Toronto’s restaurant icons spill their secrets

16 classic eateries give us the dish on how they've lasted


Skyrocketing rents. Fickle diners. Constant staff turnover. With these forces and more conspiring to make serving food the most cutthroat of callings, how can a restaurant stay in business – solid, steady business – for 20, 30, even 50 years? We called up 16 venerable Toronto restaurants, from steak houses and splurge-worthy spots to neighbourhood pizza and Chinese food joints (plus three long-running bars) and asked how they’ve managed to pull it off.

A surprisingly simple formula emerged: maintain consistency, hang on to your staff for as long as you can, and be choosy about chasing trends. But as restaurateurs shared their trade secrets, they also let us in on decades’ worth of riotous and heartwarming stories, choice celebrity encounters and tales of a past Toronto that threatens to be forgotten. Read on and dig into culinary history. 


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Tanja-Tiziana

Barberian’s

Classic steakhouse boasting a hefty Group of Seven art collection and even heftier wine collection – est. 1958

How do you balance remaining true to your history and staying current?

Arron Barberian, owner I think you don’t get caught up in trends and fads too much. We saw a lot of high-end steak houses, ones with big corporate spends, nightclub-like places. But we resisted the urge to all of a sudden put in a disco at night. Change is a dangerous thing if you’re a traditionalist restaurant – and given our numbers, we haven’t really seen a need to do a knee-jerk change. Piano Piano is an example of a good change. I’m really proud of Victor [Barry, chef] for understanding he needed to change – and what he came up with is spectacular.

I think the big thing for us right now is halal. The Muslim community is growing at such a great rate that we get the halal question every day. One of the abattoirs we do business with, they do everything halal. That’s the most contemporary thing here recently.

We also recently reversed the bathrooms when we renovated them, and we still get people trying to walk into the wrong one. We put in these really nice Japanese toilets. I’m not a digital guy – I’m very analog. But the Instagram posts are like “I wanna marry your toilets.”

How do you connect with younger diners?

One thing we do is we connect with the young chefs. For a few years, on Sundays, we’d invite people in the industry to come for a dinner for $50, and it was three courses and unlimited wine. John Bil from Honest Weight was one of them – he was in here the other night with the guys from Joe Beef.

We also never discourage people from taking pictures of the food. We give the young couples a nice corner table and try to engage with them, because they’re digitally savvy. We know that’s the future. They crowdsource their dining ideas. You used to ask Sarah Waxman, Joanne Kates, Zagat – now it’s Yelp and Tripadvisor. You really have to respect the crowd a little bit – even though they’re usually wrong. [laughs] It’s like asking for medical advice from everybody but a doctor.

I also think traditional restaurants still do well because money has value, and there’s a lot of risk – with steak especially. You’re gonna pay minimum 100 bucks a head, even if you go to the Keg. The last thing people want to do is spend 200 bucks and not enjoy it – so you go for the tried and true. 

What’s your secret to success?

Own your own real estate. A lot of these successful restaurants go down because of renegotiations with the landlords, and if you have to move, it’s very difficult for lightning to strike twice in this industry. I could buy a small town with what people offer for this place. 

7 Elm, at Yonge, 416-597-0335, barberians.com. See listing.


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Ali’s Roti

Parkdale spot specializing in Trinidadian roti and doubles – est. 1976

What was Parkdale like when you opened in the 70s?

Ali Algour, owner/chef Parkdale was a very nice place. There were grocery stores, Woolworths, furniture stores. It was families, women walking with their shopping bags in those days. You could walk down the street at night with no cares. And then it went down, because different types of drugs started to get into the area, and it started to carry a bad name. Recession hit, just like it did everywhere else. But we have new things – coffee shops, restaurants. And I think it’s the most mixed neighbourhood in Toronto. Now, it’s a nice place – you can’t even find a place to live here anymore. There’s lot of places to go for a slice of cake, a meal, a good coffee. You can have the cheap coffee and the expensive one, too.

Is there competition among Parkdale’s roti spots?

