Smoking bylaw blues

Restaurants calling themselves bars feel the consequences

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many restaurants are jumping through a loophole in the no-smoking bylaw that allows them to classify themselves as bars so their customers can light up indoors. The regulation, which came into effect last June, is bad for business, say local restaurateurs. It states that all eateries must be smoke-free unless they have a designated smoking room, a separately ventilated and completely isolated bylaw-specified area that cannot exceed 25 per cent of the total occupiable space. Few have the cash to build one.

Bars, on the other hand, have to be 75 per cent smoke-free but are not required to have a separate area. Register as a bar with the health board, post the required warning signs and don’t allow anyone under the legal drinking age of 19 on the premises and, presto, you have a lounge.

This has had two consequences for the T.O. dining scene that could get serious. One is that smoke-welcoming small spaces like Sotto Voce (see sidebar) have become so thick with smoke, they’re creating environments in which dining is a drag. The other is that kids under 19 can’t eat in many restaurants that once welcomed them, and some restaurants are breaking the law in order to accommodate them.

To see whether eateries are complying with the bylaw, NOW (using a phone listed under an alias) called a number of downtown spots to try to make reservations for a fictitious party of eight.

We explained that our birthday girl insists on being allowed to smoke and, since it’s a family celebration, is it OK to bring a pair of 17-year-olds along with us?

Popular bistros Gamelle (468 College, 416-923-6254) and Caf Brussel (124 Danforth, 416-465-7363) informed us that since they operate as restaurants, they don’t have smoking sections, but our teenagers would be more than welcome.

Sotto Voce and nearby Brasserie Aix (584 College, 416-588-7377) say they’re bars and therefore don’t admit minors as diners. Neither do Yorkville’s Sassafraz (100 Cumberland, 416-964-2222) or downtown’s Esplanade Bier Markt (58 the Esplanade, 416-862-7575). Had we been the real thing, none of these eateries would have got our business.

“We allow smoking in our lounge” specifies too-too chic YYZ (345 Adelaide West, 416-599-3399), the only restaurant we find — and the only one in town, claims owner Simon Bowers — to have a designated smoking room. “It’s beside the bar and encased in glass so you can see in or out.”

Bay Street backroom Zoom (18 King East, 416-861-9872) doesn’t have a DSR but says we’re welcome to smoke at the bar. “It’s just on the other side of the main dining room.”

Any problem with the teenagers not being 19?

“Uh, no.”

Like Zoom, the theatre district’s Urban (303 King West, 416-598-5656) lacks a DSR but has a smoking section. “It’s in the back of the restaurant. It’s a really nice, cozy area because of the fireplace there, and it’s close to the bar.”

And our teetotal teens?

“I don’t believe there’ll be a problem at all.”

But there is a problem. Both those responses violate the bylaw, which states that if an establishment allows smoking anywhere but a DSR, no one under the legal drinking age is allowed on the premises.

Greektown’s Pan (516 Danforth, 416-461-8158) wants our business even though it doesn’t have a DSR and two of our party are underage.

“As long as you don’t tell anyone, I don’t think there’ll be a problem,” we’re told with a laugh. “It’s kinda bending the rules a little bit, I guess. It’s usually a courtesy thing. I mean, if there is a young child, like, near there, sometimes we’ll ask you not to smoke. It really depends on the circumstances, but I’m really sure we’ll be able to accommodate you.”

Rob Colvin, the manager of tobacco enforcement for Toronto’s public health department, doesn’t see any loophole. It’s part of the phase-in process of the bylaw that will make restaurants smoke-free unless they have DSRs by June 1, 2004.

“It’s an option that was made available,” he explains. “By the end of December, 70 per cent of the 5,000-some food premises we’ve inspected had decided to become smoke-free restaurants.

“The remaining 30 per cent are currently registered as bars. From a public health point of view, we’d prefer to have 100 per cent across the board. This phased-in approach isn’t a perfect scenario, but progress is being made.”

In the meantime, while the majority of the more than 30 eateries NOW contacted are clearly complying with the bylaw, some seem either confused by it or are blatantly ignoring it.

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