INTER STEER 357 Roncesvalles, at Constance, 416-588-8054) Complete meals for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of house plonk. Average main $10. Open daily noon to 2 am (bar); kitchen open 3 to 11 pm (limited menu Tuesday). Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
A Polish tavern on Roncesvalles is the last place in town you'd expect to find a Susur Lee-trained chef in the kitchen. But that's where I stumble upon Bart Murawiecki.
For nearly five years, he worked closely alongside Canada's most celebrated cook - "I did a little bit of everything," he says - and even assisted Lee on TV's Iron Chef. So how did he end up at Inter Steer, one of the west side's most notorious watering holes?
"I needed to take a break before I burned out and wanted to spend more time with my family," Murawiecki explains. Since his aunt Eva owns Inter Steer, it seemed like the obvious move.
Murawiecki wasn't the only one with change in mind. His new gig coincided with the family-run saloon's relocation to far swankier digs two doors south. And while much of the original old-school menu survives - pickled egg ($1.20), cottage cheese pierogies - it now includes the likes of pumpkin tofu burgers (both $7).
Wednesday dinner and the very wood-panelled room is hopping with an after-work crowd of guys in hockey jackets either glued to the tube or shooting pool to Phil Collins on the jukebox. No difference there, then. But chicken wings ($8.50/lb with fries or 70 cents each) are crisply plump and not overwhelmed with hot sauce.
Think of obscenely addictive Sticky Fingers ($8) as nachos over freshly cut deep-fried potato wedges topped with salsa, guacamole, sour cream, pickled pepper and fried kielbasa sausage. A salad of smoked Russian mackerel and pickled chanterelle over mesclun dressed with vodka vinaigrette ($8.75) also impresses.
A meaty pair of family-recipe cabbage rolls ($8) get tweaked with a subtle tomato jam laced with mustard seed, while the so-called Steer Cigar ($9 with salad) sees beef goulash rolled up in a crepe and dolloped with pine nuts and sour cream before being tossed with fresh berries.
"We used to do something similar at Susur with duck confit," says Murawiecki in defence of this seemingly weird combination.
Best of the lot, a substantial 11-ounce veal chop ($13) comes layered with a first-rate sauce of sun-dried tomato, caramelized onion and blue cheese. So big it looks like it should belong to a woolly mammoth rather than a cute little cow, it would be even better sided with those excellent potato wedges instead of prefab frozen fries.
If your Saturday morning ritual includes grocery shopping at St. Lawrence Market followed by something brunch-ish to eat , but you can't handle the crowd at Le Petit Dejeuner, Morning Glory or the Patrician Grill, you might want to consider the Kingsbrae (498 King East, at Ashby, 416-364-2016).
Like visitors to the sadly missed Canary, no one comes to the Kingsbrae for the food. Instead, they're here for the authentic Happy Days vibe. Downtown used to be littered with greasy spoons like this, but sadly, very few of them remain, most of them demolished or turned into trendy cafes.
Owner/chef Sean Cai hasn't changed a thing since he took over this funky luncheonette three years ago. Flanked by silver stools upholstered in period-perfect red vinyl, a formica counter runs down one side of the room, a half-dozen tables topped in plastic gingham the other. Old licence plates, album covers and 45s dot walls wainscotted Go Leafs! blue. Pre-rock-'n'-roll oldies - Patti Page, Percy Faith, Frankie Laine - provide the soundtrack. You'll want to dig out your saddle shoes and poodle skirt.
And the food? Exactly what you'd expect: regulation all-day breakfasts ($4.95), toasted westerns ($3.50) and a better-than-expected 7-ounce burger ($6.95 with chunky fries). There's even a short list of Canadian-ized ginger- and garlic-free Thai dishes available, the less said about them the better.
Even so, Cai's Buffalo-style chicken wings ($7.95 for 10) deserve attention. Juicy without being undercooked, they may not be the tastiest in town, as the menu boasts, but they're certainly some of the sauciest.
The only downside is they can take forever if the joint is as jumping as it was last Friday lunch. And while Cai may be one of the most genuinely hospitable people I've encountered in the restaurant business, he's clearly no multi-tasker, let alone a short-order cook.
But who's in a rush? Sip your coffee ($1.25), flip through a newspaper and travel back in time to an era where life was a helluva lot simpler.
Best in the west
When it comes to nostalgic noshes, nothing beats Best Food Grill (1808 Eglinton West, at Dufferin, 416-782-3334). From the sidewalk, things don't look promising, its cluttered front window a mess of flyers for international phone cards and South American flags. But a small sign advertising empanadas pulls me through the front door.
Inside I discover an entirely original art deco diner complete with lunch counter, swivel stools and vintage Coke dispenser that hasn't been touched since the Depression.
True, the room now sports as many Latin American knick-knacks as it does Leaf paraphernalia and the jukeboxes at each mahogany booth last stocked in 1979 with tunes by Donna Summer, Neil Young and Supertramp no longer work, but the prices posted on a wall-mounted menu - banquet burger ($3), meat pie ($1.50) - make the Stem look like Scaramouche.
I doubt BFG served lomitos ($7) back then. An Argentine hoagie, it comes on a doughy submarine-style bun that's been stuffed with chewy hanger steak and melted processed cheese. It's also dressed with shredded lettuce, relatively ripe tomato, mayonnaise - okay, Miracle Whip - and an impossibly thin plain omelette. Not particularly authentic to the digs, but slices of history rarely tastes this delish.