Café Bar Pasta, Little Portugal's modern trattoria with the mildly confusing name, is about to celebrate its first year in July. An extensive chat with co-owner Tom Bielecki reveals tough times fraught with (near debilitating) challenges that showcase, in painstaking detail, just how agonizing it can be to open a restaurant. Throw a newborn into the mix and the tension was enough to sink Bielecki and his wife/designer/co-owner Christine Vieira. But it didn't. Somehow, the couple made it through a premature opening, heavy staff turnover including a fired chef early in the game, and a fledging neighbourhood that is only now starting to take off. High off a fun weekend hanging with top chefs at Michael Stadtlander's Wild Leek & Maple Syrup Festival at Eigensinn Farm, Bielecki talks openly about their past troubles, how Chef Jay Scaife helped to turn things around, and why he feels they're better than ever and finally ready to be reviewed. Not to mention, why he thinks Torontonians are notorious for stealing ideas, how too many restaurants look the same, and how an influx of new bars and restaurants are helping to put Little Portugal on the map.
Tell me about Café Bar Pasta's first year.
Huge ups and downs. It's been a very slow start. We opened with a pop then I fired our chef seven weeks after we opened. And that was a huge hit to the head. And we lost some really key staff. It really hurt us and made me really stressed out and it was a scary moment. Christine and I were petrified. But we knew that between the design and the concept, all we needed to do was find the right guy. What actually spurred the movement was some really key chefs in the city that came in, were really open and honest, and they looked me and saw a young guy that spent more money than he needed to to make a splash. They helped me acquire Jay. And Jay has embraced the culture that I've tried to create, even though we went through 85% of our staff, if not 90. Actually, technically we don't have any staff from when we opened.
It sounds like a really tough year.
(Laughs) I'm in a positive state, especially coming off this weekend. If you really want the frank opinion of how I thought our first year was: It was fucking awful. Putting money into the business to wondering how much more I'm going to have to do so. And feeling stress from friends and family and your wife, and then have a baby. It just adds fuel to the fire, as they say. There were days I was waking up in tears saying: "Am I going to be out of business in a year? Because at this rate, I'm not going to survive." Then you add on pressure from the bank, pressure from your own financial situation, and your own net worth in your own bank. You watch it just slide away. The only thing keeping you alive is your passion and your true belief in your own project. And that's the thing. I've got nothing but the strongest belief in this concept.
Not that it's a concept that's brand new to planet earth. It's a refined version of a lot of great venues in the city, from Pizzeria Libretto to Terroni to a lot of the O&B (Oliver & Bonacini) operations to the franchise world. So, a lot of those structures and mentalities were derivatives of where I've taken this model for all the good reasons. I took a lot of great things from a lot of different great restaurants and mashed it into my own way of managing and that is a very stringent attack, in terms of how I like to operate my business. It's no bullshit. You're coming in to work and you have to get it down. I think Jay appreciated that from an owner's perspective: "Yea he's young but he's not in this to get laid and to snort half his winnings up his nose or go out and shitfaced every night." Everyone knows that I'm an achiever and I love a challenge and I'm also insanely competitive. When I lose, it's not a happy Tom. There's no option for failure on this project. It's no longer discussed and it's a new profound look on life seeing the brighter things. We're rookies on the scene and we're not just trying to emerge as the next taco place and cater to the one and done crowd. We're trying to establish ourselves as a sustainable restaurant that you know you go to when you want to dine properly.
Are you still happy with your decision to open in Little Portugal?
100%. Christine and I look back at it - yea, we pulled the trigger a little early. We were a little premature on the operational opening. We had advantages to hold off. But it was now or never. I was scared for two reasons to let that neighbourhood go. I had to open because I didn't want anyone stealing the concept. I had a lot of conversations with a lot of people that I vetted the idea by – yes they're friends but we all have friends that end up saying a little bit too much sometimes – and this city is notorious for ideas being stolen. If I had a dollar for every time I heard how Libretto was someone else's idea, or La Carnita was another person's idea, or Mercatto was the new Terroni franchise idea, I'd be a millionaire. It was "let's open now" rather than "hey, this is her father's building, he can still hold on to it." If I look back at it, I would have probably waited a year before opening because we had that advantage of still having the property. But I wouldn't open up anywhere else.
