From the prevalent basement kitchens to eye-catching neon street signs to the glass elevator ride up 40 storeys to Duck & Waffle
, many restaurants’ architecture and design left a lasting impression on the group. Indeed, one of the major differences between London and Toronto’s landscapes has much to do with sheer age. London is a two-thousand-year-old city (making Toronto an infant in comparison) with an incredibly rich breadth of architecture.
Some restaurants let architecture and design take a back seat to the cuisine. St. John
’s simple, no-frills setting creates an atmosphere in which what’s on your plate commands the most attention. Others choose to invest heavily in their design and décor. Chiltern Firehouse
, for example, is a gothic Victorian fire station from the 19th century. Architects transformed the space into a boutique hotel housing an ultra-chic New York style brasserie, complete with high ceilings, hanging light fixtures, large mirrors and a bustling open kitchen.
“Design-wise, they play up what they already have going for them and simply let the building and original architecture speak for itself,” said Andrew. “It’s hard to look past some of the unbelievable architecture off the raw bones of some of these places.”
also boasted an impressive design, having been restored in 2010 by Toronto firm Yabu Pushelberg - the same group who designed Canoe
for O&B. The room combines charming historic details like stained-glass windows and marble floors with contemporary lighting and breathtaking gallery walls featuring more than 300 pictures.
“Berners Tavern was one of the most polished and refined places with the most jaw-dropping space,” said Michael. “I would be quite happy sitting there for the whole evening, because it’s quite spectacular. Images don’t do it full justice.”
Of course, the value of real estate is through the roof, which pushes London restaurateurs to work hard to maximize every inch of space. At Granger & Co
., like many other eateries, the entire kitchen is in the basement. As a result, someone’s full-time job is to run food up and down the dumbwaiter.
“The ingenuity of space was leaps and bounds ahead of us,” said Andrew. “Even service stations were literally just the width of a computer screen – half the size of O&B’s smallest ones. They really have to figure out how to maximize every nook and cranny.”
Notwithstanding a little weight gain, all three guys are feeling energized and invigorated by their experiences – and ready to move forward with some new concepts and ideas at O&B.
“It’s all about being inspired,” said Anthony. “We don’t think about copying anything. It’s more about what element hits you or strikes you as interesting – and then you morph it and you love it and you own it. These things take time. When it comes to what inspires, not very often is that linear.”
“London and Toronto aren’t worlds apart,” Michael explains. “There are great parallels between who we are, where we come from, our cultures, the language we speak and our appreciation for having a great cocktail, enjoying a wonderful meal and being in a city that’s just a bloody great city.”
All of us who work for O&B know that great service is absolutely essential to any dining experience, from the host who takes your reservation to the server assistant who clears your dessert plate.
The service culture may be different in London – not necessarily better or worse, but the tone edges on being a little harsh, forward and brusque. Still, any lack in warmth was made up for in the staunch knowledge and expertise of each staff member.
“Everyone had a passion for what they were doing and you could see that,” said Andrew. “The bartenders, in particular, were super personable. They’d talk to you and explain what they were doing. They’d try and guide you to the right decisions, which were very spot on and a bit brash, but just really British.”
Since the group was often eating during off-hours – lunches at 10:30am or 2:30pm, dinners at 5:00pm – they found they were able to interact much more with the chefs and other back of house staff. Many chefs were eager to share their own restaurant recommendations to add to the itinerary, while the chef at Burger & Lobster
proudly showed off his waterfall device in the basement where he kept the fresh lobsters. When the group came back upstairs, the kitchen had cooked them another burger and lobster – on the house.
Back at The Palomar
, Anthony enjoyed “f*cking rock star good” service. He noticed the cooks were very active behind the counter, serving and engaging with guests. As someone who appreciates the conviviality in any dining experience, this was a huge plus for him.
“You can’t forget that you’re cooking for people – that’s a big thing for me,” he said. “It makes a big difference. You can only get so far with great food and drinks.”
Finally, our boys dish the dirt on some of the coolest restaurant design elements - click here to read more!
Rest assured, there were no teetotalers on this trip. Michael, Andrew and Anthony were seriously impressed by London restaurants’ attitudes towards mixology. Small details, like the way the tinctures and bitters were lined up along the bar, or the flair with which the bartenders poured their drinks, did not go unnoticed. The trio posted up at the bars at Berners Tavern
and The Savoy
to relax and observe these “artists in action.”
“The way the bartenders flip the jiggers, stir the cocktails and rim the glassware - it was all done with pride and pizazz and flare,” said Michael.
“You can tell they take such pride in every single thing they do with drinks,” said Andrew. Everything was done the way it should be done. They didn’t skip anything. They didn’t take shortcuts.
In addition to classic libations, the group also experimented with a variety of weird and wonderful drinks at Artesian
, an award-winning cocktail bar known for their experimental cocktails – some of which are inspired by the surrealism of Salvador Dalí. Drinks served in custom-made wooden boxes adorned with lights and mirrors is just one example of the drama and intrigue that surrounds London’s cocktail culture.
“It was oddball obscure and left you scratching your head,” laughed Michael. “Is there anything you can’t find in this city?”
