884 days is how long it took for The Senator to come back to life after pandemic-induced closures. Over two years of nervousness, of unknown variables, and the inability to do what the restaurant loves best: cater to its loyal clientele.
"40 years later, we're starting all over again," Bobby Sniderman, owner of The Senator, said.
Walking into the space feels like taking a step into a time capsule sealed in the mid-to-late 20th century.
There have been minimal changes made to the dining room, barring the addition of a "snazzy" espresso machine. There are pictures of what the restaurant used to be placed right by the entrance, and upon comparison, one can see that The Senator that exists today is almost identical to the one from the late 1900s. And that is part of the charm and identity of this stalwart.
"When people come in, they get a real taste of what the city was like 70 years ago when this was built. There were a lot of restaurants in the city that were built in a very specific style," Sniderman said. "The Senator's really the most significant restaurant with that style. We just love it and want to keep it like this."
Even before entering the restaurant, you are able to catch the nostalgic vibes that it exudes, reminiscent of a time gone by. With a jazz bistro on one side and a huge mural adorning the other side wall, there is a certain retro feeling one gets without crossing the threshold of the entryway. You can definitely gain an appreciation and understanding of how the place must've looked and felt when Sniderman first took over in 1984.
Fitted with a retro neon signboard and an old-school bay window by the entrance, you get the feeling that you're looking at the ghost of a diner past and not the culinary landmark The Senator has since come to be. And that is definitely an active choice made.
The theme continues as one steps inside. Oozing comfort and safety, the dining space is filled with individual booths the same way it was over 50 years ago, with coat racks crowning each divider. The space has kept nearly everything intact, with the only changes coming in the form of the reupholstered booth — even the tables are the original pieces that have seen a lot of upkeep throughout the years.
"People who have been regulars of the restaurant, for years, they feel like they have a proprietary interest in the restaurant, and they have their own table that they want to sit at," Sniderman said. They come in and they see somebody sitting at a table that they feel is theirs and they feel just a little bit disappointed."
One's eyes are drawn immediately to the piece de resistance of the space, the grand bar that has also been there ever since. With mirrors on its back, it really enhances the area of the dining room and makes it feel more open.
"The thing that makes it so enjoyable to work here is this design being so unique, and how people embrace it and feel like they're really part of it," Sniderman said.
Every single artifact inside The Senator is a moment frozen in time. From the art adorning the walls to the cereal boxes on the shelves nodding to the restaurant being a commuter's daily stop for breakfast, everything has a story to tell. And that story gets tacked onto the lore that the place has built for itself over half a century.
From the outside, it might look like just a regular old-school diner, but the ones who are in the loop know that it is nothing short of a cultural and historical landmark.
That was one of the main reasons for its success, and why surviving through the pandemic was such an important milestone for everyone related to the brand. Even though it was a challenging time, they knew they had to do everything just right to open in the proper way — if not for them, then for the customers.
"We were scratching off you know, the days like we've been in prison. And it was really hard, quite honestly, because we had worked very, very hard," Sniderman said. "Myself and many of the people who have been with me since we started."
He added that he felt that the restaurant as a whole had a major responsibility, not only to its loyalists but also to the city of Toronto as a whole. That is one of the key reasons why it's still standing in its original spot even after different challenges from multiple fronts.
"We've had many offers to sell the restaurant and it could have been torn down out for another condo," Sniderman said. "But one thing that really stands out is how many customers that just really thanked us for keeping the restaurant here because it was so important to them as a part of the fabric of the city."
Keeping all of that in mind, Anne Hollyer, The Senator's general manager who has been with the brand since the first summer it was open, said that while there were many "schemes" about how they could reopen the restaurant post-lockdown, both her and Sniderman were adamant about doing it the right way, so that people were comforted and could come back to the same Senator they left pre-pandemic.
"We all said we're not putting partitions up and make people sit under Plexiglas," she said. " We're just going to wait because it wasn't feeling like that was the way people would want to be in this room."