How has the neighbourhood changed in the past year?
More awareness. Even though there hasn't been a real pop in new businesses, there has been a significant eye on the prize kind of thing. There's been a lot more circulations and a lot more attendance. But again, it's waves. People are being driven to the neighbourhood for two reasons. One is that there is a lot of bar and night traffic that's creating a little bit of buzz. You've got Scout's Honour, 1602, Wallflower, and you've got a new bar opening up right beside the park at Lansdowne and Dundas. No one knows who and what it is but it's another young couple. They've built a smoker and a pizzeria, outdoor pizza thing right in the back. My buddy Anthony and I hopped a fence last week at night and took a look. And I was like: "This is awesome." They did exactly what we did. They did a full gut, brand new windows, brand new doors, leaving the exposed brick, keeping the foundation so they're going to be a lunch and sandwich spot, it looks like. They've got a great build. It's really pretty. Then, you've got Lula Lounge. They hired Todd who booked Hugh's Room so you've got a big booker bringing in all these great acts. Then you've got This End Up that's getting some great press; you've got Hogtown Cure; and you've got a Blue Button men's and women's clothing store from Japan. Some really fun boutique-y places opening up. You have V S P right next door to us – high-end women's consignment from Calgary caters to finer clothing in the country (moving a couple blocks down the road next to GCB (Grain, Curd, Bean) coffee). 1602 has been there the longest (almost 3 years). Jason Abrams has got one of the best bourbon whiskey scotch collections in the city, hands down. He's got Pappy's 20 (Pappy Van Winkle's bourbon whiskey) sitting there behind the bar, at that little hipster bar. It's like: "What the fuck's that doing there!"
What are a couple favourite moments from the past year?
My sister Andrea threw a Great Gatsby party where we made a champagne tower of 500 coupes underneath our chandelier from the MOMA. Everyone was dressed up 20s themed with the long cigarettes and the white gloves and the barrettes in their hair. The gentlemen wore beautiful tuxedos with the flat backs and the fedoras. Chef did a 20s inspired menu to a T. We saw some of the top socialites of the city come through the door. It was really nice to see the venue be created and evolve into something else other than a restaurant for a night. It proves my theory that it can become an event space with the turn of a hat. A big turning point has also been our café in the morning. We have had celebrities come in. I will say A-List celebrities but I'm not allowed to release who because this is becoming a private little hangout for them. They take the private dining room and no one upstairs know they're there because they walk in through our back door. So those are really cool bizarre moments. They're quite exciting but I mean nothing too over the top. Dundas West Festival (Saturday June 7th) is going to be monumental. We're going to have 300,000 people this year.
You're not just doing Italian. How do you describe the food concept for Café Bar Pasta?
When meeting Christine, being in the west end, we would always end up along Bloor West. There was this one restaurant called Queen's Pasta Café and I was just astonished how busy it was every single night. And not to knock them, but there was nothing about their dishes that really did anything for me on a palatable element or just on composition and sheer elegance. But that's not what they're about. They're providing a simple meal at a simple price. I thought to myself, with Christine's design and with my attitude towards foods in the finer dining elements that I've had at some great restaurants, how do we cross-hibernate those two and let it sit and fester and see what it spurs to? It was, as some say, confusing because "your name is Café Bar Pasta but you have Japanese and French dishes." Well, that's simply allowing Jay to really showcase what he can do. Jay is trained in all three areas of cuisines that has given us that French, Italian, and Japanese feel. We let Chef run with the Japanese and with the French. There's a lot of creative ingenuity that comes behind his agnolottis, being very traditional, but what's inside is perhaps not. To say what we are simply: We specialize in the best coffee, best wine, and best pasta in Toronto with beautiful flairs of worldly cuisines.
Bielecki + Vieira with Chef Jay Scaife [Photo: Danielle Matar]
Do you find yourself having to explain what Café Bar Pasta is more than you would like?