Next up, the trio share their impressions of London's brand of service and hospitality. Click here to read more!
What happens when you send three hungry guys to a world-class city for just 72 hours to eat at 21 top restaurants? It appears they return home inspired, motivated and, well, pretty damn full.
This past January, Michael Bonacini
, Anthony Walsh
and Andrew Oliver
took off to London, England for an epic three-day foodie adventure, hightailing it to some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants. From nose-to-tail eating at mainstay St. John
to modern Jerusalem fare at The Palomar
, the trio’s itinerary covered a wide berth of cuisine.
“I think the purpose of this trip was not only to find great restaurants, eat and have fun, but think about all of the things we could bring back with us,” said Michael, who used to lead the charge down to New York City for periodic research trips. From music and menu covers to staff uniforms and steps of service, there was no shortage of inspiring details to be found in London.
Contrary to what you might expect, this was not a fine dining excursion. With the exception of the lavishly decorated Berners Tavern
, not a single restaurant on the docket was of white tablecloth ilk.
“We weren’t seeking out foams and Michelin stars,” said Andrew. ”We just wanted to experience salt of the earth places cooking real food in a comfortable and unpretentious environment.”
The St. John bar menu
A common trend seen throughout the trip was the effort to serve simple, unfussy dishes featuring just a handful of high quality ingredients.
“I’d often see less than 10 ingredients in each dish,” said Andrew. “They’re not trying to overcomplicate things, and you end up being amazed by the calibre of the ingredients themselves.”
Even at the pricey St. John, it all came down to guts and glory, from no-frills plates of grilled lamb hearts with butterbeans and green sauce to roasted bone marrow with an ultra-simple parsley salad on the side.
“These people really believe in their food,” said Anthony of his St. John experience. “We have bits and pieces of that in Toronto, but I’d love to see the Canadian version of it.”
Michael also noticed a distinct humbleness yet confidence to the food, whether it was simply puréed rutabaga with salt and pepper, or lamb kidneys braised in red wine and shallots. Many dishes reminded him of country farmhouse cooking.
“There is this culinary renaissance going on in the U.K. where it’s not about opulence, it’s about authenticity,” said Michael, who trained classically under Chef Anton Mosimann at London’s Dorchester Hotel before immigrating to Canada in 1985. “The food experience is about real, great ingredients and the stories behind these ingredients.”
Anthony diligently took notes after every meal. A month later, he distinctly recalls dozens of outstanding tastes, from Moro’s pan-fried skate wing to Duck & Waffle
’s smoked haddock to The Palomar’s uncultured butter. The Peruvian-inspired Pachamama
struck a chord with its fresh and vibrant dishes, including a superb Galician octopus with black quinoa, stewed in squid ink, garlic and onions.
“It was lights out,” he said.
Nose-to-tail dining and quality seafood aside, some of the most memorable tastes came from some beautiful vegetables, whether it was Moro
’s perfectly roasted carrots or the vegetarian paella at Old Spitalfields Market
“More than ever, chefs are appreciating that vegetables are so much more than just a garnish,” said Michael. “It’s long overdue.”
London restaurateur and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi is the author of Plenty More
, which highlights the best of vibrant vegetable cooking. The Jerusalem-born chef has brought vegetables to the forefront of his menus at Ottolenghi
, proving that previously undervalued ingredients aubergine and pomegranate can be used in so many exciting ways.
“When you eat at Nopi, you have eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms that almost have a meatiness and heartiness to them,” said Michael. “A starving carnivore would struggle to say that wasn’t satisfying.”
Some restaurants’ menus weren’t quite so different from those back home.
“Granger & Co.
was serving tuna poke, pho, iced noodle salads, steak frites – a lot of what we’re doing at a place like Bannock
,” said Anthony. “It was cool to see that we can play with the big boys.”
Pricey game bird at St. John
As exciting and dynamic the dining scene is in Toronto, these guys just don’t see it catching up to the calibre of London anytime soon. There are certain things that would be a tough sell, like charging £40 ($75 CAD) for a tiny game bird.
“You might not be able to get away with it in Toronto, but in England this type of cooking is part of this food cultural movement,” said Michael. “It still pushes the boundaries in so many ways.”
Next up, the trio reflect on London's vibrant bar culture - click here to read more!
On March 8, 2016, we celebrated International Women's Day with our most talented chefs, cooks, sommeliers, bartenders, managers, suppliers and servers. Hosted at Luma
, this multi-course dinner featured dishes inspired by recipes passed down from mothers and grandmothers. Here are some shots from the special evening.
“Aburi Rose” - torched ivory salmon sashimi, marinated roe, spiced miso vinaigrette by Helena Yuu (Jump)
Mushroom & Truffle Custard - pickled shimeji mushrooms, dandelion sofrito, toasted mustard seeds by Alessa Valdez (Auberge du Pommier)
Fogo Island Salt Cod - olive oil, spiced chickpea purée, black olive dust, coriander by Julie Marteleira (Luma)
Chicken & Dumplings - Tamarack roasted root vegetables by Amanda Ray (Biff’s Bistro)
Mincemeat Pudding - malted white chocolate + orange marmalade by Christine Mast (Canoe)