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We all love those quirky boutiques we sometimes like to pop into, or that friendly mom and pop's shop that’s always been down the street. We all hate to see them close their doors too, especially when we realize that places as soulful and unique as these have been replaced by the usual fast-food chains and franchises. Yes, the word “gentrification” rests menacingly on tips of tongues and in backs of minds all around the city. However, recently in Bloordale – a neighbourhood that, though charming, can be a little rough around the edges – the community has learned that sometimes a little change can be a very good thing.
At first glance the location of the very charming Bloordale Pantry at Bloor and Lansdowne seemed much like any other diner. As if the classic red booths and checkered floors weren’t enough to inspire a sense of comfort and familiarity, the owners, Rose and Anthony, were very warm and welcoming, and quick to chat about the diner’s colourful history. The location is perhaps better recognized as Dale’s, which, being the most recent in a string of similar businesses stretching back for almost 70 years, had developed a reputation that was anything but squeaky-clean.
And they chose this place as their first restaurant? I had to hand it to them, it took spunk. Not only was the couple receiving a backlash from previous patrons – I suppose I would be reluctant to part with Dale’s well known $2 beers as well – but the success of their business was riding on their ability to overcome the dingy reputation that came with its history.
So what did they do? Well, first off, they proved they were as savv
y as they were spunky. Rather than starting completely fresh, they opted to pay homage to the location’s history, revitalizing the space. Yep, those red diner booths I found so appealing? Reupholstered. Same with the stools that skirt the counter at the front (bar if you’re in the mood). The area behind the counter (from which Rose greeted me kindly and displayed freshly baked cookies) had been refurbished as well. Though it was my first time visiting the location, or the neighbourhood for that matter, it was easy to see that they had put a lot of effort into finding a happy balance between old and new. Still, it was definitely a relief to hear that the bathrooms were entirely redone.
But look at me! I haven’t even mentioned the food! Bloordale Pantry just recently began serving breakfasts, and it’s a perfect fit. With the same honest-to-goodness homey vibe that resonates throughout the restaurant, chef and owner Anthony serves up the breakfast classics that have always gotten you out of bed in the morning. I had the Roadside Breakfast to start, which came complete with all the breakfast staples: eggs, toast, bacon, you know, the good stuff. The plate was also stacked sublimely with peameal bacon, farmer’s sausage, and a hash complete with an unexpected, but much appreciated smattering of fried onions. Now don’t get me wrong, this was a top notch-meal, my appetite and taste buds were more than satisfied. But, just like everything in the diner, I was there for both the time-honoured old and the hip, vibrant new. So, next I tried something that could give me a better taste of their personal style, their own flavour: the Croissant French toast.
The croissant’s light, fluffy pastry was perfect for the dish, and its center remained soft and delicate within its sweet, golden-brown exterior. It was served with a dish of maple syrup, and topped generously with perfectly ripened strawberries. The final addition to the dish served both to make it a unique, delicious treat, but also showed me a lot about the character of the diner. Halfway through the preparation, Anthony stepped out from the kitchen and asked his fiancée Rose for the cream cheese icing he had seen her preparing earlier. That’s right. Icing that they made from scratch, using ingredients they had bought that day. Rose goes on to explain that all their groceries are bought fresh every morning. And hey, if they run out of a certain ingredient, or decide to throw something out of the ordinary into their shopping bag, no big deal, it just gives them an opportunity to get creative. It’s not about what’s on the menu, it’s about what you want on your plate, and it all just adds to the good-natured sense I get of the place.
So what’s all this talk of this scary word, all this gentrification people have been worried about? I could see that this wasn’t a heartless corporation, or a money-grubbing chain moving in. These were real people, they had grown up in the neighbourhood, had seen Dale’s at its most rowdy and boorish, and wanted to give their community something better. They put a lot of time and effort (about four month’s worth) into revitalizing the space, because this is something they believed in, something they cared about. And you can see it whenever they greet you with a smile, whenever they add a new painting to the wall (all local artists, all budding talent), or whenever they do what they can to bring people in the area together. I mean, who wouldn’t come out to see a pancake eating contest on Bloor Street? So, for the moment at least, it seems I’m done with that ugly word. And it’s a relief to be rid of it, because while these motivated, kind-hearted restaurateurs were doing their best to make their community a better place, they did something for me too. They took that word right off the tip of my tongue, and replaced it with something more soulful, more optimistic, and just as importantly, a whole lot tastier.