Eight trend-resistant restaurants that shun charcuterie boards, $15 cocktails, and superstar chefs—and have survived for decades.
Toronto is officially restaurant mad. In recent times, we’ve become a de facto army of foodies marching, zombie-like, towards the next must-visit joint launching on promises of “fusion” or “locavore” or “molecular” or some other beta-noun that didn’t exist a decade ago.
But what about the handful of places your dad would recognize that have successfully slung the same hash for ages, thank you very much, without charcuterie boards, $15 cocktails, or superstar chefs? Places that actually accept reservations and don’t care a whit about Wi-Fi access?
Like Betty White, most have survived on a voodoo mix of consistency, tenacity and plain old chutzpah… but still, where does that longevity come from? (Hint: serving steaks and jumbo shrimp cocktails seems to help). Herewith, a look at the city’s scrappy restaurant survivors.
Restaurant: Barberian’s Steak House (pictured above)
Address: 7 Elm Street
Established: 1959 (53 years old)
The vibe: Hungarian emigrant adapts to his new country by OD-ing on Canadiana. And the wine cellar…that’s a true collection.
Signature dish: Rib steak. “It’s less common and got its origin in Montreal,” owner Arron Barberian says. “We dry-age it and I think we’ve perfected it.”
Celebrity bragging rights: Not just stars—Chavril love bloomed here! “Chad Kroeger and Avril Lavigne like eating in the wine cellar,” Barberian reveals. “And yes, they’re a real thing.”
The secret of their success: “Hyper-consistency. We deliver what you expect every single time. And you have to own your own land. It’s the only way to withstand fluctuations in business.”
Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star
Restaurant: La Castile
Address: 2179 Dundas Street East
Established: 1968 (44 years old), burned down in 1975 and reopened in 1976.
The vibe: Low-rent Tudor—not fit for a king, but Henry VIII might have sent his beheader-in-chief here as a thank you for all the overtime he put in.
Signature dish: Charcoal broiled steaks and succulent seafood.
Celebrity bragging rights: “Yes, but none I’m willing to name,” says manager Stacey Traiforos. “We pride ourselves on being discreet.”
The secret of their success: “Quality and consistency.”
Photo: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star
Restaurant: Tom Jones Steakhouse
Address: 17 Leader Lane (tucked behind the King Eddy Hotel)
Established: 1966 (46 years old)
The vibe: Where forests go to die. Witness the “mahogany-paneled walls, hand-carved oak threshold, wood-burning fireplace, bark-inlaid walnut boardroom-style dining table….”
Signature dish: Filet Migon Steak, Roast Prime Rib, Filet of Salmon
Celebrity bragging rights: Many, including the late, great John Candy and Quebec singer Ginette Reno. Plus “everyone from Prime Ministers to Governor Generals to captains of industry,” says owner George Goutzioulis. “That’s our clientele.”
The secret of their success: “Hard work and being hands-on,” the affable Goutzioulis insists. Smart money says the owner’s graciousness factors in there, too.
Photo: Rick Madonik/Toronto Star
Restaurant: The Tulip Steakhouse
Address: 1610 Queen Street East (where The Beaches and Leslieville duke it out for supremacy)
Established: 1929 (83 years old!)
The vibe: Hangover-perfect old-school greasy spoon.
Signature dish: Steaks and big breakfasts.
Celebrity bragging rights: Oh yeah. Mike Myers, Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo “and lots of others now dead but from back in the day,” according to boss Paulina Lui.
The secret of their success: “Price and portion,” Lui insists. “Plus we only use triple-A meat. We never budge on that, even when the price goes up.”
Photo: Doug Griffin/Toronto Star
Restaurant: Old Spaghetti Factory
Address: 54 The Esplanade
Established: 1971 (41 years old). “There are people who have worked there longer than I’ve been alive,” cracks general manager Graham Hnatiw.
The vibe: The result of the infamous 1970 collision between Chef Boyardee and a stage coach.
Signature dish: Spaghetti and meatballs.
Celebrity bragging rights: “Probably the biggest was Terry Fox,” Hnatiw says. “He had one day in Toronto during his Marathon of Hope and he requested to come here. But we get lots of sports stars—Jays, Raptors, Leafs. Gordie Howe was in last week.”
The secret of their success: “Décor, value and location,” Hnatiw says.
Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star
Restaurant: Peter Pan Bistro
Address: 373 Queen Street West
Established: 1976 (36 years old)
The vibe: The kind of place your Mom would run… if she was the hippest MILF on the planet.
Signature dish: “Nothing comes to mind after 35 years,” laughs owner Mary Jackman. “They’re all signature dishes.”
Celebrity bragging rights: TIFF stars including Joss Whedon “and a certain very shy onetime member of SCTV is a regular.”
The secret of their success: “I put more money in than I take out,” cracks Jackman.
Photo: Scott Gardner/Toronto Star
Restaurant: Biagio Ristorante
Address: 155 King Street East
Established: 1989 (23 years old) but namesake owner Biagio Vinci operated a catering business (Paul’s Fine Foods) from 1965 to 1989.
The vibe: Remember that scene in The Godfather where Clemenza makes the spaghetti sauce with the fried garlic “and a little bit o’ wine an’ a little bit o’ sugar?” Yeah, that could’ve been made here.
Signature dish: “It’s an Italian restaurant so they’re all signature dishes: osso buco, risotto, homemade pasta,” Vinci says. “And this is the most beautiful place in town!”
Celebrity bragging rights: Numerous. “Princess Margaret was here,” Vinci says, “and the president of Italy (Oscar Luigi Scalfaro) had been here twice. Plus Harry Belafonte, Tom Cruise, Sidney Poitier. When he came I said, ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner!’” (Possibly not the first time Poitier had heard that one).
The secret of their success: “Working hard, perseverance and consistency. And smiling!”
Photo: Andrew Wallace/Toronto Star
Address: 1 Benvenuto Place (just try finding it without a car)
Established: 1980 (32 years old)
The vibe: You know how you’re always complaining that never have anywhere to wear that fancy LBD? Now you do.
Signature dish: Crispy Black Cod with organic shrimp (if it’s good enough for Joanne Kates…) but really anything on the menu is downright divine.
Celebrity bragging rights: Naturally, but longtime chef/owner Keith Froggett is way too dignified to kiss and tell.
The secret of their success: Unparalleled service, spectacular cooking, masterful presentation, stunning room… you get the picture.