From the owners of the Senator diner
Senator Winebar (249 Victoria, at Dundas, 416-364-7517) is the upstairs counterpart to the Senator diner, Toronto’s oldest restaurant (est. 1948).
You’d expect the classic diner to be due for a little upgrade, what with the seven decades in business and all. But Senator owner Bobby Sniderman (and chef Paul Laforet, formerly of Ursa) managed to choose an even more old-school concept for the expansion.
“Theoretically, French comfort food would have been the roots for the diner food downstairs,” Sniderman admits. “We sort of flipped it around.”
Seating just 24 people, the Winebar has all the compact charm of a shoebox filled with aging postcards from Paris. The space was previously the office of Sniderman’s wife, a psychotherapist. It does still feel like the kind of room where you could unburden yourself of your troubles – though it would be over a nice steak au poivre and a potent cocktail from resident mixologist Lorenzo Fattò Offidani (whose last big gig was on board the Orient Express).
To transform the space, they stripped seven layers of flooring to expose the original floorboards below (“this room used to be about three inches higher,” Sniderman says) and brought in a Prohibition-era bar from Cleveland and ornate doors sourced in Paris.
“It just started to take shape, looking like a Parisian café. Everything started to fall into place.”
Bar manager Lorenzo Fattò Offidani.
Music heads will associate Sniderman with his years co-running Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, as well as the Top of the Senator, a jazz bar that gave rise to the career of Diana Krall. It shuttered in 2005, and Jazz Bistro still operates in its place.
The Winebar will double as a live venue booked by music journalist Nicholas Jennings, with pianist Julian Fauth playing Fridays and Saturdays.
“I feel like the music program we have up here is my redemption for the closing of the Top of the Senator, cuz that was a very difficult time,” says Sniderman. “And it was heartbreaking for me that the record store closed.”
He sees the new space as filling a void left by a recent spate of music closures, and though it’s not exactly the Silver Dollar, jazz, blues and folk types will no doubt be happy for the chance to pull up a bench at the 1920s Heintzman piano and belt their stuff, unmic’d, into that tiny, buzzing room.
And when there are no live tunes happening, you can savour your French fare to an offbeat playlist that skips from Rufus Wainwright to Piaf to Pavarotti to Zeppelin. “We like to say our theme song is Stairway To Heaven,” Sniderman cracks.
Mushroom toast, fashioned from a rotating selection of offerings from Mark’s Mushrooms, is topped with porcini salt and crème fraîche and served on Forno Cultura baguette.
Duck liver mousse comes flanked with pickled cherries, Concord grape mustard and toasted housemade brioche.
Laforet’s take on coq au vin was inspired by a visit to New York City restaurant Buvette. Wine-drowned chicken is cooked with bacon and mushrooms, then served with Forna Cultura sourdough and fried rosemary. “This is classic French, full of butter – full of all the stuff that’s bad for you, really.”
One of Sniderman’s faves is the steak au poivre: New York strip, served medium rare with a potato pave, green beans with garlic, and a cognac and cream sauce.
Chocolate soufflés (made in a toaster oven due to the kitchen’s space constraints) are one dessert option, along with honey cake made with product from Sniderman’s own organic apiaries in Caledon.
Caffè del marinaio (“sailors’ coffee”) is a recipe Offidani brought over from his hometown of San Benedetto. “Sailors, during their long journeys all over the world, used to have a little alco stash on their ships,” Offidani explains. “After dinner they would pour a little shot for everyone. When they didn’t have enough, they’d pour everything together with a little bit of espresso, cinnamon, lemon, orange, sugar.” The Senator’s is his family recipe: anise liquor, white rum, grated fresh cinnamon, lemon and orange infusion and an espresso shot (whipped cream optional).
Chef Chris McDonald stepped in to help the Winebar’s team curate their wine selection. The compact wine lists are handwritten in leather-bound notebooks: “One of the advantages of being small is you can do things in a personalized way,” Sniderman says.
The Senator’s neon sign, seen through the frosted French doors.
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