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What hits you first is the earthy aroma as the familiar plate of mushroom cavatelli is delivered to the table. For years now, the simple recipe of local mushrooms, handmade pasta, truffle, Parmigiano and know-how has made this dish the type that regulars inevitably order, even when determined to try something new. A menu staple on Harbord Street, the dish hasn’t changed. It’s simply found a new home at Piano Piano, Oakville.
First, it was Ricarda’s. Then, Sotto Sotto. Soon after, The Burger’s Priest and Blondie’s Pizza. Earlier this year, Toronto favourites Piano Piano, Verace Italian Restaurant and Pearl Chinese Cuisine opened their doors in the quaint, affluent, neighbourly town of Oakville, Ont. Voted Canada’s best place to live in 2018 by MoneySense magazine, the burgeoning Toronto suburb has exploded beyond its downtown to a population well over 200,000. Innumerable new houses and condo developments now line the streets. Roads have been expanded to allow for the multitude of cars streaming here and there at all hours of the day. A multi-million dollar revitalization project has breathed new life into the downtown, leaving it modernized and vibrant yet with all its historical attributes intact. In short, Oakville is having a moment. It’s a moment that hasn’t gone unnoticed by day trippers, those wishing to escape city life and by chefs eager to entice a new crowd with their culinary competence.
Mere months into his Oakville venture, chef Victor Barry of Piano Piano brims with positivity and optimism for his restaurant’s newest location. Locals have “been extremely welcoming and excited to have us, and we’re excited to take care of them,” he says.
Piano Piano opened in downtown Oakville in June 2021. A third location of the restaurant, the spot is a first foray out of the city for celebrated chef Victor Barry. In 2015, Barry closed Splendido, his ode to culinary splendor, replacing it with the first location of Piano Piano. Named for the Italian phrase piano piano va lontano, meaning “slowly slowly we go further,” the restaurant is casual, warm and boisterous, serving up Italian classics sure to attract kids, their parents and anyone who’s ever hankered to live the dolce vita through proximity to pizza, pasta and fine Italian wine.
Despite a busy couple of years, highlighted by the opening of virtual restaurants Victory Pizza and Victory Burger, along with real-life spot Piccolo Piano Pizzeria, Barry says that “it’s a dream of ours to bring Piano Pianos to lots of different communities—all over North America even—and Oakville felt like the exact right first place to branch out.” The team often “hosted a lot of guests into our Harbord location—and more recently, Mount Pleasant—who aren’t from the immediate neighbourhood. We noticed that Oakville was repeatedly the area where a lot of people were coming in from.”
In November 2020, Jonathans of Oakville announced it was permanently closing. In business since 1981, the family-run restaurant was an old-Oakville staple for elegant fare and refined, upscale dining. “When they made the decision to move on from the restaurant business,” says Barry, “we were honoured and extremely excited that they asked us to move into their space.” With a new home for Piano Piano, there was little more to do than sign the paper work and set the dream in motion.
Though Oakville is home to plenty of time-honoured restaurants—from Oliver’s and Paradiso to Seasons—a fresh crop of eateries, bursting with fresh ideas, new chefs and menus influenced by Toronto diners, is giving rise to a culinary renaissance in keeping with Oakville’s recent revival.
“The Oakville dining scene is already quite strong, with some great chefs and restaurants,” says Barry. “Marvin [Palomo] from 7 Enoteca and Rafa [Covarrubias] from Hexagon immediately come to mind. Both are incredible chefs.” A well-recognized player himself, Barry says he’s “really excited to grow with the community and be a part of it.” An industry vet with a deft hand for Italian cuisine, Barry is sure to wow the town with his signature style and cozy new corner spot.
For Matt Blondin, of Blondie’s Pizza, Oakville feels like “a new, kind of untapped, untouched market for a lot of specific businesses. It’s a way of starting something new for a lot of people. It’s not too far away. It’s still close enough to your comfort zone, which is the city.”
Opened just over a year ago, Blondie’s Oakville location has “been great, so far,” says Blondin. “From my experience, we’ve been really welcome there. Co-tenants in the plaza where we’re at, when we opened were super, super welcoming. Since day one, they’ve welcomed us with open arms.” Apart from the frustration of a patio season missed due to pandemic-fueled delays, the location has enjoyed a successful first year in south Oakville.
Established in 2018, Blondie’s Pizza is now a certified mini-empire, with six take-out spots along with grand plans to expand. The Oakville location, with its dining room and full kitchen, is unique within the chain and offers a more substantial menu. “What we bring to the community, what we try to bring, is just an alternative to what people already know. There are so many good pizza shops out there... We’re just trying to bring something new to the area and hopefully fit in and go from there,” says Blondin.
Though the story is just unfolding for some new Oakville restaurants, for Ricarda’s, opened in downtown Oakville in 2017, hindsight paints a different type of picture.
