Q&A: Cory Vitiello on the success of the Harbord Room, and why he’s closing one of Toronto’s most popular restaurants

Q&A: Cory Vitiello on the success of the Harbord Room, and why he’s closing one of Toronto’s most popular restaurants

The Harbord Room will serve its final burger and killer cocktail on Saturday night. The tiny restaurant has been a neighbourhood gem since it opened in 2007, making that rare transition from “it spot” to institution. Head chef and co-owner Cory Vitiello has parlayed that success into Flock, a rapidly expanding chain of chicken joints that specialize in rotisserie birds (and close before midnight). We asked Vitiello about the Harbord Room’s success, his decision to close it and what made the signature burger so damn good.

Almost a decade in and the Harbord Room is still jammed most nights. Why stop when you’re still ahead?
A few reasons, but mostly it’s that all of the owners, including myself, have started doing our own things. Chris Shiki and I have been working on expanding Flock, Dave [Mitton] is the North American ambassador for Wiser’s whisky and Liz [Campbell] just started a family. The staff who have been running the show over the last year are rock solid, and they’ve done a great job of maintaining that “eating-in-your-living-room” vibe, but Harbord Room is a very small restaurant—the kind of place that really needs to be an owner-operated establishment. That’s kind of how it started and where the love came from.

A lot of restaurants are hot when they open, but then they become flavour of the month or season or year. Aside from good food and drink, what did you do right?
I think it’s been the weight we placed on creating a restaurant for the neighbourhood—it was never about ego. We listened to our customers and our staff and did our best to create a place that really gave in to the community—Harbord Street is a very tight community. We get people coming in from all over the city, and from outside of the city even, but our true VIPs are our neighbours, who have been showing up twice a week for the last 10 years.

So your true VIPs are not Jake Gyllenhaal?
No, definitely not—he was only here once. That’s not to say that celebrity customers aren’t great, they’re just not our first priority.

You yourself have become a celebrity chef. What’s the best and worst part about that label?
There’s no downside to being a well-known chef. There are thousands of great cooks in the city, and there are chefs who are more deserving of the celebrity than myself. It’s a very fortunate time to be a chef in Toronto, with the huge public interest and the growing number of job opportunities outside of the kitchen. There’s definitely a glamourization of the industry that doesn’t match the reality.

So you still put your Crocs on one foot at a time?
Yeah, except now they’re made of platinum and diamonds.

Ha! Burger aficionados consider Harbord Room’s version to be one of the best. What’s your secret?
The secret is the same as always—quality ingredients. A proper burger only has a few key elements. Personally, I think the bun is as important as the actual meat. We use a very soft brioche bun that melts on the tongue but still holds up. And then dry-aged shoulder and brisket that’s ground fresh every day, so you’re able to cook it medium-rare and lock in the juices. We make our condiments in house, too. That’s it. It’s the one thing on the menu that never changed.

The Flock restaurants close pretty early, whereas Harbord Room was open right to last call. Will you miss the impromptu party nights?
I will. That’s the main thing I’ll miss—the people. Our seven-year anniversary party was one of those nights… I can’t divulge everything that happened. Back in our early days, Harbord Room was a meeting place for all the chefs in the city. And up to a year and a half ago, I was cooking there almost seven days a week. It was my work life, my social life and my love life, all in one little 400-square-foot room.

You were 27 when Harbord Room opened. What would you tell your younger self now?
I’m not sure. Of course there are things I would do differently, but I don’t have any regrets. I believe that if you’re happy with where you are, then you haven’t made a wrong move in your life. We were definitely immature when we started, but I think that was our best quality. We didn’t know any food writers or anything about the city’s social scene. I couldn’t have picked Shinan Govani out of a two-person lineup—he was just a guy who liked to eat pancakes. We were 100 per cent unaffected, and I think that really helped us out.

And you had that salmon-coloured wallpaper. I’ve always felt like that was one of the restaurant’s secret weapons.
Yes, the wall colour. I wish we could put a patent on that. It was all [designer] Bradley Denton, and it’s called Pencil Eraser Pink.

Okay last question, and it’s a serious one. If you were an autumnal vegetable, what autumnal vegetable would you be?
Hmmm. A Jerusalem artichoke.

How come?
Versatility.