Revitalized Maple Leaf Tavern breathes new life into local institution

For 106 years, Toronto's Maple Leaf Tavern has meant different things to different people across different generations. From its thriving mid-century heyday to the decaying dive it succumbed to in recent times, the historic building has been a haven of sorts for all walks of life. Its reopening marks the start of a new era.

Todd Morgan, a local restaurateur with an obsessive streak, discovered a new passion project when he set out to revive the historic building on Gerrard Street a few years ago. Morgan reimagined the space, probably better known for its bar fights than its upscale dishes, and after an exhaustive, two-year renovation, the Maple Leaf Tavern is now revitalized beyond its original glory.

“We have big aspirations for Maple Leaf Tavern and I think we’ve got the exact right team in place to become a world-class restaurant,” Morgan says. “The Toronto food scene has never been more exciting than it is now and I’m looking forward to bringing fine dining in a relaxed environment to the east end”.

The relaunch marks the comeback of a once-popular institution dating back to 1910 by recreating the feel of its prime era. It's hard not to marvel at the overhaul and jaws will no doubt drop at the novelty of the radical change. Even so, it's the relaxed yet quality menu, classic cocktails and captivating atmosphere of the 115-seat space that patrons will stick around for. 

Inspired by the historic North American tavern, the facelift tips a hat to old-world class. There's detail to absorb in every direction with plenty of dark, polished wood, beam ceilings, original brick and classic wainscotting. The floor spreads out in a dazzling geometric pattern. A long wrap-around bar with a smooth top separates the space into two distinct rooms. On one side, leather banquettes and white-linen tables dress an airy dining room that lets natural light spill in from west-facing windows. On the other is a dimly lit lounge furnished with intimate booths plus plenty of space to saddle up at the bar.

Besides some of the building's original stained glass and the original sign, which sits on a side patio as a tribute to the past, virtually every other piece of the building has been transformed through a renovation that took the structure back to the studs and beyond.    

The kitchen is helmed by executive chef Jesse Vallins (formerly of The Saint Tavern), one of only a handful of Canadians who boasts being certified as both sommelier and a cicerone. He's joined by Binhan Nguyen and Jonny O’Callaghan (both formerly of the Beverley Hotel) taking on chef de cuisine roles. The trio presents a menu that's familiar and comforting but also delightfully creative.

Harkening back to the grandeur of its origins, the menu features time-honoured favourites like oysters, lasagna and pork chops. Most of the ingredients are made in house.

The Maple Leaf Cheeseburger is an immediate standout. An in-house grind of strip loin is served medium-rare with housemade American cheese, shredded lettuce and dill relish, all held together by a housemade bun. The burger pairs well with the Hasselback Potatoes, which come dripping in rich truffle butter and shavings of chilled foie gras.

A roster of guaranteed-to-impress cocktails are served with their very own branded swizzle sticks (when was the last time you saw one of those?). They do a rye and ginger on tap, fresh juice concoctions and have a selection of new and old-world wines.

  Photo:  Dean Seguin

Photo: Dean Seguin

That's just for starters. Walk downstairs, and you're not reaching to protect your head from being hit by low ceilings. Unlike the claustrophobic nature of the cramped subterranean spaces of most of Toronto, the floors here were lowered three feet and the basement feels downright expansive.

Hiding behind double doors is another hidden lounge (yet to open), and lining the walls are dramatic black and white photographs that expose the guts of the building after its patina of grime was peeled away for demolition. Tastefully appointed individual loos make for an inviting place to plant a naked bum.

Above the restaurant, plans are underway to convert the floors into shared office space with the potential of offering membership into a working/entertaining environment.

In short, the new-look tavern probably won't disappoint a crowd wondering about the work that's been taking place inside the building all these years.

The Maple Leaf Tavern is open for dinner seven days week, and the plan is to keep the kitchen open late. Weekend brunch will follow. The patio will open in time for summer. Reservations accepted.

Maple Leaf Tavern is located at 955 Gerrard St. E. Visit mapleleaftavern.ca for more information.