It's been five and a half months in the making and now People's Eatery, 416 Snack Bar's sister two-floor restaurant (the top half will open in a month of two), opened for business three days ago in Chinatown. Take a look inside. Eater rang up Adrian Ravinsky (one of the four owners) to find out how it's been going, why Spadina Avenue was a priority for him and his team, and what items on the menu have him excited. Turns out there are a whole lot and like 416 Snack Bar's offerings, it's literally all over the map... in a good way.
You turned the space around pretty quickly. What were some of the biggest challenges?
Discovering just how decrepit the building was. We had to redo the floors in the kitchen. But all in all, there were no real catastrophes. It was pretty straightforward.
Much has been made about a wave of new restaurants in Chinatown. What does that location mean to you?
416 Snack Bar was supposed to be in Chinatown. When we made the corporation (to run it), the company was called Chinatown Bar Limited. The reason we were into that: I was going to U of T (University of Toronto) – Dave was too. I was walking through Chinatown everyday to get from home to school and back. I was going to architecture school doing some urban planning courses and thinking about that sort of stuff. It occurred to me that Spadina is an under-utilized avenue. It's got amazing infrastructure: it's wide and nice; it should have trees that line the streetcars, you know; it has old Victorian houses along it. It should be a nice looking street. But instead it's Bengali T-shirt shops and a handful of restaurants, three or four or five of which are legendary, and the rest of which that turn over every two years. For a city that is growing as quickly as ours, as diverse, rich in people, it wasn't living up to its potential. Hopefully it will, one day, and won't lose its character. Hopefully it turns into something a little nicer.
Have you been embraced by the neighbourhood?
The neighbourhood is psyched. We've had people, especially the guys next door at Swatow, popping their heads in. We have the accountant's office guys next door popping in and introducing themselves. One of our partners, Matt See, grew up in Chinatown – he's Chinese. He can get by in Cantonese to talk to just about anyone. We had a guy – there's a building down the street owned by the Wong Association of Ontario (the association of people named "Wong," I'm not kidding) – I kind of looked into a space for rent a few doors down because I have a buddy who's looking to open up something. I left a voicemail and he got back to me and said: "You're the guys from up the street. I read about you." Apparently, we were in the Chinese newspaper. He said: "I read about your place there and I see you're putting money into it. We want to have a meeting with you. We want to get something set up." The neighbourhood is pretty jazzed. But I'm sure that there are people who think we're the hipster gentrifiers of the block – evil and fucking up the city. There are always going to be those voices.
What's new on the menu that you're really excited about?
I'm excited to bring the Jewish stuff back to Spadina. The menu is roughly divided into three sections. It's roughly "past Spadina," so it's got both deli and dairy. So we do a fried tongue sandwich, but then we're also doing a beautiful smoked fishplate. The middle would be the "present of Spadina," the shiny stuff. We have a General Tso tofu; we have steamed oysters with black beans; we're doing a cold chicken, which is a tribute to a dish from across the street at Taste of China. This is something that is a favourite of that crew of cooks that made Taste of China popular amongst the city's cooks. And then there's the "future of Spadina." It's more of a broader representation of Toronto so really the third category is anything goes, culturally. Right now, we have a sabich, an Iraqi/Israeli breakfast sandwich sort of. It has a little pita, it has some roasted eggplant, pistachios, a salsa verde called skhug – which is basically salsa verde but it has warm spice in it as well. It has little fucking quail's eggs! It has an herb salad on it. It's a bright, fresh, Middle-Eastern delicious thing. There's a lot of food people are going to be bugging out over.
It's so varied, and so curated.
At 416 Snack Bar, the whole concept – the whole M.O. for my food company – is to build and celebrate Toronto's building identity as a food city. It's used to be: "What is Canadian cuisine? We don't have a culture," and that's, of course, bullshit. The culture of Toronto, food wise, is that we are a multitude of cultures and that in-itself is a culture. So, we should celebrate that. If 416 Snack Bar is meant to be as culturally diverse as the city, then People's Eatery, at least downstairs, is meant to focus on this strip and the history of this strip, and a celebration of Spadina. Whereas upstairs – it's not open yet but hopefully in a month or two – we're (going to be) doing a tasting menu concept. The hope there is that we make a "restaurant."
When Ravinsky is asked to elaborate, he goes off the record to describe his hopes for the upstairs. When asked why, he says:
My motto, when it comes to business in general, is to under promise and over deliver. That's why we call it a snack bar but we try to put a lot more effort into the service and the food. Over here, people will have slightly different expectations because the place looks fancier.