Just Opened: Oliver and Bonacini Café Grill. We take a peek inside the empire’s new downtown outpost

Just Opened: Oliver and Bonacini Café Grill. We take a peek inside the empire’s new downtown outpost

(All images: Catherine Hayday)
(All images: Catherine Hayday) 

Calling dibs on a bit of real estate at Yonge and Front is a savvy move. The restaurants of Michael Bonacini and Peter Oliver keep popping up here like rabbits. (Succulent braised rabbits.) Within a five-minute walk are Canoe, Biff’s, Jump and now the latest incarnation of Oliver and Bonacini Café Grill. This is the land of the expense account, overflowing with suits in search of posh versions of comfort foods that don’t skimp on the cheese and cream—like, say, O&B’s pancetta and mushroom pizzetta ($16) and macaroni and cheese with Balderson cheddar ($15). Chef Michael Bonacini, however, sees the area as more than just a financial district: “Clearly, we love the lower Yonge and Bay Street area. It’s got a great mix of business, residential, sports and theatre, and visitors. It’s a heartbeat.”

And our heartbeats slow right down when we step into the O&B Café Grill’s enormous 14,500-square-foot space. With room for 230 people, part of the mission of the Café Grill was to create a downtown Oliver and Bonacini location where it is “really easy to get in for a quick bite.” The space has the sort of simple palette—blacks, dark greys, off-whites—designed to calm nerves. To that end, O&B’s mixologist, Adrian Stein, has created lush cocktails, including the staff favourite: the cucumber and blueberry caipiroska (Stolichnaya Blueberi, sparkling elderflower, fresh cucumber and muddled blueberries, $11). O&B is wisely keeping the construction façade up until after the G20, when we’ll be able to experience the caipiroska in its natural habitat—on the patio.

For now, the caipiroska is unique to the new location, as the Café Grills have similar but not identical menus. Dish development is a collaborative process among the respective chefs de cuisine. “We will tweak individual menus as need be,” Bonacini says. “We also try to use great local ingredients wherever possible.”

Semi-private semi-raised booths line a far wall, and a large banquette tucked behind the entryway features a rustic tabletop. Over by the mushroom wall (an enlarged photo of fungus overlaid with Anthony Walsh’s culinary scribbles) are light fixtures resembling giant overturned milk pails. Elsewhere are the naked light bulbs that seem omnipresent in Toronto restaurants these days.

Chef Markus Bestig rose through the ranks of Oliver and Bonacini, just as predicted in 2007. Such progression is common in the O&B world, which has enough locations to train staff from scratch, while moving proven up-and-comers to the newer venues. Chef Bonacini notes, “At Front and Yonge, we have team members that have come from Waterloo, Bayview Village, Oakville and Blue Mountain. It’s great to have that depth of experience when you’re first opening.”

This year, O&B has plenty of first openings to go around: O&B Café Grill is the first of three new restaurants in 2010. Later this summer, they will open the other two in the TIFF Bell Lightbox: “We knew it was going to be a busy year for us, but both opportunities were too good to resist.”

Lindsey and Gerry Anacleto (who designed this and the last four Café Grills) will also design the O&B event space at the Lightbox (by KPMB). But the look and feel of the two Lightbox restaurants will be something new again. Bonacini promises something “completely unique from anything else you’ve seen from O&B.”

Oliver and Bonacini Café Grill, 33 Yonge St., 647-260-2070, oliverbonacini.com.