There’s no competition, really. There’s Bacchus Roti, but they make a different style. So does Island Roti, who are Trinidadian, too – they actually started a couple of years earlier than we did. Lots of other people have tried, opened and then closed down. You have to know how to maintain consistency all the time. If someone comes in and eats the same thing every day, I have to make sure the food tastes how it’s supposed to taste.

Has your clientele changed?

When we first started, our customers were mainly West Indian. Canadians didn’t know anything about roti yet. Their coworkers would introduce it to them, and that’s how they’d learn. Now our customers are more white than West Indian. I have a lot of Canadian customers who are like “Listen, it’s not good without the spice!” I’d say 90 per cent of the Canadian customers get it spicy, and half of them will eat it extra hot. I feel good about that – Canadian people like to try new things.

1446 Queen West, at Close, 416-532-7701, alisroti.ca. See listing.


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Natalia Manzocco

Bitondo’s

Loveably rough-around-the-edges pizza shop / time capsule of 60s Little Italy – est. circa 1967

What’s your relationship to Bitondo’s?

Vince Pozzano, owner I’ve personally owned it for 13 years now. Before that it was my father, and before that, it was my uncle. I used to make pizza boxes here when I was six years old. We have one chef that’s been here for over 30 years. I don’t like to turn around employees – they’re key to any business. It’s what makes you feel at peace when you’re not here. 

Have you changed anything at all about this place in 50 years?

The customers actually tell me not to. As much as I’d like to add something to the menu, it’s scary to do anything – and if I removed anything, there’s a percentage of people that would be very angry. Take our pop cooler out front. It’s always breaking down, and the last time, there was a part we couldn’t get for months. I have certain customers saying ‘Why don’t you just get a new one?’ But we felt, don’t fix what’s broken – or what is broken, but still works.

Any famous visitors?

We have, but to be honest, I’m so sheltered back here, I don’t even recognize them. It’s my customers that point them out: ‘Hey, do you know who that is? It’s so-and-so!’ If it had been me starting this place, we would have had walls full of signed pictures. I don’t do any of that media stuff, Facebook, Snapchat. We don’t do any advertising or anything. But business has still been pretty steady. If anything, it grows.

11 Clinton, at Henderson, 416-533-4101. See listing.


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Boulevard Cafe

Boho Annex spot with a Peruvian-Canadian flair – est. 1979

Was the Boulevard always a Peruvian restaurant?

Lirio Peck, founder At first, we wanted to serve lighter fare – salads, soups, cappuccinos, wine, beer. But we always had a board where we wrote the specials on the day, and that’s where we featured the Peruvian food – the dishes I liked to make. Then people started to order those – and they really, really liked them. So we went in that direction only, and the rest is history. Eventually we opened the second floor as a tapas bar, and only served the little dishes, drinks, cocktails – which is now, of course, the fashionable thing to do.

How have you seen the restaurant scene change? Did you feel pressure to change with it?

People in general are a lot more aware of food, trends, flavours. I think the standards have definitely risen. That’s a great thing. And, sure, it keeps you on your toes. We’re not a trendy restaurant, but you have to be aware of a lot of things — what direction things are going in? What are people liking? How do we present the food? I’m always eating out and trying out new things to see what people are doing. You have to be true to your concept – but also be willing to change with the times. 

161 Harbord, at Borden, 416-961-7676, theboulevardcafe.net. See listing.


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Tanja-Tiziana

Katalin Koltai (senior, left) and Katalin Koltai.

Country Style Hungarian

Home of huge schnitzels and the last of the Annex’s Eastern European restaurant row – est. 1962

What prompted your big renovation last year?

Katalin Koltai, owner Some people are like, “Why did you do the renovations?” We had to! Everything was old or stained, so it didn’t look clean. Now, when I go in, I feel so good about it, because I know everything is perfect. We had this door that was so old you couldn’t see in. Now so many new people see how good it looks inside, and they’re coming in off the street. And the food is exactly the same, so everybody’s happy.

How did you react to rumours that the place had closed?

