From “that place you went to on Sunday afternoons” to “that construction wasteland,” Roncesvalles has faced a tough—and pretty unremarkable—few years. With the opening of two resto-bars within the last three weeks alone, is “Roncey” a place you want to be again after dark? And will it stay this perfect forever?
Last Thursday, The Westerly, a new kitchen and bar described as “New York-meets-Paris in the ’40s,” opened across from the Revue Cinema, just below Howard Park Avenue. The beauty of the space starts in the walls (all brick and subway-tiled), moves along the marble bar to the stained hardwood floors and exposed piping, and ends in a 40-person private dining room hidden around the back.
Owned by service-industry veterans Tom Earl and Beth Daveyduke, The Westerly is the latest in a string of 2011 openings that have hit Roncesvalles Avenue, and the most daring to date because of its position on the strip’s most northern end. And just three weeks ago, Maggie Ruhl, owner of Ossington’s Dakota Tavern, and resto-neophyte Greg Boggs unveiled The Ace, a re-purposed ’60s diner where most of the original décor (it was once home to a Chinese restaurant) has gone undisturbed for almost 20 years. It’s officially starting to feel like a new, new beginning for the Roncesvalles community, with an influx of exciting places that not only complement the strip’s local watering holes and buy-local daytime operations, but also elevate it to one of the city’s great areas to eat, drink, and be merry.
I’ve lived adjacent to Roncesvalles Village, near the foot of its Queen-King merge, for over two years now. I barely had the 504 King streetcar—as much a part of the community’s life line as, say, perogies and espresso—for a week before 2009′s great construction mess, and a subsequent contractor/natural-gas-line blunder, left the strip and its business community shredded, stranded and struggling. Digging on the Polish community’s main artery began in July of that year, and what was expected to be quick and painless (if not completely necessary to the area’s revitalization) turned into an exercise in incompetence and delays that lasted almost two years to the date. This summer, the strip was finally de-occupied by orange-vested crews, and celebrations ignited from north to south, heralding a new cohesiveness that would reinvent and reinvigorate this historic, yet threateningly outdated, stretch of the city.
With the debut of flashy raised bike lanes, 100 new trees, manicured everything and a pedestrian-focused tenet, Roncesvalles Village also saw the opportunity for vacancies (some a casualty of constructions, others time) to appear more attractive to potential new ventures that would lay the foundation for a Roncesvalles 2.0: Build it, and businesses and patrons will come. And so they did. In 2011, aside from The Ace and The Westerly, an influx of food and drink has appeared on the stretch from Howard Park to Queen. In April, BBQ paradise (with a killer patio) Barque Smokehouse and Cardinal Rule (the west side’s go-to for vegan anything) both opened to great acclaim, and have already developed into vigorous, if not polar opposite, staples on the strip. In August, Pizzeria Defina, an unconventional place of pie that counts butternut squash and duck confit as toppings, opened at Grenadier Road. And then there was a new designer-run co-op clothing store. And a sushi place. The list goes on. And it’s just what Roncesvalles wants—and needs.
“It seems that way, and since we’ve opened our doors, the response has been incredible,” agrees Ruhl, who decided extend bar service at The Ace until 2 a.m. nightly with an abbreviated snack menu, one of the few places to currently stay open this late on the strip. “We wanted to do that for Roncesvalles, where people could go for a quiet drink, but also for the west end of Toronto.”
For Earl and The Westerly, the Roncesvalles stretch never seemed like a place he’d want to set up shop, but he believes the strip needs a new stability and more options, despite his own fretting over a slow, post-construction uptake. “We didn’t want to be just the trendy, hip place,” he tells me, on his first Sunday open to patrons, with the smell of “contemporary comfort food” filling the restaurant. ”We want to be here for a long time, we want to be part of a neighbourhood—we really want to be involved. And that’s what we were looking for and why ultimately we decided Roncesvalles would be perfect.”
In October, a New York Times travel piece lauded the “rejuvenated Roncey” for both its survival and its diversity, noting the reassuring mix of family-owned Polish charm and the ’hood’s accruement of “local design and casual-hip dining” with the arrival “young, creative types.” And that’s exactly what you’d say The Ace and The Westerly (both still unopened at the time of that article, and therefore unmentioned) represent to the strip. “From the community side of things, more and more young families have moved in,” says Boggs, who has lived in the area for six years and wanted the Ace space the minute he laid eyes on it. “From the strip side of things, it’s coming into its own and finding its place within the community. There’s a shift from a [traditional] Polish neighbourhood, a change to newer things.”
Like the two are merging, I suggest. “Yeah, exactly,” Boggs agrees. “The strip is becoming better for both sides.”
Keith Denning, the coordinator of the Roncesvalles Village BIA, is a 25-year Roncey resident and is probably the greatest guardian of institutional knowledge for this community. “These new businesses are exciting and fresh, so of course people are talking about them, but they are joining people who have blazed the trail, as it were,” he explains, listing off those who started to give the area its hip cachet: Gate 403 with live jazz seven nights a week, The Local and other, more relaxed places no one talks enough about.
Denning also manages the BIA Twitter account (@RoncesVillage), which has become like a de facto town crier for the community at large. With his pulse on what all the businesses are doing, Denning is often retweeting nightly specials, promotions, openings and other good-to-know news. He understands where the community has come from, the construction calamity that was and I’d say he’s the first to know where it’s going. “The Roncey that everyone talks about now has been building slowly for a long time. I’d point out, too, that [what] everyone is raving about is based on [the street’s] strong Polish foundations—I see a lot of tweets about the great periogies.”
So what does the future of this west-end strip, the newest postal code of “casual-hip,” have to look forward to? With all the new things to do at night, I liken the possibilities, in both best and worst-case scenarios, to appear something like Ossington, south of College. (How long is it until a tiny, unsuspecting bar starts holding quasi-dance parties with iPod DJs?) Roncey, though, has a stronger, smarter sense of community more closely associated with a cultural identity that runs deep and rich rather than just sketchy karaoke bars and the best Vietnamese food this side of the city (yes, Golden Turtle). It’s that very pride in community—a blend of preservation and self-perpetuating drive—that becomes a powerful motivator for business owners and their patrons. “The neighbourhood is ready for a change, they’re ready for something more to happen here,” echoes The Westerly’s Earl, who hopes to extend bar hours past the current 11 p.m. in the spring.
But could the Portuguese, for example, really have stopped the burgeoning slice of Dundas West, between Bellwoods and Lansdowne, from inevitably becoming the tiny hub for nightlife, noise, and hipsters that it is? According to The Ace’s Ruhl, the neighbourhood associations—and there are a couple of them, the Roncesvalles BIA being arguably the strongest presence—are really involved in the process. “With Ossignton, it was a bit difficult when these restaurants were coming in because there were rumours that these nightclubs were also coming in. What happens [in Roncesvalles] is that the associations are so involved that it’s always going to be small, little businesses.”
Dennings also notes: “The BIA works with businesses and residents to arrive at solutions when concerns arise, but this doesn’t happen often. It helps that many of our business owners are also residents and are raising their families here. We’ve got a fun and vibrant nightlife on Roncesvalles, but nobody wants it to be clubland.”
And while this still feels like the beginning for Roncesvalles, let’s hope it doesn’t keep “morphing” until it’s unrecognizable or unbearable—or full of condo buildings. And when you go—because you will and should—have some respect with the drinking and the cigarettes and the noise. This is the most perfect corner of Toronto we’ve got left.