Chic & Oozing MoxyMar 24, 2019
By Kevin Gallagher
Sometime in the early nineties, an article appeared in the Toronto Star, describing how young New York restaurateurs with style and moxy were abandoning traditional main street locations and opening businesses in old warehouses with entrances off back alleys. The writer related her experience of searching Tribeca for a restaurant that had been recommended to her, and only finding it with the help of a passerby who directed her down a narrow street, to a door marked by a small sign with the name of the restaurant in cursive neon. The article went on to relate how in Los Angeles as well, restaurateurs were invading seedy areas to open chic and innovative diners adding, “in Toronto, we have Mildred Pierce”.
I doubt if anyone was more shocked than Donna and I by the suggestion that we might be chic, innovative and have moxy – well perhaps the fusty newspaper reviewer who claimed there was nothing edible west of Bathurst. It was true that Mildred Pierce was busy, had no signs or telephone number and was nestled in the back corner of a warehouse beside the abandoned Robert Bury lumberyard, but it was, at least in the beginning, riding on the coattails of our catering business, Avant-Goût, and we had no expectation of its great success. It was an opportunity for us to do something we loved to do – entertain in our own space. By the time we decided that having a sign might be a good idea, many of our regulars objected, savouring the prospect of bringing friends up Sudbury Street through the ghosts of the Massey Ferguson buildings and into the dark parking lot beside the railroad tracks. When the new arrivals walked into the warm, whimsically decorated room, their relief was palpable and we had already exceeded expectations.
We had dreamed for years about opening our own restaurant but when we moved into the unit at 99 Sudbury, decided that this would not be the place. But as small businesses were starting up in the spaces around us on Gladstone, Lisgar and Abell Streets, we saw an opportunity. There were few places to eat lunch or entertain clients in the neighbourhood. It was a time when people would cross the street rather than walk by The Drake.
On a budget, we furnished the restaurant with cutlery, china and glassware from auctions from the recently closed Windsor Arms Hotel and tables, chairs and some kitchen equipment left from the production of the film “The Freshman”.
We convinced Anne Yarymowich, soon recognized as one of the most talented chefs in the city, to be chef-de-cuisine. Her beautifully executed plates and contemporary comfort cuisine wowed our guests. The creative team of Ivan Lynch and Ted Whelan, our “fairy godfathers” turned a nondescript warehouse unit in to a warm and welcoming dining room. Their wonky take on an Italian palazzo design drew comparisons to Peter Greenaway film sets and Alice in Wonderland.
And our guests came for the design, the food, and the welcome.
So were we innovative? Did we have moxy? Perhaps. But we also had a lot of luck.