We took down the sign and were too busy to put a new one up, so people were worried. I heard from a lot of customers, “Somebody said on the internet that you were closed forever!” Now people are coming back in, and they’re so happy we’re still here. I didn’t know how they felt about us before, but now I know how much they appreciate us. We appreciate them, too.

What’s the future hold for Country Style?

When I bought the place, I said I’d do it for a few years and sell. But then my daughter started saying she wanted to take it over when I retired. She knows everything about the business. Not very many young people want to take over a business like this. It’s 24 hours a day. Every minute of my life is my business. But my daughter loves it. She says, “Mommy, this place is my life, too, like yours.”

450 Bloor West, at Howland, 416-537-1745. See listing.


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Natalia Manzocco

Elizabeth (left), Chris and Vasili Manikas.

Danforth Pizza House

Recently renovated east-end delivery and takeout pizzeria – est. 1964

What was it like taking over the business 50 years into its history?

Elizabeth Manikas, co-owner Angelo (founder and longtime pizza chef, who was on a first-name basis with the neighbourhood before his death) worked here until he was 84. We were friends of the family, and he sold the business to us before he died. To fill Angelo’s shoes, making his pizza – it wasn’t easy. The neighbours were like, “This is our place! Don’t touch anything!” We tried not to – but everything you touched was falling apart. We had to replace the oven after using the same one for 50 years. But we were so scared people would get mad, we kept both of them running, but we were only cooking the pizzas in the new one. Nobody noticed.

Chris Manikas, co-owner We couldn’t even close the store while we were renovating. The customers wouldn’t let us. They needed their pizza – and I think they were scared of what would happen if we didn’t reopen. 

What sets you apart?

Chris Back in the 60s, there were a lot of good pizza places – but they got sold and other people changed things, or someone passes and all the recipes get lost. We’re different, because Angelo was here until the end. And we’re a family-run restaurant, which is good and bad. We all work together, and sometimes it gets tense. But there’s nothing better than that, because it means we care – we care a lot.

Got any good stories about regulars?

Elizabeth One of our customers used to work here as a server. She met her husband here – he worked here as a driver. It’s been years, but they still come here to eat every Saturday.

920 Danforth, at Dewhurst, 416-463-4927, danforthpizza.com. See listing.


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The original dynamite hand roll at Edo.

Edo

Uptown destination for sushi and refined Japanese eats – est. 1987

What was it like being one of Toronto’s first sushi restaurants?

Barry Chaim, founder There were only 45 Japanese restaurants when we opened, and very, very few sushi restaurants. I spent a lot of time meeting customers, explaining the cuisine, letting them taste food they’d never had before. We took what sounded to some like a strange cuisine and made it very accessible. We touched a lot of people – and in effect, we created a lot of our own competition.  

Do you see Edo’s impact reflected in the current Japanese food scene?

Many restaurants are now offering miso cod, which we’ve been doing since we opened – Lucy Waverman [of the Globe and Mail] did a story on our version, and other people started offering it.

We also created the dynamite roll. We wanted to introduce a spicy sauce and the chef said, “I want it to be like dynamite!” He made a regular maki with it – but I said, “If we’re gonna call it ‘dynamite’, it should look like it.” We used a giant tiger shrimp with the tail sticking out, and the hand roll looked like a dynamite stick. I like to think we’re a blend of respecting tradition and always being innovative – which is actually very traditional, because Japanese cuisine is constantly evolving.

How have you seen the Japanese food offerings shift in Toronto?

There is a great trend in the Japanese sector toward cheap and cheerful food, ramen, izakayas. Food doesn’t have to be expensive nowadays, but it has to be done right. People are getting more and more knowledgeable. Places that don’t adhere to authentic interpretation are not going to be successful. Twenty years ago we could have done whatever we wanted – we didn’t, but we could have! Today, it’s a very different story.

484 Eglinton, at Tarlton (under renovation), 416-322-3033 425 Spadina Road, at Lonsdale, 416-482-8973, 2901 Bayview, at Sheppard, 647-350-5188 edorestaurants.com. See listing.


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Natalia Manzocco

Judy Perly.

Free Times Cafe 

Jewish resto known for its folk music slate and a famous Sunday brunch – est. 1980

What’s the origin of your Jewish brunch buffet?

Judy Perly, owner When I bought the cafe, we started out with an international, health-themed menu – we were the first to have hummus and falafel, which was very cutting-edge at the time. By the mid 80s, we were really rocking as the local club for folk music – but I was really inexperienced, and it was tough to make money. In 1990, the place burned down, and by the time we’d reopened I lost all my customers. The place started going down the tubes. Eventually I thought, ‘I’m Jewish, I know how to cook Jewish food – and I don’t have any Jewish food at my restaurant.’ I taught my cook my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. I made him hand-grate all the onions and potatoes for the latkes on my mother’s old grater. I fought with my chefs, because they were cutting corners, like not wanting to skim the broth for the matzoh ball soup. Jewish customers can be very demanding and opinionated – but now we’re really known for our food.

I do love folk music, but just having Free Times be a folk club never really felt like me. I tried to put a lot of soul into it – which I see reflected today in so many young people starting in food, going back to their roots. All these professional chefs have learned all these different kinds of cooking, but they end up going back to their mother’s food, because it has some soul. You’re doing a mitzvah. It has meaning.

People say, you should bring the brunch to Thornhill, here, there. I say, ‘Gimme the gelt, not the guilt’. Women never get offered money for business – people think her husband, her father, her family should give her money. Nobody’s willing to invest in a woman.

What’s the secret to your success?

Hard work. Risk-taking. Not having children. Being willing to work for very little money for very long periods of time, which women tend to do more often 30 years of yoga – it helped me process a lot of my anger and frustration and understanding that this is my priority. There’s nothing more important to me than this business, not a relationship or anything.

Know what else started to make me real happy? [Judy holds up her phone.] Made my life so much better. I hired someone to teach me how it all worked, because I knew I’d never learn it on my own. I saw Zane [Caplansky] was so active on social media, and he inspired me.

And then I became a Vine star – I had 14,000 followers and 40 million views. My account was called “Judy Here”. I was on Buzzfeed, and they called me “Canada’s most unexpected Vine star.” I had all these teenyboppers calling me from all around the world. It was really fantastic. Vine really brought out the wacky side of my personality.

320 College, at Major, 416-967-1078, freetimescafe.com. See listing.


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Cheol Joon Baek

Leo (left) and Shirley Spralja.

Joso’s

Dalmatian coast-inspired Yorkville seafood spot – est. 1977

You’re famous for your decor, with all its erotica. Did you ever consider changing it?

Shirley Spralja, co-owner There’s been pressure over the years – certain colours or modern, sleek lines come into fashion. We sort of look around and say, “We’re anything but that.” Especially because Joso (Spralja, founder and Shirley’s father-in-law) was an artist, a self-taught man. He was very into the historical arts, was very inspired by Picasso and Dali. It’s sort of this world of Joso’s that exists within our little dining establishment. I think when we walk into restaurants, we’re looking to experience a different little world, and find a unique, memorable experience.

Drake shot the cover of his album Take Care at Joso’s. What effect has that had on business?

What a wonderful Toronto representative! He put Toronto on the map, God bless him. When he was a young child, he would come with his mom to the restaurant. He loved our food. He always did. When his music career took off, he decided he wanted to have a CD cover shoot done at the restaurant. One night, after closing, after midnight on a Saturday night, they sort of took over the second floor and shot away. To this day, he’s incorporated the name of the restaurant into song lyrics. There’s an actual little pilgrimage of young people that like to come and recreate the photo on the CD.

What’s your signature dish?

That’s got to be the whole fish. My mother-in-law always bought fish whole because she knew it hadn’t been processed. What gets me and my servers really excited is bringing someone that tray with the whole fish – eyes, bones and all. It’s something that I’m still trying to sway people over to. Boy, the push from the clientele – “No no no, you gotta debone the fish!” But then you’re missing that seaside custom of eating the fish off the bone, and the meat closest to the bone is really the most flavourful and offers the most nutrients. I’m so excited when I catch someone who’s hasn’t been a fish lover, and all of a sudden they become one through that intimate experience. I love it.

