day where people were encouraged to bring their kids,” Bella says. “It was nice seeing that Filipino culture where you grow up with other families and they’re just kind of like courtesy cousins.
“We’re trying to maintain that with our space and introduce a new generation to that,” he adds.
Food will also be a big part of the space, with the beloved BB’s Diner coming back on November 6. The Filipino brunch spot previously closed its doors at College and Bathurst in July 2020.
BB’s will run as a weekend pop-up from 10 am to 3 pm, and Bella says all the favourites are coming back, such as the silog breakfast (garlic fried rice, fried eggs and another protein like longganisa), in-house corned beef, Filipino spaghetti, fried chicken, mushroom arroz caldo and eggplant omelette.
Chef Robbie Hojilla will be taking over the kitchen at BB’s now that the diner’s original chef, Julian Ochangco, is at the Wallace-Emerson snack counter Pepper’s Food and Drink.
“[Hojilla] is doing his version of the BB’s brunch,” Bella explains. “We did a recent tasting and it was super well received. I’m really excited to start this next chapter with him. ”
In addition to the brunch. Bella says BB’s will also host dinners at Sari Not Sari sometime next month, as well as catering and rotisserie chicken next door at Ahma.
“Essentially, BB’s is currently living within this iteration in Sari Not Sari,” he says. “I hope it acts as a catalyst and kind of revival of the strip. Because I also feel like there’s historically so much significance within the Filipino community in Parkdale.”
Bella’s lolo (grandfather) made the west-end neighbourhood his first home in Canada in the 1980s. According to Bella, his grandfather would often visit some of the businesses that are still around today, like the supermarket Bernard’s Filipino Specialties.
Filipino culture still has a presence in Parkdale today, thanks to restaurants like Islas Filipino BBQ & Bar and Batibot.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Sari Not Sari wasn’t built in the most “ideal scenario,” but Bella said “that recent challenge kind of forced it to turn it into what it is.”
“This year and a half required me to be flexible and versatile and all things in between,” he says.