It’s true the dining scene in downtown Toronto
is akin to the dating scene in New York City: I’m talking about the
‘on to the next’ phenomenon. Why go back to that fab, new
French bistro – as great as it was – when there’s a fab, NEW
charcuterie bar that’s impossible to get in to?
Into this A.D.D. climate restaurants are born, and if they don’t
hit the ground instantly commanding the dining mob’s attention, up
goes the construction paper to blot out the shame of failure.
So what kind of restaurant makes it? Often I’ve pondered this while
waving away dining options I’ve tried only once, feeling as sick of
them as cooking in my own kitchen.
Then a few weeks ago, I came face to face with the answer:
Woodlot Restaurant &
There are tiers of success: single-cell empires like
Mark McEwan, a one-man-brand; faceless, reputable chains or
collaborative corporate endeavors that bank on expense accounts
(high-end steak houses); and then there are the ‘it’ spots – the
most elusive formula – and Woodlot nails it.
I went there because it came to me via the blog vine, and via the
murmurs of my trusted community. I pulled strings to get in, (yes,
I have to pull strings all the time — thanks
John Lee!) and we sat at the communal table. Note: I
never care what the reviews say, but the reviews of this place
regarding the food were mixed – my review: Tasty.
But first, The Formula
Just off restaurant-laden College Street, Toronto’s ex-Little
Italy (now more Little Portugal and party time), the space is close
to resto-bars but is not among them: Woodlot is located in a
two-level, garage-like space, peeking at the main drag from the
safety of a side street.
Previously the space was occupied by a beloved bar known for
dancing and good times, by the name of Octapus Lounge [sic].
A bona fide institution 17 years and two locations old, it shut
down in an indignant fight with the city over noise complaints.
Toronto loved that bar, and that love has stuck around like a good
ghost to welcome the new tenant.
Uniqueness Factor: check
(“Flash” working the oven)
A featured – flaunted, even – wood-burning oven, allegedly built by
one of the bar owners on the College St. strip (Ooo! We love a
story!) catches your eye. An earnest, sweet-looking young man
nicknamed “Flash” adroitly sends savoury pies into the flames,
exhibiting scarred-up forearms, but obviously loving it just the
Safety Net/Plan B: check
Co-owner Chef David Haman (a friendly, youngish-looking possible
skateboarder who yells “hands!” instead of “pick-up” when food is
ready – is that common? I don’t know) who, despite working in some
high-profile kitchens is just under the radar enough to not
over-promise, staffs a baker, by the name of Jeff Connell. Connell
is a veteran baker who bakes bread in Woodlot’s wood-burning oven,
allowing Woodlot the name of Restaurant AND Bakery. They serve this
bread with your meal, and it’s quite good.
Vibe: Effortless (thank God.)
Rustic accessories, cute staff, open kitchen, open shelving,
ambient lighting — feels comfortably anonymous, and kind of like
you caught them in the middle of inventory day – in a good way.
There’s stuff everywhere. The service is chatty and hands-on,
with lots of reassuring suggestions.
Menu: equal parts trendy (rustic, fatty meats and
savoury pies), colourful (cabbage rolls – how quaint!) and
conscientious (a second, vegetarian menu is available.)
My husband and I shared the roast pork on the bone with stewed
apples, a beet salad, and braised duck cabbage rolls. Not too lardy
(a tendency of the trendy meat menus), over-sauced or over-salted
— YUMMY, is my official word, if anyone cares.
It seems a lot goes into the ‘it’ formula, and
sadly, it either constellates a restaurant or it
doesn’t. You see, I am one of the fickle mob darting
from restaurant to restaurant, and therefore speak of what I know:
for all the reasons above, Woodlot made me happy. It made me
happy, and I will go back.
Any other opinions on what makes a successful restaurant?
Because we all know it’s never just about the food…