By Barbara D. Ritchie
[Editor’s note: a previous version of this story mistakenly suggested that John Maxwell’s herd of Dexter cattle were fed grain. They are not, ever. GFR apologises for any confusion on this matter. – Malcolm Jolley]
Over the past thirty years, John Maxwell has developed a loyal following among locals and celebrities on the Toronto restaurant scene for the ambience and quality fare in his restaurants.
His restaurant experience began in London, where he had lived since 1968 and completed a doctoral thesis at Oxford. Maxwell began to work full-time in the restaurant industry in 1974 and became manager at Joe Allen London when it opened in Covent Gardens in 1977. The owner, Joe C. Allen, was an American he knew in his earlier school years in New York, who launched the Joe Allen chain of restaurants in New York City in 1960. Joe Allen is a theatrical restaurant, devoted to actors and fans of the theatre, with a ‘New York saloon restaurant’ feel to it.
In 1980, Maxwell chose Toronto over Munich and Brussels to open another Joe Allen restaurant, because of Toronto’s more vibrant theatre scene at the time. Five years years later he closed Joe Allen and opened Orso just up the street. An equally popular restaurant, it had an Italian theme, given Maxwell’s love of Italian culture and language. In 1987, he opened Allen’s, another theatrical restaurant, at 143 Danforth Avenue at the Broadway subway station. In 1998, he and his partners in the Irish Pub Group opened the Dora Keogh Irish Pub next to Allen’s and built the P.J. O’Brien Irish Pub in downtown Toronto (which they sold in 2002).
Allen’s remains one of the top restaurants in Toronto after 25 years, with one of the most compelling patios in Toronto. Its enormous deck has capacity for 100 patrons, but is so well spaced out that it never feels busy even though it always is. A massive willow tree in the centre adds to the ambience. The food is delicious and the menu favours fresh local ingredients, reflecting Maxwell’s belief that the taste of food is directly linked to the quality of its production. Allen’s has one of the best hamburgers in town. His signature dishes include Lamb Shank in Guiness and its Meats of Designated Origin. It offers one of the most extensive beverage menus, with over 100 Canadian wines, 100 beers and 300 whiskeys and whiskys to choose from. He is known as an ambassador of Canadian wines.
In 2003, Maxwell took over the Wyatt Farm in Flamborough, Ontario. Having reinvigorated he orchard that was planted in 1949, he is now producing handmade, oak-aged and artisanal apple cider vinegar. It is now available in specialty markets around Toronto.
Maxwell is also raising a herd of Dexter Cattle, a rare breed that originated in Ireland that is raised as both beef and dairy cattle. Small in stature, cows average 750 pounds and bulls 1,000 pounds at maturity, requiring half the feed and space. Entirely grass-fed, Dexter cattle yield just over half of their live weight. The meat is dark purple coloured, with very little fat, yet tender and tasty and is well aged before it is served at Allen’s.
Barbara D. Ritchie is a wine writer, lecturer and internationally accredited wine judge, who has travelled extensively throughout the main wine growing regions of the world. Her working knowledge of French, Italian, Spanish and German facilitates her in-depth winery profiles. A distinctive aspect to writing is her suggestions for food and wine pairings.
Barbara has judged at the California State Wine Fair, Ontario Wine Awards, Toronto Wine & Cheese Show, Santa Cruz Mountain Wines, Ontario Fruit Wines and George Brown Culinary College. Barbara has also been on the judging panel at Italy’s prestigious Banco d’Assaggio.