202 Davenport, at Avenue Road, 416-925-1903, josos.com. See listing.


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Natalia Manzocco

Lee Garden’s Bill Chow holds up a staff photo from 1992, featuring several staff members that still work there today.

Lee Garden

Cantonese dining room that still attracts lineups at dinner hour – est. 1978

Tell me about your history in the area.

Bill Chow, front of house manager When my boss (David Yeun, owner) started, there weren’t a lot of Chinese restaurants here – which was pretty good for him. After half a year, the success happened. There was a lineup every day, whether it was raining or snowing. In 1993, he moved here from across the street. Their old building needed renovating, but he didn’t want to close for a few months. So he closed for one day, moved everything, and then started from here! No breaks — just keep going. This used to be a luggage store owned by a Jewish family. Back then, the whole street was Jewish — Shopsy’s deli was down the street by where Swatow is now.

How do you stay competitive? 

There’s lots of competition right now – different styles of Chinese food, Japanese food, Korean food, Thai food, even fusion food. It’s really good, and people love it, especially young people. But we’re sticking to Chinese food.

The first thing is quality. The size or the flavours can change. But the best thing about a steak is the steak itself, right? Nice, big, juicy. That’s the most important. The rest is just following the times. If not many people order something, we cut it out of the menu. If they’ll order it, though, we’ll still do it. It’s like a VIP thing. ‘For you, no problem!’ It makes people happy.

Right up to College, the whole street is restaurants now.  Swatow’s good too, for dim sum. King Noodle does good barbecue. We do good dinner. Every restaurant is different. Even the same dish, like General Tao chicken. Somebody will walk in and say, ‘Hey, why is yours different?’ Because it’s a different restaurant! Otherwise, why didn’t you stay there instead of coming here? Same thing with people – you could have a good memory, but I’m good with my hands. Everybody’s different.

331 Spadina, at D’Arcy, 416-593-9524, leegardenspadina.ca. See listing.


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Le Select

Boho hangout turned real-deal French bistro and popular wedding venue

Est. 1977

What was Queen West like when you started out? What made you leave?

Jean-Jacques Quinsac, co-owner Peter Pan opened six months before us, and they were the first place on that strip. At the time, there was absolutely nothing. The first 10 years it was a lot of literary people and artists – Margaret Atwood and other people would come in. Le Select was very bohemian. We had charcuterie, café au lait, cheese plates, which were very popular because it was inexpensive – though nothing was expensive at the time. 

The big reason we moved was Queen Street was turning into a big shopping mall for teenagers. There was nowhere to park. We were dying slowly. We’ve been in the new location for 11 years now. Some people like this one more than the first one, and vice versa. One’s very bohemian, one’s a typical French brasserie. It was the restaurant we wanted to open 40 years ago, but we didn’t have the money to do it.

What happened to your famous hanging bread baskets at the new place?

In the beginning, we wanted the tables to be very close to each other, and in Toronto nobody liked that at the time. They liked to have space between tables. In Paris, it was the opposite – you engage in conversation with your neighbour. It’s very jovial and nice. We wanted the tables to be close, and there was no room to hang the bread baskets, so we hung them from the ceiling. It was a joke. At the new one, it was tough to find the equipment to make them solid. People would pull on them, and a few customers brought it down on their heads. 

The government had an issue with you moving your wine cellar – what happened in the end?

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario had decided that the wine belonged to the location, not to the owner – which was absolutely ridiculous. They wanted to take all our wine (12,000 bottles in total) to the warehouse and check every bottle as being purchased in Canada. We said, well, that’s easy. All the wine’s in the basement. It took us eight days to move it. If you wanna come check it, check it! And they actually never did.  

But the Globe and Mail was across the street from us, and  the story went on their front page. All the media was on it, print or TV, so it ended up being a good thing. Everybody who loved wine came to check us out – and then they came back again and again.

432 Wellington West, at Spadina, 416-596-6405, leselect.com. See listing.


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Tanja-Tiziana

Lily Pottinger.

