When I think of many of the new restaurants that have opened up on Ossington, Roncesvalles and Dundas Street West in the last few years, places that proudly announce their unpretentious, egalitarian hipness with every dish of comfort Canadiana they plonk onto the menu, I can’t help but think of the Senator Diner. The Senator was there first (I think it really is the oldest restaurant in Toronto) and it will still be there when the new spots are gone, the coolest old daddy of them all. Now owner Bob Sniderman, with the tireless help of dinner manager Peter Moscone, has quietly and carefully set about rebuilding an evening clientele for his beloved property and I think he’s onto something really promising.
I once asked Sniderman how he came to buy the Diner and he started talking about the 1970s, a time when he was working for his father, Sam Sniderman, opening up Sam The Record Man stores across Canada. “Almost every day for ten years I would go round the corner from the record store to The Senator Diner and eat my lunch,” he told me. “The place was totally unknown to anyone except myself, a guy who ran a newsstand and half a dozen other characters. Each of us sat at his own table, like people living out a Graham Greene novel. It hadn’t changed since a spectacular renovation in 1948, and it appealed to that sense of the older cosmopolitan restaurants that every American city had but that otherwise didn’t exist in Toronto. Nick Nicolau owned it (that’s his smiling face on the side of the building), his egg salad sandwiches were great, but in 1984 I heard it was scheduled for demolition. So I bought it.
“That first year, I did just about everything myself. Down to the Food Terminal at five a.m., buy all the produce, prepare it, cook it, serve it, wash the floors, go to bed at midnight, get back to the Terminal by five a.m…. I’ve been working 80-hour weeks ever since.”
The Diner was a tremendous success. By the end of the 1980s, people who shared Sniderman’s enthusiasm for the graceful lines of ’40s populist decor, for terrific burgers, crab cakes and cioppino with plump scallops and saffron, for Dufflet’s cakes and Gay Couillard’s pies and great Californian wines, had adopted the place as their own. Everything changed when the Pantages theatre reopened across the road. The pre-theatre crowd squeezed out the regular Toronto clientele.
“That other-worldly ambience, that feeling of being off the beaten track had been displaced,” recalled Sniderman. “Everyone used to think it was their restaurant, and all of a sudden it was everyone’s restaurant, and not a place where you could peacefully talk, and it was empty by eight.”
Cut to today. As ever, the Diner is packed for breakfast, brunch and lunch but now Sniderman is trying once more to make it a dinner destination – without sacrificing the mood or the appeal of the place. He and Moscone have hired a new chef, Andrew Taylor, with a remarkable resumé that includes Allen’s, Jump, Sequoia Grove, Houston’s, Mövenpick and Langdon Hall, and who now proposes a three-course dinner for the remarkable price of $32, a menu “inspired by traditional Canadian classics and the youthful spirit of Downtown Toronto.”
It’s still the Diner, with bar stools and booths, whimsical antique breakfast cereal displays, vintage Coke advertisements and free peppermints, dishes bussed into bins not carried into the kitchen, and I’m glad of it. Gentrification would mess up the vibe. ’70s plays from a tiny iPhone above the bar but so quietly it’s barely audible; conversation is the background soundscape. The cheerful waitress asks how we’re doing, hands us menus and drinks lists, and sets down a bottle of water. It’s an old milk bottle from Sheldon Creek organic dairy, the place where the Senator gets its milk. Quality ingredients are paramount here – freshly squeezed orange juice, Cumbrae’s beef… I like the drinks list though it needs to expand and upgrade the choice of wines (or bring your own bottle – corkage is $10). They serve Beau’s or Highlander ale on tap, a range of classic cocktails and others they call Chocoholics – basically elaborate milkshakes spiked with booze.
Many years ago, Joanne Kates and Bob Sniderman indulged in a fairly passionate debate about crab cakes – I forget the details but it was big news in those innocent times. I’m glad to see Maryland crab cakes are still on the menu – soft and tasty, full of real crab meat and with a good tan crust from the frying pan. Taylor sets them beside a dainty little salad of seedlings and julienned carrot and radish with a gentle sesame seed dressing. A shallow pool of citrus remoulade is rich and subtly tangy, a nicely judged accompaniment to the crab cake.
Senator Caesar salad is a more forthright affair, fresh, honest romaine torn up and strewn with crunchy croutons, grated parmesan and chewy berkshire bacon lardons. Any Caesar lives or dies by its dressing and this one is deftly done, deeply flavourful but well balanced.
Is there any need to order the burger or the fish and chips? Both are Senatorial classics, famously excellent. I’d rather try some of the new evening dishes. Pan-fried pickerel is impeccably cooked, a pair of plump fillets that part into juicy flakes at the touch of a fork, its skin golden and crisp. The sauce for the dish is a thick corn chowder, a most harmonious flavour; vegetables are a kind of succotash, jumbling corn kernels with diced carrot, red pepper and green beans – not quite in the same league as the protein.
And I’d like to see a bit more imagination with the medley of broccoli, zucchini, carrots and green beans that accompany a terrific breast of duck, the meat beguilingly tender and crisp-skinned. Taylor garnishes it with a chunky compote of quince and cranberries – another thoughtfully delicious idea.
Boneless short rib of beef is the star of the mains – a meltingly tender piece of meat that has properly reabsorbed its braising juices with a fine flavour that Taylor allows to speak for itself. It sits over first-class Yukon gold mash (handy for mopping up the yummy jus) and is draped with soft ribbons of honey-mustard-glazed carrot and parsnip. Good, honest comfort food to match the room’s warm and friendly mood.
A range of bought-in cakes and pies fill the dessert menu. The kitchen makes its own sticky toffee pudding, however, and serves a big hot wedge of it, its dark crust glistening with toffee sauce.
In its heyday, the Senator Diner was, as Sniderman explained, a sort of open secret, off the beaten track but beloved by those who enjoyed sitting in a classic blue-collar environment while eating white-collar food. I’d love to see it regain that old reputation and late-evening clientele.
249 Victoria Street, (416) 364-7517 www.thesenator.com.