Although privately owned, restaurants are public institutions and belong as much to their customers as anybody. Great restaurants that have stood the test of time belong, too, to their locale. Interestingly, the iconic restaurants of North American cities are those that are more or less open to all. Expensive, fancy fine dining establishments might endure, but it’s the delis, taverns and diners that endure through the decades and make themselves part of a place.
The Senator, tucked around the corner from Yonge and Dundas on Victoria Street, is one these restaurants that qualifies as a Toronto institution. Or, at least, it ought to. We’re not very good at celebrating our institutions in Toronto, so perhaps the Senator, which has been in continuous operation as a restaurant for over 80 years and sports the same basic wood paneled decor since its last big renovation in 1948, will serve as a model as this town grows up and acquires the habits of a big city.
The Senator was saved, as it were, in the 1980s by Bob Sniderman, son of ‘Sam The Record Man’. Holding through the decline of the Yonge Street strip in the last twenty-five odd years, Sniderman must be pleased to see the area come back to life, with condo projects sprouting up all over. In anticipation of downtown’s rebirth, Sniderman has hired Peter Moscone as the dinner manager. The youthful Moscone has earned his culinary chops by being part of the team that produces the Gold Medal Plates competion across Canada under the supervision of James Chatto. Moscone is very carefully tweaking with the restaurant by bringing it up to the prevailing locavore standards, while remaining true to the diner’s legacy.
I met Moscone at The Senator on a recent Monday afternoon. I expected the restaurant to be quiet, but instead it bustled with staff getting ready for dinner service. Moscone apologized for the chaotic scene around us in the dining room, explaining they decided to open that evening because there was a show on at Massey Hall. Before we sat down at a booth to talk about some of the changes going on at The Senator, Moscone introduced me to Andrew Taylor, his new chef. Taylor is a fine dining veteran, having held the title of Executive Chef at Langdon Hall in the early 2000s. Taylor, whose work beckoned him back to the kitchen, is not the first injection of fancy food sensibility to come to the restaurant in the past few years: Bob Berman consulted to the Senator a few years ago, as well.
Moscone explained to me that his mission at The Senator is low key, with an emphasis on quality. Praising Sniderman’s commitment to the restaurant, Moscone explains he’s switched over to using only organic milk from Sheldon Creek Dairy, making their own fresh-squeezed orange juice and sourcing their coffee from Dark City, to name a few. Moscone is almost bragging when he says, “We have 40 different suppliers. Most restaurants only have one: a Sysco truck that drops everything off once a week.”
Moscone and Taylor have done little to change the Senator’s beloved lunch menu, the burger is there (although now it’s Cumbrae’s beef). And Moscone claims his regulars are happy, and he’s kept the Senator’s staff, many of whom have been working there for decades. But he’s clearly very excited and pleased with the new dinner menu, which is designed to serve the growing population of downtown condo dwellers. He cites Rose & Sons on the north fringe of the Annex as an example of a locally-driven neighbourhood place and thinks The Senator could fulfill that role downtown.
Taylor’s dinner menu, moderately priced at $32 for three courses, is big on20th Century North American classics like Iceberg Wedge Salad and Maryland Crab Cakes to start and Liver and Onions or Braised Short Ribs – although there’s a hint of exoticism with a Green Curry vegetarian option and a Chicken Pot-Au-Feu, next tot he Steak Frites and Fish and Chips. The menu is straight forward and ingredient driven, but in a refreshingly non-pretentious way.
Moscone is content to take it slow and continue to improve gradually. He’s started a small cocktail program, and is filling out the restaurant’s craft beer selection. A wine program will follow, he promises, but not until he can devote the time and resources to do it right. One thing he swears never to change? He looks around smiling and says, “The room!”
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the company that publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley