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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 21: Hits and a Miss

Jan 14, 2021

A Story Written by Kevin Gallagher

It was a surprise to be reviewed in a major newspaper a few months after we had opened. We were still unlicensed and serving only an extended lunch menu when we received a favourable review from Cynthia Wine in the Toronto Star. 

Up to this point, our clientele had been drawn from local businesses plus a few area residents. The photographers and film people in the building were stalwart regulars as were doctors and staff from the nearby Centre for Addiction and Mental Health,  as well as some of their wandering out-patients who might stop in for a coffee or a pop. We had been a neighbourhood restaurant; now we had city-wide exposure.

People started trying to call to make reservations. This was tricky because not only did we not accept reservations at the time, the restaurant also didn’t have a telephone number. A number for Mildred Pierce Restaurant wasn’t included in the review, instead it was listed under Avant-goût Catering. The number for Avant-goût Catering had been listed in the review but it was not listed under Mildred Pierce. I got a call from Bell Canada one day, suggesting a listing for the restaurant,

“We’re getting a lot of calls for the number and a listing in the white pages would be only a dollar a month.” said the operator.

“I think we could manage that,” I said. It was clear we were moving into a different restaurant stratum.

In addition to the regular kind of questions a restaurant gets about hours and menu, there were pointed questions that needed to be answered with patience and diplomacy.

“Why there? That’s an odd place for a restaurant.”

“You don’t have a liquor license? Is it safe to bring my car down there?”

  (In fairness to this last question, there were some dodgy aspects to the neighbourhood – people would cross the street rather than walk by the Drake Hotel.) We were always happy to have people call though, understanding that they did so because they were interested in coming to the restaurant.

Lorraine Segato arrived one Friday afternoon for a late lunch and told us she was doing reviews for Now magazine. No secret reviewer identity here, most of us knew her as vocalist for Parachute Club, Mirro and Anne in particular, as she had been a regular at The Parrot. Her lunch guest, who had arrived a half hour before her and sat nervously smoking and drinking coffee while he waited (we had assumed he was another out-patient from CAMH), didn’t want anything to eat when it came time to order. She sampled much of the menu, then left with a cheery wave and an order of grilled salmon on soba noodles to go.

We assumed that the thrust of her review would be about the lunch menu but strangely enough, she reserved her most enthusiastic praise for Sunday Brunch which we had recently started, and which I am fairly certain she had not sampled.  We got an inkling of this when a few Sundays later, when a photographer showed up and convinced Donna to displace some guests at a table to perch in her whites on the back of the banquette.

We thought it was odd that a pop singer would be selected to do restaurant reviews, but what credentials do you need other than an appreciation of food? While anyone who has the price of a meal has the right to express an opinion on it, a paid reviewer might be expected to have a little more depth to their resume – not necessarily culinary training but a breadth of knowledge on food and presentation, of service and style, and be able to put aside personal preferences to measure how closely the restaurateur had come to achieving what they had set out to do. And it is to be hoped that some positive points for improvement can be gleaned from it. 

Ms. Segato gave us a very good review. It’s said that any publicity is good publicity and this was a very good review, so we didn’t complain. 

Lunch and brunch business continued to grow as we welcomed new guests, many of whom urged us to open for dinner service, but people had difficulty finding us in the daylight hours. How would they find us at night?  We no longer had any signage, since our hastily constructed Letraset and particle board signs had disintegrated. 

I suggested that I might invest in a big mercury-blue neon sign that could be seen flashing from King and Bathurst, but the regulars said no.

“It’s so great to see the expression on people’s faces when you bring them up through the abandoned warehouses on Sudbury Street, into an unlit parking lot and then they come into this room.”

It was reassuring to know that we’d already exceeded expectations before people had even been seated. In those pre-cellphone days, first timers sometimes arrived huffing in frustration, having driven around the neighbourhood several times, not quite believing the directions they had written down before leaving home.  We would get them settled, warm them with an amuse of chèvre with roasted red peppers baked in vine leaves and a glass of wine, and all would be forgiven. 

We couldn’t afford the sign anyway.

One Saturday, we were high spirits as we set up for dinner service. Anne was singing, Donna was fussing with the flowers and joking with the wait staff. We’d had a lot of calls during the day and were expecting to be busy. Arriving for his dinner shift, Healey jovially announced, “Well, everybody’s in a pretty good mood considering that article in the paper.”

Everything stopped.

“What article?”

He looked stunned, “Well, uh, it was nothing. Just some rambling about neighbourhoods. Not very good really. Not worth reading.”

“What paper?”

“The Globe, but really…”

I went up to Queen Street to a corner store and bought three copies of the paper. We opened them to the restaurant review and crowded around to read it.

We read it. We read it again..  The article covered three businesses west of Bathurst, a fact which the reviewer seemed to regard as precluding the possibility of any serious culinary ability. Each operation was dismissed scathingly as talentless and hopelessly inept. Last on the list, Mildred Pierce was scorned as the creation of trendy neophytes, out of their depth. Every menu item tried was disparaged – presentation, execution and taste, referring to us as “the drekmeisters of Queen Street West.” If the reviewer found little on the menu she considered edible, we found little in her review that was digestible. 

The review finished with the words, “They do not accept reservations. People are lining up for this food. As P.T. Barnum once said……” 

I was wounded; Anne was in tears and Donna was furious. Who was this vile termagant? And what were her credentials? Guests arriving for dinner offered personal takes on her background..

“Her parents operate a holiday camp in Algonquin Park. The food there’s not very good.”

“I understand she did the homemaker’s course at Cordon Bleu.”

But what did it matter? She was entitled to her opinion and it may have been good for newspaper sales.

Maybe her scorn was sparked by an article that had appeared in the Toronto Star a few weeks before, 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, 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”.  

We were not very chic at all. Anne and Donna certainly had style as did Ted and Ivan but our success had much more to do with hard work and good luck. Neither were we neophytes, having considerable hospitality experience. But there is really little to be gained in trying to rebut reviews, and ultimately they don’t matter; what matters is the satisfaction of the guests in the restaurant. This we told ourselves repeatedly.

We continued to garner good reviews from titles including  Toronto Life,  Gourmet Magazine, The Washington Post and The New York Times. In writing about us for the Vancouver Sun, under the heading “Revenge on the Lady who Eats in Her Hat” Jurgen Goth was pointedly critical of the Globe’s review and positive about his dining experience with us.  There was a modicum of satisfaction in this but the Globe review remained a bad oyster memory.

Late in 1992, we decided to extend our dinner hours, opening on Monday and Tuesday nights. In creating an ad announcing the change, Anne suggested playing off the Mildred Pierce movie theme, poster-style with glowing critical comments. Poring over the reviews, we spotted a comment we couldn’t resist using, giving a little late satisfaction.

The ad below: 

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