Come for Bar Isabel’s Spanish-rooted dinner. Stick around for the bright, boozy house cocktails. And then stay up well past your bedtime for the insane late-night snacks.
Every night, at around 11:30 p.m., there’s a subtle shift in the dining room at Bar Isabel. The lights are slightly dimmed, and the music—a mix of jazz, rumba, and reggae—gets a little louder, as the three-month-old College Street spot changes from a Spanish-inflected taverna to a boozy late-night haunt. Forget nachos and poutine; instead, the 2 a.m. fare here involves heaping plates of crab legs, fried chicken, and foie gras, devoured by the hungry and inebriated. It’s hard to think of anywhere else in the city you can eat this well, this late.
Bar Isabel is the brainchild of Grant van Gameren, probably best known as the founding chef of The Black Hoof, the Dundas West temple to charcuterie that he helped popularize with his accessible takes on offcuts and odd bits. In the two years since he left that job, he has spent time under the watch of Max Rimaldi, owner of Pizzeria Libretto and Enoteca Sociale (where van Gameren ran the kitchen for 13 months). It was last year’s eight-week trip to Italy, France, Denmark, and especially Spain, however, that really helped the chef develop a vision for Bar Isabel. “It was just supposed to be a weeklong trip to Rome, but it turned into two months of eating and drinking and learning about different cultures.”
He started cultivating a philosophy for what he wanted in his restaurant. “I’ve learned that it’s important to try to cater to people’s needs—that you can have a cool space, with cool food, and still have great service and take reservations,” van Gameren says. To help run the place, he hired friends Brandon Olsen (formerly of The Black Hoof) and Guy Rawlings (Room 203) to handle the kitchen and dining room, respectively, and built a team that’s been plucked from some of the city’s top restaurants: managers and servers from Cava and Splendido, mixologists from Momofuku and Campagnolo, cooks from Nota Bene and Buca.
When it came to the food, van Gameren knew he wanted to create a place where different generations could feel equally at home and not be put off by overly fussy or complicated dishes. So his menu offers items like a plate of sweet and spicy shishito peppers ($8), warm and blistered from a slight charring, and accented only with sea salt. A tart, creamy sea bream ceviche ($26) comes dressed with bitter orange, tamarind, Serrano peppers, and fried leeks, then piled high on its deep-fried carcass. The food—much of it crispy, salty, and rich—goes well with any of the menu’s inventive cocktails or craft beers, a conscious decision van Gameren made to loosen people up for a great meal.
In the time it’s been open, Bar Isabel has captured a late-night niche that no one realized was missing from the city. It’s become a stomping ground for groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings looking to congregate where there’s room to sit and chat, and eat plates of food, not bite-sized snacks. Every night, about a dozen dishes are put on the late-night menu: chorizo, lonza, bresaola, and pancetta round out the house-cured meat platter, while roasted bone marrow, raw horse, and blood sausage have fast become favourites. One of van Gameren’s standout plates is the sobrassada crostini ($6), made with a fiery homemade salami that’s balanced with honey from Andalusia. Equally excellent are the chips and boquerones ($9), a twilight favourite of van Gameren’s that consist of pickled white anchovies, piquillo peppers, jalapeños, and smoky chips, finished with dehydrated lime zest, paprika, and cayenne.
Looking to capture the tone of the old-world places he fell in love with in the Spanish Basque country, van Gameren spent seven months personally building Bar Isabel’s dining room out of colourful handmade tiles, old oak and maple church pews, stained glass light fixtures, and vintage booze bottles. The result is a red-hued, candle-lit place that’s intimate and inviting—an antidote to the chaos of Little Italy and the sometimes brash bars of the west end. “Not everything has to be barn wood and Edison lights,” says van Gameren. “I want people who come in here to feel that they’ve been lifted to another time.”
Bar Isabel, 797 College St., 416-532-2222.