Our new series Neighbour Gem features restaurants that have stood the test of time and should not be forgotten.
There is no more suitable place to begin than The Senator, Toronto's oldest operating restaurant since 1929. (you can read the entire history here).
That alone is mighty impressive in a city where we have become so fickle and so desperate to go to new places that restaurants are closing just six months after they open or have received both star's and critic's thumbs up. But perhaps even more staggering is that Managers Allen Gottschalk and Anne Hollyer have each been at the restaurant for 28 years - and effuse as much passion for the place as a teen over a music idol.
It's no wonder they've got so many regulars.
The restaurant looks much like it did back in the day, as they have kept many of the original fixtures and fittings - lighting, floor, all natural red mahogany woodwork, fridges built in the 40s, the Coca Cola machine. Even the cash register that is still in use daily is the original. But once it breaks, that's it - it can't be fixed. Other elements have been added to keep the authentic feel - booths have been redone, mirrors and a Coke sign put on the wall, but otherwise you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Gottschalk and Hollyer both are happy the way things are. Gottschalk says, "I don't want it to change. I’ve seen three generations of customers come here. It’s so heartwarming. You don't get to see that very often."
They entertained the idea of opening up somewhere different or opening up the upstairs, but Gottschalk says it doesn't really work and "people like to wait. Weekend brunch has a great feeling."
Hollyer says, "We’re very fortunate to have the customer base. Very little has changed. It’s nice that the comfort level here stays the same where everything else has changed (elsewhere). We hope it hasn’t changed. We don’t want it to change." She continues, "Come back five years later and it will still taste the same."
Though The Senator might not consider itself fancy – "You'll never see fruit with meat or fancy drinks," says Hollyer - they have added vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes for those with dietary and allergy restrictions. The Butternut Squash Soup, for example, can be served as gluten-free and vegan. And go ahead and get an egg white omelette now too. Newer additions to the menu include eggs benny, Kobe beef chili cheese dog, Berkshire pork, fresh Atlantic salmon, buttermilk chicken, pork chop, short ribs and stuffed meat loaf.
But don’t think The Senator has changed too much. Old favourites still make up the majority of the menu - French toast, bacon and eggs, wedge salad, casear salad and comfort foods such as fish and chips, burger, crab cakes, meat loaf or liver and onions – all made from old recipes.
The food is anything but greasy spoon fare. Everything is done fresh. Single ingredients are carefully chosen and prepared. Chicken and turkey is brought in and roasted in-house. Salmon is smoked in-house. Orange juice is fresh hand squeezed, milk is organic from Sheldon Creek Dairy in Caledon, and coffee (a special blend made especially for The Senator) is fresh roasted and delivered twice a week by Dark City Coffee. Maple syrup is the real thing, jam is made by Rose who used to sell it at the St. Lawrence Market, and the honey is from owner Bob Sniderman's farm. Stocks, sauces, batters – it’s all made from scratch. So while the dishes might read as familiar, you’ve never had it this fresh before.
The other remarkable factors are the portions (immense) and the prices (affordable, especially when you see how much food your getting and for the quality of ingredients).
Chef M.J. Jacques (pronounced Jakes), previously of The Royal York and Le Paradis, brings with her classic French training and some new items on the menu – stuffed meatloaf, pan-seared salmon and pork chop. Her goal? "To put out good quality food fast." And while the food might arrive quickly, dishes are thoughtfully prepared, sauces developed over two to three days. Jacques started this past December but confides, "I want to retire here."
That kind of heart, passion and dedication happens across the board from front of house to the kitchen. Gottschalk says he has more passion than when he started: "We're a family here. Most of the staff has been here 20-25 years. About 30% of our customers come on Saturday or Sunday every week. We know what everyone has - Seven years went by and I remembered what an old regular had. She couldn’t believe it. It’s like you’re a guest at my house."
The Senator has endured 86 years of trends and change because they believe in and have upheld the most basic and important rules of the industry – offer great service and great quality food at a great price. It might sound simple, but no one else has been able to do it for this long. And thankfully, there’s no end in sight.
The Senator is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and brunch.
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