Inside Le Swan, Jen Agg’s revamp of the Swan diner
Black Hoof team gives the classic Queen West hangout new life with a fun French twist
By Natalia Manzocco
Oct 17, 2018
Le Swan, (892 Queen West, at Crawford, 416-536-4440) has a new name, but for many Torontonians, it needs no introduction. In its original incarnation, the Swan occupied the same spot for two decades, serving diner classics and modernized brunches to Queen West patrons.
One of those regulars was Jen Agg, years before she opened the Black Hoof and became a local household name.
“I used to go to Swan all the time with my parents and friends,” Agg tells NOW. “It was legit one of the only cool places in the city to dine, and they were always playing great music like Galaxie 500 and Built to Spill. Jane [Ferriss]’s food was comforting and delicious, and it just felt great to be in the room. It was the kind of place where you’d run into pals and end up slurping oysters into the night and gossiping about the local musicians at the next table.”
“I’ve been dreaming about having that space my whole career,” she says. But with the Hoof slated to wind down its 10-year run at the end of the summer, she hadn’t been planning to open up another spot again so soon. “Basically, I had a quick decision to make,” she said. “David [Greig, also the bar manager at Agg’s Kensington spot Grey Gardens] and I cracked a bottle of burgundy, and somewhere between bottle one and two, the angels sang and we just saw the concept so clearly.” Chef James Santon and sommelier Jake Skakun also came on board as partners.
The fortuitous timing meant most of the Black Hoof’s team just got moved one block south after it closed in mid-August, including Santon, who developed a menu for Agg and Greig’s “French diner” concept. Actually, it almost reads like two split menus, with duelling dishes put side by side: trout rillettes and tuna melts, a rotisserie quarter-chicken versus a hot chicken sandwich, steak frites and chicken fried steak.
“We thought it was a cool idea that we had never – surprisingly – seen done, but as we fleshed it out, we realized that it was a really interesting way to keep the menu pretty accessible to as many people as possible,” Agg says.
“I hate the way restaurants can be off-limits to anyone without a large disposable income, or to kids struggling to pay for school. This way, if someone wants to have a restaurant experience without breaking the bank, they can have the best tuna melt ever and a bottle of High Life – truly the champagne of beers — and get out of Swan for around 20 bucks. That’s pretty amazing.”
If you don’t feel like livin’ the High Life, there are French wines picked with an eye for accessible pricing by Skakun (“He’s always trying to find ways to get great wine into as many hands as possible with very reasonable mark-ups. I’m like ‘JAKE, IT’S A BUSINESS,’ but he usually wins”) as well as a menu of French-influenced cocktails by Greig.
“People are quickly clueing in to what a fun late-night stop Swan is – the room really lends itself to a cocktail den vibe, plus we have fondue after 11.”
In that sense, it looks like Agg has preserved that late-night neighbourhood hangout feel she loved so much about the Swan – as well as a lot of the room’s original charm. The bar stools and sprawling wood back bar unit, complete with round mirror, are still in place, but there are also charming lights in the glassware shelves, swan-print wallpaper in the washrooms and a massive mirror keen-eyed diners might recognize: it used to hang over the bar at the Black Hoof.
There’s one piece of Swan history absent: the original red-and-black sign, which Agg tried to hunt down before the opening. “I found out who has it, thought about it a lot and decided that a painted logo in the window would be part of a fresh start. Some things are best left to happy memories.”
Here’s a closer look at the menu:
The French onion soup ($12) is made with a base of red and Vidalia onions caramelized for 14 hours before being added to a veal stock. Santon adds a little anchovy and cherry vinegar for depth of flavour.
The charcuterie plate ($11) includes saucisson sec, head cheese, crostini, cornichons and grainy mustard.
The hot chicken sandwich ($12) features Le Swan’s house rotisserie chicken, which is brined before getting cooked and basted with duck fat. It’s topped with English peas and chicken gravy and served on awesome vintage Swiss Chalet plates. (They came with the space.)
The late-night special, available from 11 pm to 2 am, is a classic fondue made with Gruyère, Emmental, garlic and a not-trivial amount of white wine, served with Blackbird baguettes.
The Armagnac Colada ($16) combines armagnac and chartreuse with coconut, citrus and pineapple.
One of Greig’s more unusual creations is the Suissesse ($14), a refreshing blend of absinthe, orgeat, yogurt and mint.
Natalia came to NOW as the food writer in 2015 before taking over the lifestyle desk in 2019. She has written about food, style, technology, life and travel for the National Post, Sun Media, blogTO and Metro. She enjoys thrift stores and bad puns.