TORONTO, ONTARIO — As a budding journalist taking transit home in Toronto it wasn’t uncommon to see altercations in front of a well known dive on Gerrard Street in Toronto’s east end.
Launched in 1910 as Maple Leaf Tavern had a reputation as a seedy hotel, bar and dining room that garnered notoriety as a repulsive drinking hall. There wasn’t a good reason to visit this establishment unless you were spoiling for a fight and that’s the way it remained through the turn of the century.
Well times have changed and today Maple Leaf Tavern is unrecognizable. That old rust bucket of a building has transformed into one of the city’s finest restaurants thanks to an infusion of cash and a new vision by Pickering native Todd Morgan, who raised more than a few eyebrows by purchasing the establishment in 2013. The restaurateur and owner of highly respected PORT Restaurant in Pickering gave Maple Leaf Tavern an extensive two year multi-million-dollar renovation, creating a refined bar and dining space. Opened in May of 2016, Maple Leaf Tavern today offers a 120-seat restaurant and 16-seat “Boiler Room” private dining space as well as a seasonal patio that seats 50 guests.
Morgan says he takes pride in operating a community establishment which he calls an elevated tavern experience. He is thrilled the see the impact the new and revised Maple Leaf Tavern is having on the community.
“I believe what makes us unique is our attention to detail,” says Morgan. “From the aesthetics of the experience to the casual and professional side of the service and then anchored by the culinary skills of the kitchen. The level of detail that we put into our cocktail program. We want to have a concept that focuses on attention to detail from top to bottom within our comfort zone.”
Impressive venue aside the food is the primary reason to visit Maple Leaf Tavern and the man responsible is award-winning Maple Leaf Tavern and Port Executive Chef Jesse Vallins. A self proclaimed “Food and Drink Enthusiast” with a knack for creating delicious sausages, Vallins is winning rave reviews and loyal fans in the neighbourhood and throughout the city.
I started dinner with the refreshing Cup O’ Punch, a delicious cocktail made with Appleton, Forty Creek, Amontillado, fresh lime, orange and ginger. The breads are all made in house and were a lovely start to the meal, along with the spicy pickles. The Honey & Cumin Glazed Carrots was outstanding as was the cauliflower with bread crumbs and cheddar emulsion.
Chef Vallins impressed with mains such as his Grilled Trout ($27), Lasagna ($23) and Veal Brisket ($26). The Brunch menu features a MLT breakfast ($13) with fried eggs, sausage, grilled bacon and roasted Mushrooms and grilled beef shoulder & salami ($18) with baked beans and pickled onions. The menu is seasonal – there are signature dishes that are always on the menu but Chef Vallins is constantly changing things around so some items mentioned in this story may not be available at this time.
One thing Vallins clearly loves showcasing are his sausages. He is a self-taught and acclaimed sausage maker, a three-time champion of the annual sausage league competition that used to be held every summer at Marben Restaurant. Soon after joining Maple Leaf Tavern, Vallins made a decision to add his sausage making skills to the restaurant menu. Sausage choices include smoked duck and pepperoni. You can sample one ($6), three ($17) or five ($25) different varieties.
“I would say 60 to 70 per cent of our clients are from the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood has changed a lot,” said Vallins, adding that he loves his menu that includes breads that are made fresh every day, fish made on the wood grill, beautifully cooked carrots and his signature sausages.
Morgan says their goal is to be an approachable restaurant, equivalent to a Michelin One Star restaurant.
“That’s something that’s very popular in European towns,” says Morgan, who grew up in Pickering and realized early that he had a passion for the hospitality industry. “Chef and I were in New York, I go a couple times a year, and there are just so many great restaurants there that are just approachable, come as you are, neighbourhood destinations which bring in guests from all over the world but also from locals in the neighbourhood and that’s the goal here. I think we are on our way to accomplishing that.”
MORE ABOUT MAPLE LEAF TAVERN
Address: 955 Gerrard St E
Hours: Monday through Friday
Bar Service – 3:00pm to 5:00pm
Dinner Service – 5:00pm to 10:00pm (11:00pm Friday)
Saturday & Sunday
Brunch – 11:00am to 3:00pm
Bar Service – 3:00pm to 5:00pm
Dinner Service – 5:00pm to 11:00pm (10:00pm Sunday)