Inside Maison Selby, a bistro inside a 136-year-old mansion

O&B's latest — once a gay bar, hotel and home to Ernest Hemingway — is now a colourful spot with classic French eats and a hidden basement bar

Maison Selby (592 Sherbourne, at Selby, 647-943-1676, has lived several lives in its 150-year existence, but as of this spring, it’s a French restaurant from Oliver and Bonacini, the people behind Canoe, Auberge du Pommier and a host of other local hot spots.

The building, known as the Gooderham mansion, has reflected the changing face of Bloor and Sherbourne throughout its history, starting its life as a mansion built in 1883 by one of the city’s richest families: the Gooderhams, of Gooderham and Worts, the distillery that later became the Distillery District. 

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Natalia Manzocco

After the death of its owner, it became home to all-girls’ school Branksome Hall, then the Selby Hotel, where Ernest Hemingway lodged while working as a foreign correspondent at the Toronto Star

In the early 80s, it began a 20-year run as gay nightclub Boots, which hosted countless dance nights and acted as a valuable hub for the local queer scene. (It was also home to the Kurbash, a basement sex club, with a cavelike maze and gargoyle-shaped glory holes.)

New owners came on board in 1997 and converted the building into a Howard Johnson hotel. They put the kibosh on the Kurbash (I’m so sorry), though Boots kept running until after 2000’s Pride festivities. 

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Natalia Manzocco

After the hotel shuttered, the structure was picked up and moved closer to Sherbourne in order to become an extension of the Selby luxury condo project in 2014, in yet another reflection of the neighbourhood’s changing demographics.

That’s when O&B stepped in. Even in the teardown stage, chef John Horne says, the spot was a stunner, with plenty of ornate touches like moulding and stained glass. Now scrubbed, renovated and redecorated, the high-ceilinged restaurant space – which spans four rooms on the main floor, each with its own look and vibe, plus a “secret” basement bar where the Kurbash used to be – is plush and colourful, but retains just enough of that homey vibe to put diners at ease.

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Natalia Manzocco

“When you walk in, your jaw drops,” Horne says. “You could spend days in here and keep seeing little details and unique pieces. They pay homage to a building that’s been here for so long and seen so many things throughout its life. The Gooderham House has a lot of history, and it’s exciting to be the next phase.”

The menu is a broad all-day affair that spans breakfast, lunch, dinner and bar snacks. At the core is classic French recipes, ones Horne honed during his time working in London and France.

“People really want those old-school classics: the escargots, the French onion soup, the tartare, the coq au vin, the bourguignon. Those are the ones people crave,” Horne says, adding that those Gallic staples are still big sellers at other O&B restaurants like Biff’s Bistro.

“To be that simple, you have to hit your marks, but that’s also what makes it so great to cook – there’s nothing to hide behind. No fancy garnishes. Just a lot of really solid European French cooking.”

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Natalia Manzocco

The price point cuts a wide swath, too: You can drop a C-note on a Tournedos Rossini and a glass of Syrah (this is an O&B joint, after all) or stop in for a $6 drink at happy hour. (That’s 2 to 6 pm daily and 9 pm until close Sunday to Wednesday, by the way.)

And if you go down to the basement and slip past the wall of subway tiles into Sous Sol, there’s a $10 drink menu and snacks. The gargoyles are gone – but there are mirrors on the ceiling.

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Natalia Manzocco

Here’s a closer look at the menu:

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Natalia Manzocco

The escargots de bourgogne ($18) are made with what Horne describes as “a really old-school recipe” that uses ground almonds to bind the sauce (which also features garlic, vermouth and herbs) together.

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Natalia Manzocco

The French onion soup ($14) is a blend of two recipes Horne picked up working in Europe. The soup takes two days to make: 24 hours to simmer the chicken stock, then another day to let it meld with the port- and cognac-simmered onions. The result is a dense, gravy-like broth topped with a ton of Gruyère, plus cheese curds for extra stretch. 

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Natalia Manzocco

The steak tartare ($19) is a straight-up recipe from the south of France. It’s hand cut to order and topped with fresh anchovies, shallots, garlic, Dijon, parsley and grilled baguette. (At brunch, you can get it with a fried egg.)

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Natalia Manzocco

As Horne puts it, “You can’t have a French restaurant without steak frites.” His version (shown with a flat iron steak, $29) is served with Béarnaise, sauce vierge, green beans and the requisite shoestring fries. 

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Natalia Manzocco

From the dessert menu: lemon tart topped with frozen raspberries and toasted meringue ($10).

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Natalia Manzocco

The drinks menu sticks largely to classic cocktails, like the Dark ‘N’ Stormy ($13), made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum, Angostura bitters and Fever Tree ginger beer.

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Natalia Manzocco

Behind the bar at Sous Sol: A collection of custom spirits made for Selby by Dillon’s. | @nataliamanzocco

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