Breakfast at the Bar Raval

Yesterday afternoon, the patio of our favourite local restaurant bar was taken out by a three-car accident at the corner of College Street and Palmerston Avenue in Little Italy. Fortunately, no one was killed. The patio was demolished, and the front window cracked, but the distinctive mahogany decor of what aims to be Toronto’s most iconic bar was undamaged. It had to close for the rest of the day, and the architects were brought in to assess the situation. According to co-owner Grant van Gameren, interviewed on the radio this morning, the decor is intact. That’s great news.

At 8:00 a.m. today, the bar was back open, with the full menu and the same smart, smiling staff on hand to greet the early risers. I decided to join them to see for myself that all is well. It’s the first time I have actually been there for breakfast and I would heartily recommend it.

Since it opened a year ago, Bar Raval has won rave reviews, including Nº. 5 on “Canada’s ten best new restaurants” list, last fall, as determined by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. The problem for older folks is that the place is very small (only 1980 square feet), takes no reservations, and is designed for “standing up” — eating from small plates and leaning against the sinuous wood bars and round barrel tables. There are stools available inside and chairs on the outside patio, but if it is crowded, standing is the norm. In the past, I have gone mid-morning or mid-afternoon and always managed to get a stool. Now, I have learned that morning breakfast is okay, too.

So, what’s so special about Bar Raval? The restaurant was designed as a “pintxo bar, a cornerstone of social and gastronomic culture in Basque Country.” It serves coffee, wine, beer and cocktails, baked goods, tapas and pintxos (see photo of menu, below), cured meats, cheeses, hams, various exotic seafoods that come as “canned specialities” or “preserved and marinated.” Smoked Mackerel? Galician Octopus? Razor Clams? Asparagus Salad? Mushroom Tower? The regular menu is available all day, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. For breakfast, I learned that they also offer Smoked Salmon in a croissant, Raisin and Rhubarb Scones, Polvorone (I will try that, next time) and various other baked goods. The food is served on small plates, expertly prepared, rich and totally satisfying.

And the decor is stupendous. Designed by Partisans Architects, it is “a 21st-century reinterpretation of Spanish Art Nouveau.” As the architects have noted on their website, “van Gameren charged us with an ambitious task: to create ‘an art piece’ that would become an enduring institution… the rippled — and rippling — surfaces encourage patrons to get comfortable, lean into their soft edges, and become a part of the woodwork. Raval’s molten quality fosters fluid circulation and close encounters, honouring the spirit of its Spanish pintxo counterparts.” The architects worked with fabrication partner MCM Inc. and software engineers at Masterdom “to innovate the milling process.” Using red mahogany from South Africa, the decor was designed to recall the work of Spanish-Catalan architect and designer, Antoni Gaudí. Created on a 3D computer, the creative team developed “customized toolpaths that would generate over 9km of engravings on 75 panels of wood.” Van Gameren told me last year that while the flat surfaces could be cut by machine, the curves had to be done by hand. As the owners and architects intended, “the result” is “a series of three-dimensional tattooed ‘limbs’ that enfold patrons in a warm mahogany embrace.” And, so they do. This is an iconic restaurant and bar on an iconic corner. Locals and visitors alike can thank co-owners Grant van Gameren, Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow for creating a wonderful new destination in Toronto.

Now it will be up to Councillor Mike Layton and Toronto City Council to do something about the dangerous corner at Palmerston and College.

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