"It was one gut punch after the next,” says former Ricarda’s COO Chris Glaessel. The location wasn’t just riddled by bad luck, the team there also found a different market with diners who differed from their inner-city peers in surprising ways.
Ricarda’s Restaurant first brought refined Mediterranean fare to a stunning location at Adelaide and Peter Streets in downtown Toronto. With a room that transitioned from bar to café, event space to dining room, the kitchen followed suit with an all-day menu of southern-European-style dishes from breakfast pastries and sandwiches to fresh pastas, brightly-hued salads, seafood, flatbreads and more. Having made its mark on the Toronto dining scene with sold-out events and popular brunch services, the team branched out with a second location on Lakeshore Road in Oakville.
“We wanted a little of that flair of what it means in Europe to go down the main street and meet the neighbours and all that stuff,” says Glaessel. “Out of the options… Oakville struck me as the most mature and as the most ready at that time.”
After a chance meeting with Julia Hanna—owner of the eponymous Ristorante Julia, a long-standing Oakville favourite—Ricarda’s took over that restaurant’s prime downtown spot. “Things came together maybe a bit faster than we had hoped for,” says Glaessel, “but Julia’s had everything in terms of square footage, patio, location that we wanted from Oakville.”
As what Glaessel calls “first movers” into a restaurant scene dominated by well-established spots, the team knew that it might encounter some difficulties. Yet, “there were a number of components that affected us as soon as we moved in,” explains Glaessel. Without a chance to do a proper inspection, Ricarda’s unwittingly took over a location in desperate need of maintenance and renovations. “The first one was the heating and air conditioning system was completely outdated,” explains Glaessel. “We started facing issues with heating that didn’t work. …Then in summer it became an air conditioning issue, which affected us quite a lot. It took forever to get that all remedied.”
In addition, construction on Lakeshore Road caused endless chaos outside the restaurant’s front door. From foundational damage to the building, to a lack of parking, road closures and a virtual end to foot traffic, there was no shortage of headaches for the restaurant team to face.
“It was such an emotional darkness that we all went through for the Oakville location,” says Glaessel. “Then, of course, shortly after we terminated the lease the pandemic hit so there was not even any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Though Glaessel says that the team had a few successful months, “in the end, operational challenges and challenges with the building were the major reasons [we closed].” Interestingly, adds Glaessel, “the other thing was also that we didn’t see that the demand for restaurants in downtown Oakville was big enough to feed all of the restaurants that were there.” Despite its many charms, Glaessel says that “many people sometimes didn’t even know that the main street or that Lakeshore Road existed. When we did flyer drops... people said ‘wow, that’s part of Oakville?’”
The lack of exposure wasn’t helped by a tight-knit business community that Glaessel describes as “very reserved.” In his 27 years in the hospitality industry, Glaessel says he’s become accustomed to “that bit of professional courtesy that you would extend to your competitors. If they needed a pound of sesame, OK, you give them a pound of sesame because you know they’ll return you the favour. In Oakville, that just didn’t exist at that level. It was very weird.”
For their part, Oakville diners also surprised the team.
"What was surprising and shocking to us was that, although people are well-travelled, when they dine in their own hood they go back to the basics.” While menu items such as saffron prawn risotto were largely ignored, customers gravitated toward Ricarda’s burgers and sandwiches, simple chicken dishes and salads.
Like any town, Oakville may not offer restaurateurs exactly what they bargain for. “Do your research, do your homework,” says Glaessel. "Talk to customers and employees who have worked in and around Oakville for a long time and take their feedback seriously. Because it is very different.” Though Ricarda’s story was marred by a never-ending string of unfortunate events, Glaessel adds that “the location is still something I fully believe in. It has so much potential.”
Hardships for some don’t seem to have dulled the gleam from Oakville’s “gold coast” — the settlement spot of choice for a vast number of moneyed Ontarians—for many prospective businesses.
“One of the things that people have realized after this pandemic is that living in the big city is no longer what it used to be," says Blondin. "A lot of people are starting to look outside of the city at affordable houses, buying property, just kind of relocating because they’re married, they have families, whatever, and the downtown life has just, after 10 [to] 15 years, just caught up with them.”
“With that influx of population,” he adds, “I feel like more restaurateurs, more companies, will head out, not only to Oakville, but Hamilton, Burlington, et cetera. I think you’ll see a boom in the next couple of years. Am I 100 per cent sure of that? I don’t know. I hope so. I’m pretty confident that’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to be good for everyone.”
Revitalized and reopened, Oakville is enjoying a heyday coupled with a population explosion sure to set any restaurateurs’ heart aflutter. Is a move there a guarantee of success? As the saying goes: in life there are no guarantees. Still, after the past couple of years we’re all craving good food, good times, the din of the dining room and the thrill of engaging company. It’s no surprise that, now more than ever, more and more beloved Toronto restaurants are working to refresh the dining scene west of the city. With more variety, more incredible dishes to try and more ways to support our local talent, we’re all the better for it.