The Real Jerk

The first stop for east-end jerk chicken fiends and roti lovers – est. 1984

Tell me how you got your start.

Lily Pottinger, co-owner and chef My husband was working for GM, but had been hurt and was home for a while. He had always wanted to open a place. One day, he came home and said, “I found us a restaurant.” We went down to the east end – which I’d never been to – to look at the place. Next thing he know, he went in back, talked to the guy there and came back out with the key! I was speechless. 

At the time, we could barely pay the mortgage for our home in Milton. We went down in the morning, and scrubbed and fixed and hauled and painted – and then we opened the next day! We didn’t know anything about getting permits. But he’s really that kind of guy – he just goes all out. 

There were days for almost a year when we were selling $20 or $30 a day. And then one day we got a write-up from the Toronto Star, saying we had great roti and jerk chicken. People just started coming in.

Rihanna and Drake’s “Work” video was shot at the Gerrard location. What changed for you after that?

That video went everywhere. As the summer progressed, we saw a lot of people coming in from California, Miami, New York, Chicago, England, Australia – you name it, all saying, “We saw the video!” I think Drake really looks out for his city.

I didn’t even know I was gonna be in it, and then they changed the scene, and they wanted somebody to be in the kitchen and said “How about you?” I was like “Noooo.” But they persuaded me. Now, it’s the best thing ever, because all my nieces and nephews think they have the coolest auntie. When I visit them, they’re like “We have to take selfies!”

(Look for Lily at 2:14!)

842 Gerrard East, at Carlaw, 416-463-6055 1004 Kingston, at Kingswood, 416-690-8752, therealjerk.com. See listing.


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Eddie O’Keefe

Rodney’s Oyster House

Buzzy after-work destination for bivalves and crustaceans of all kinds – est. 1987

What’s your origin story?

Julian Chapple, front of house manager Rodney’s opened on Adelaide and Jarvis in what was a worse part of town than it is now. It was a bit of an oyster fork in the tightened buttocks of Lower Canada. Rodney (Clark) opened the place in the middle of a shellfish ban, and he got more press as a lunatic Maritimer opening a shellfish restaurant – when he had limited access to clams, mussels and oysters – than he ever would have otherwise. A lot of Bay Street guys were coming into money, and it was rammed. It was a party pretty much every night. That was in 1987. We have mellowed slightly since then.

What’s your clientele like now?

The oyster doesn’t care who eats it. So we get a beautiful cross-section of the city. You could be the head of international markets or a farmer from the green belt.

Any celebrity encounters?

We try not to kiss and tell. But hey, Rachel McAdams had to wait in line just like everybody else. 

What’s your secret to success?

Honestly, give a person a good oyster and you have ’em forever. We look at it like a pyramid with the oyster on top — you have to have a good oyster. Then you have to take care of your crew. Then you have to take care of your customers. Because if you have those two first things, the customer’s going to have a good time. 

469 King West, at Brant, 416-363-8105, rodneysoysterhouse.com. See listing.


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Tanja-Tiziana

Carl Korte (left) and Keith Froggett.

Scaramouche

Sophisticated destination dining room with an adjoining relaxed sister spot, Scaramouche Pasta Bar – est. 1980

You’ve managed to keep topping best-of lists after almost 40 years in business. How do you stay relevant?

Carl Korte, co-owner We’re grateful for that – people speak so well of us. I think part of the success is that we stay a little bit nervous every day, worrying about the small stuff and trying to do the best we can. Last year, we had the biggest year in the history of the restaurant, for both Scaramouche and Pasta Bar – not jut in terms of sales, but in terms of customers served. That’s a pretty impressive benchmark, especially in a market that’s very trend-driven, very of the moment.

Keith Froggett, chef and co-owner A lot of younger people are coming through at the lower and middle levels, which adds a lot to the dynamic of the kitchen, and keeps us pretty current. They’re watching social media all the time and bring in a lot of creativity. All our senior cooks and upper management receive a yearly dining allowance, where we expect them to visit restaurants that we deem our competitors, as part of the package. They write a small synopsis of why they chose that restaurant, how their experience went, how they stack up. They bring back some good ideas.