Initially yes, but mum's the word, it isn't. I find a lot of our guests answer that question for me at the table. The guests that are really becoming our guests are people that really appreciate food and understand the details of the cuisine. I can see how people are a tad confused but I don't think a name is that important. A name is just a way of attracting a guest. Yea, there are days where people read pasta and go: "I don't want to go there." Well, did you know you can get a plate of sashimi? Or we do a seafood feature every weekend? With the whole gluten-free wave that's going on, there's a huge fight for "aah pasta, it's not something that's on people's radar." End of the day, pasta will prevail, Italian will prevail, French will prevail, and Japanese will prevail. There's a reason to have a taco wave and influence because there wasn't anything before. The next trend is going to be a hybrid of a lot of different philosophies and adaptations of menus that are current right now. But what's going to prevail 20 years down the road is pasta.
As an owner of a restaurant that specializes in pasta, what are your thoughts about gluten-free?
I have friends who live in Italy and laugh their asses off once they hear about the gluten-free phenomenon that's going on in the city. Were people dying of allergies way back when? No. What the hell is gluten-free when you're eating pasta that was made professionally two hours ago (from the freshest ingredients)? Now, if you're allergic because that's what your genetic make-up has given you, then we respect that to the nth degree because we still want you to dine with us. So we push a quinoa, corn, and chickpea pasta. Those are the three different gluten-free pastas that we're doing.
You've been open close to year but you haven't been reviewed yet. Given the kind of year you have had, do you think that that's not necessarily a bad thing?
I think we're really lucky that we didn't get reviewed out the gate. We would have been pretty beaten up verbally and we'd probably be in a worse off situation now. But again, failure is not an option. Even if we got a shitty review… Jay is pushing the envelope and bringing it. He's fighting to make sure every dish is loved rather than 80% of it. People are respecting more and more what we're doing which is really nice. Bring on the reviews. We're ready.
You were on track to become a professional basketball player. How did that prepare you for the restaurant business?
The restaurant business was an afterthought. I thought from high school to playing on a bunch of teams after high school and being looked at by private scouting leagues, I thought I was a shoo in to at least get overseas and make a career of being a pro athlete on the European level. Injuries, unfortunately, had their way with me and I also made some socially incorrect moves that hindered me from moving any further into my basketball career. I'm glad it went that way because it wasn't something that was going to be sustainable. My dreams faded. But there was always a love for people. I was always a leader on my team. Whether I was a captain on the team or spoken as a leader in the locker room and a motivator. That was always my role. I evolved to the club world (after working at some restaurants). Money became the motivator. When I met Christine, everything came to fruition. She inspired the hell out of me and really grabbed a hold of where my ADD didn't. And she said: "These are what you do really well, these are what you don't do really well. We're going to try to limit the things you don't do really well and we're going to focus on the things you do really well. And focus on the things you do really well and make them things you do insanely well." And that is opening a restaurant.
Speaking of Christine and the design, what was the inspiration for CBP's look?
We both shared the same frustration with how everyone in the city wants to make their restaurant look the same. They all look the same. All the same cutlery, glassware, stones, reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs… there's no creativity with lighting anymore. People can get booze and food anywhere so you better be really different. You better have a really cool design but nothing over the top. She's got a very particular keen sense of design, and functionality is what she studied in Hong Kong. It's form meets function to the nth degree in terms of restaurants. Lighting was a huge huge huge element. That was where a lot of the money was spent: three big chandeliers that cost a pretty penny. A lot of different art pieces that were our own; one being the cork collection; the other being the wine cellar that we custom built. There are a lot of custom components and not a lot of cookie-cutter "hey, we can go buy that at a yard sale and put in our restaurant." Not that a lot of restaurants have done that but a lot of attitudes are the same on that and it's for two reasons. It's for budget and timing. People, when they have a budget, they also have a time on budget to open – cash flow is everything in this business. You don't open on time and it eats away at your pockets. I can appreciate why people say "hey, we're not going to go with stone, we're just going to build a wooden bar."
What's up next for CBP?
The two things we're going forward is is the 3 on 3 (collaborative community dinners that will pit chefs against one another in the kitchen and on Tom's professional basketball court out back) and the tasting dinners hosted by Bassett Events. It is Chef's "Trust" menu, a 7-10 course meal for 12 people. Guests get to have a tasting menu in their own private restaurant. The restaurant will be closed for it. It'll be very private.