Salt Wine Bar, a small, excellent new tapas place on Ossington Avenue, might not survive its first month in business, after a story on the Toronto Star’s Web site today exposed an open secret on the popular strip: that the room is operating without the proper liquor or business licences.
Albino Silva, the restaurateur behind Chiado on College Street, is part owner of Salt. He secured the lease for the space at 225 Ossington in January 2009, just four months before the city issued a year-long moratorium on business licences for new bars and restaurants on the street.
Stuck with the property, well into planning for the venture and assured that the ban would soon be lifted, Silva forged ahead. Then, in fall of last year, the city adopted changes to the moratorium that would have allowed a licence for smaller spaces, including Silva’s restaurant. But a handful of business and property owners in the area contested the change and brought the issue before the Ontario Municipal Board, where it has been stalled ever since. Everybody’s hands are tied until the OMB rules on the issue, city officials say. Hearings aren’t scheduled until November.
So when he opened on August 4, Silva did so with the space’s existing grocery licence—he intends to fill the room’s floor-to-ceiling olive wood shelving with Portuguese and Spanish specialty foods—and by serving wine and cocktails on the catering licence he has through Chiado.
“You know what, I said to my kids, I’m exposing myself here, but I’ve always been an honest businessman and I’m going to be truthful about this, and I hope I won’t have any problems,” he said in an interview early this week. (Toronto Life chose not to publish the story at the time, knowing that doing otherwise could get him shut down.) “What am I going to do, lie about it? No.”
The restaurant is very good: fun and casual but completely mellow, sophisticated without being pretentious, wine-focused, with an impressive selection of sub-$40 bottles. And the small Iberian-inspired plates from ex–Prego Della Piazza chef Dave Kemp are in many cases as good as you’ll find in Lisbon or Barcelona. The charred bread, for example, is as close as you can get to Catalonia’s incredible pan con tomate without actually being there: fresh, sweet, pulpy tomatoes, oil and sea salt that you spoon (they rub it in Spain, but no matter) over crusty garlic-rubbed bread. It is hardly the sort of raucous, booming nightclub that the city’s ban seemed intended to prevent; if anything, it’s the sort of place the street and the city need more of.
City councillor and mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone said today that he hopes city officials will be lenient with the wine bar. “I have absolutely no doubt that this is an excellent place, and it’s the kind of place that we want. I’ve said to them, if you should find yourself in any technical difficulties with the city…I would be pleased to write any letters and to suggest to city officials that they should apply discretion,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s really a technicality, this whole issue.” But Pantalone added that neither he nor the city has any pull with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which is responsible for issuing and inspecting liquor licences.
Silva says inspectors from the city and from the AGCO visited him earlier this week, before The Star made his rule-breaking public, but noted that he hadn’t yet heard back from officials with either body. The Star piece, if anything, could speed their decision. Silva is furious with the paper. “They were after blood, and I don’t know why,” he said. “At the end of the day, there will be 18 people out of a job.” The Star’s Amy Pataki, who wrote the piece, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon. For now, Silva says, he plans to keep opening every night. “I’m going to open until somebody closes me down.”
Get there while you can, in other words.