Korte It’s kind of ironic that cooks, generally speaking, are the last ones who are able to go out and have dinner, because they’re always working or it’s too expensive. 

Kitchens are thought of as loud, chaotic, boorish places to work – but Scaramouche’s has a reputation for being very quiet and focused.

Froggett If you don’t respect people, you won’t get it back – maybe in the short term, but not the longer term. If you give people a chance, they tend to grow and blossom. I always try to give positive criticism, not negative, and it works. Of course, they’ve still got to perform. It’s not kindergarten! But screaming is not the way to get the best out of people.

Korte That climate is a strange thing that’s kind of unique to restaurants. It’s a very civilized working environment in our kitchen, and we like to keep it that way.

1 Benvenuto, at Avenue Road, 416-961-8011, scaramoucherestaurant.com. See listing.


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Natalia Manzocco

Tom Jones Steakhouse

Fortress-like King West steakhouse frozen in time – est. 1966

What’s the story behind this building? It looks like it used to be part of a row.

Frank Goutzioulis, manager The buildings around it got torn down well before you and I were ever around, in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It was the site of a jewellery company, and they were here right up until this place became a restaurant. Back in the day, people really weren’t tearing buildings down that were still occupied.

Has the interior changed since then?

We’ve done some maintenance, but a lot of it hasn’t changed. There are very few windows. You don’t know what time it is. You’re sort of lost. People tend to linger – come in at six or seven, and leave at midnight. That’s normal for us. Sometimes I’ll walk out of this building onto King and I see the cement trucks and chaos, and I walk back in saying, ‘Forget it, I don’t want to go anywhere.’ It’s a little bit of an oasis.

Any famous visitors over the years?

Lots. But we never felt the need to make a big deal out of it – that’s a big part of who we are. We’ve had politicians, prime ministers, even actors shooting in town who came in here three, four times a week, because nobody would bother them for photos or autographs.

Okay. Any anecdotes you can share?

This abstract painter, William Ronald, would come in a lot. He didn’t have much money, but my dad believed in him, so we’d have him in. He’d come in with a stack of 200 papers and just dash off sketches in permanent marker, and he’d be throwing them one by one onto the floor of the restaurant. When he ran out, he’d draw on the tablecloth. My dad kept a bunch of his paintings and sketches – they’re worth a lot of money now.

The marker fumes must have been something.

It never overpowered the steak!

17 Leader Lane, at Colborne, 416-366-6583, tomjonessteakhouse.com. See listing.


VesuvioPizzaSuper-ettore.jpg

Steven Davey

Ettore Pugliese.

Vesuvio Pizzeria & Spaghetti House

The Junction’s longest-running spot for pizza and veal scalloppini – est. 1957

What’s it been like staying open in the Junction for 60 years?

Ettore Pugliese, co-owner The Junction had been dry since 1903, and since we opened 40 years ago, we fought to make it wet. When we succeeded back in 1997, it was a big turning point for the area. Especially in the last five or six years, it’s really started to bounce back.

Piera Pugliese When we lost the plebiscite to repeal the dry law for the fourth time, we had to close the dining room. We went takeout-only for 16 years. In 2000 we reopened it – it’s actually amazing now.

Do you have any regulars?

Ettore Every day, this guy comes in and gets a Deluxe pizza. Every single day. Lately, he’s been adding onions.

Piera I have customers who say, “I used to come when I was dating, and then I brought my kids, and now I’m coming with my grandchildren.”

Any war stories you’d like to share?

Piera The night of the 2003 blackout, we were the only ones still open in the neighbourhood, because we were cooking with gas ovens – so we were swamped. We had to do all the billing on paper, calculating taxes by hand — but it was starting to turn into kind of a party vibe. The police came by and tried to get us to close — I think they were concerned for us – but people were not leaving. We had food. We had drinks. 

Ettore We were without power for 72 hours – but we never refused people. Fourteen years later, people are still thanking us for feeding them.

3010 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-763-4191, vesuviospizza.com. See listing.

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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