And get it right they did, for The Senator is back, serving brunch and dinner to the people of Toronto in the same style that it always has.
Starting from the 1980s when Sniderman first bought the place, comfort food has always been the prerogative of The Senator.
"It's all about getting really fine quality ingredients and not really adulterating too much," Sniderman said. "Just really representing the ingredients."
While the restaurant itself is old, the kind of culinary practices it employs means it doesn't really act its age, he added.
Everything that you eat at The Senator is made from scratch on the premises, including all the baked goods. Sniderman said that that level of quality control ensures that every person that enters — whether for brunch or dinner — gets a really high-quality meal.
"I have one golden rule. If I don't feed it to my grandmother, I'm not gonna feed it to you," head chef Eoin Ramsbottom said. "And I tried to instil it in the lads, like, at the end of the day, you're allowed to make mistakes because it's just food. We want to do good, we want to do better than good. But if we don't make mistakes, and we don't get feedback, we can't progress, right? So if it's good enough for my grandmother, it's good enough for you."
As for the actual fare being served at The Senator, the best way to put it would be refined comfort food. It is dishes with a history of providing warmth and satisfaction that are finely tuned to adapt to the passage of time.
In classic bistro style, the meal begins with a beautifully toasted French baguette with butter. Crunchy on the outside with a soft, fluffy interior, the bread acts as a great way of prepping your stomach for a gorgeous meal to follow. Be careful not to fill up on it, however much you might want to!
Up next comes the garlic shrimp. Prepared with extra virgin olive oil, confit garlic and chili, finished with butter and parsley and garnished with mustard greens, the fresh Atlantic shrimp's flavour really shines through the dish. Owing to the subtlety of the rest of the ingredients, the main flavour profile one feels on their palate is garlicky goodness. With the oil acting as a great base for the sauce, it marries all ingredients together in the background. Left taking the spotlight are the two words that the dish is made up of: garlic and shrimp.
The ahi tuna tartare is a classic dish that also leans toward the future of The Senator. It's the perfect analogy of what the restaurant stands for — acknowledgment of the past with one leg into the future. The dish is made up of components that complement the beautiful piece of fish: toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, radish, a cilantro lime aioli and crispy wontons. The perfectly-balanced plate has all sorts of flavours going for it, from the acidic pickled radish to the hints of lime and finally the back end briny-ness of the tuna. The wontons act as a great delivery platform, providing a contrast between the crispiness of the cracker and the smooth, unctuous tuna.
Another classic with a twist, the classic burger is an explosion of flavours and textures. It has a patty blend of chuck, short rib and brisket that is placed upon a beautifully toasted brioche bun. The crispy onion rings and the crunchy red leaf lettuce act as a great contrast for the chunky-yet-smooth blue cheese aioli. While the blue cheese can be a pretty strong component by itself, the accoutrements help mellow it out and act as an interesting way of elevating the seemingly-simple burger.
For the ones that are averse to blue cheese, fret not for it is complemented well by both the flavour and the texture of the onion rings, so you're not left with a highly pungent taste in your mouth and can actually enjoy the meal placed in front of you.
Acting as the piece de resistance, the chicken pot pie is the true crowning glory for any meal eaten at The Senator. Physically, it rises above the rest and sits in its mushroom-shaped castle, garnering attention from each passerby.
The beautiful nutmeg-and-thyme-flavoured puff pastry blooms over the plate and has a sort of croissant-like consistency with its wonderfully laminated layers. It acts as a smart contrast for the luscious stew inside — almost reminiscent of a chicken soup. With differently-textured vegetables and meat swimming inside the perfectly seasoned gravy, this dish — the epitome of comfort food — is the perfect complement to the winter season, providing one with hearty nourishment.
This dish, which acts like a hug in a bowl, is a classic which the restaurant is known for. Chef Ramsbottom took this dish when he first joined the establishment and worked toward elevating it to another level, to make it into a "huge, huge seller."
"There's a couple of twists in there. I'm adding a few little ingredients in my view on things," he said. "What's inside is 40 years of history and a step toward the future."
Finishing off the meal is a rich espresso-flavoured budino. Topped with salted caramel and toasted almonds, the pudding-like dessert is the perfect bookend to the meal filled with elevated takes on classic dishes.
Outside of food, The Senator has a fairly comprehensive drinks program as well. Being one of the first restaurants in the country to get a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, the restaurant boasts of a "very excellent" selection of curated wines. As for cocktails, the bar staff can whip up any of the classics on demand.
If that was not enough, The Senator Winebar also exists on the upper level of the restaurant, offering a great selection of privately-sourced wines that are priced fairly reasonably along with cocktails, more comfort food and even oysters.
As of this week, the restaurant is also launching its affordable wine and cocktail program. Cocktails will be half-priced and wines will be available at three different price points: $25, $35 and $45 per bottle, plus affordable prices by the glass will be on offer too.
The newly-launched bottle shop, which will reside right by the entrance, will have a selection of 50 different wines to purchase at near-retail prices.
Lastly, to jazz up the already sought-after brunches at The Senator, Mimosas and Bloody Caesars will be available for just $5 and a split of Prosecco with a carafe of orange juice will be available for $10.
The Senator is more than just a restaurant. It's a family that just so happens to work together. It's a people-centric operation. Newcomers become regulars, regulars become loyalists, and before you know it, the establishment goes from being a place to eat to a second home for a lot of the clientele. That is the beauty of this place.
That is how Sniderman's tryst with the restaurant started as well. The place took on the shape and name of The Senator in 1948, the same year he was born. While in his teens, he used to work downtown and kind of stumbled upon this restaurant one day — falling in love with it immediately.
And that has been the case for most of the loyal customer base that the restaurant has garnered over the years. They might've entered once by chance and the warmth that the place — be it the infrastructure or the staff — exuded made them patrons for life.
"It started off as a home originally, and it's become now a home for many people around the city," Sniderman said. "I just know that this restaurant has a soul of its own. Anytime of the day or night, you just sort of feel that it has a living presence in it. And it just reflects all of the activity and the people that have come here. So when I'm in the restaurant, especially when it's quiet, I just feel very, very secure and safe being here."
The sense of comfort and security doesn't just stop at the patrons, but rather extends to all members of the staff — or family, as it should be rightfully called. Sniderman said that many of the people that are currently working are either the ones who started with him 40 years ago, or even their children. That is a testament to the kind of care that The Senator has for both its clientele and staff.
"This is a family-run business. And it's our family," Hollyer said. "We're very particular about bringing people that fit with other people, so that there's a family setting. So everyone that is here, we're very lucky, wants to be here."
Moving from the past and present and looking into the future, Sniderman has visions of the restaurant's legacy lasting for decades to come, in the hands of the newer generation.
"I'm now 75 years old. And the continuity of this restaurant isn't dependent on a 75 year old man. It's on people like yourself, right?" he said. "And the people who work here and my son who is 35 years old and younger people, who will carry on the legacy of the restaurant. That's what is really important. So the city has institutions like this that they can rely on, to continue to operate."
The Toronto culinary scene is ever-evolving. Old restaurants fade away and new establishments take their spot. Buildings are constantly being built, new structures are rising up every other day. Amidst all of that there exists a pillar around which the city has grown. It's a place that hasn't been touched by the caressing fingers of Father Time; a place that has existed as is ever since its inception. Inside lives an ever-growing family, one that enters the premises to feel safe, secure and to nourish their bodies with food that is comforting and hearty. That is the legacy of The Senator — one that needs to be protected at all costs.
"I have a vision that the whole city is going to just grow up around [the restaurant] like in the movie 'Up,' you know?" Sniderman said. "Someday, you know, maybe we're just going to fill the place with helium balloons and float it away somewhere. But my real desire is that it will continue to be here for decades to come and generations and people will continue to appreciate, you know, all the effort that went into keeping us and saving it."