With a $500,000 renovation and new chef, Centro wants to be “taken seriously”

With a $500,000 renovation and new chef, Centro wants to be “taken seriously”

Centro's main dining room (Image: Karon Liu) 

“Centro has always been good, but people have never come here for a gastronomical experience,” says owner Armando Mano as he sits in the newly renovated uptown restaurant. “They haven’t been taking us seriously for the past eight years since Marc Thuet left. We want to change that.” The revamp started in December, but the real work began two weeks ago, when demolition crews stepped in and left nothing untouched. There’s still sawdust on the sheet-covered floors, and the wall fixtures aren’t in yet, but Mano says things are on track regardless of what happens.

The main dining room now has what Mano calls “a dramatic look,” with giant mirrors lining the walls and columns wrapped in ultrasuede (they also serve as giant vases lit from below). Most noticeably, the signature orange lights have been replaced with white chandeliers: “I hated those lights,” Mano admits. “They changed the colour of the food and made people look like they were dying.”

Gone, too, is the downstairs eating hall—it’s now a lounge. Anchored by a giant bar, the venue will have live music in the evening and a DJ at night, as well as a menu (capped at the $18 mark) for more casual dinners. Says Mano:

We’re going into our 24th year, and in order to make money, you have to spend money. What started as a facelift turned into a half-million-dollar renovation. If you don’t stay current, especially when there’s a new restaurant opening up every week, people will forget you.

The new look coincides with the launch of a new menu from a new chef. Jason Carter joined the Centro team after a decade of working for Susur Lee on King West. Carter replaces Bruce Woods, who, coincidentally, can now be found on King West, at Brassaii.

“Ten years is a nice round number to end with,” says Carter, referring to his career with Lee. “I was looking for a change, and when I first told Susur, he was really quiet about it and trying to process it all, but it became less awkward with each passing day. It was a dream job, so it was tough giving that up.”

Now that Carter isn’t catering to the downtown crowd, he finds himself with a new set of challenges. First, Centro is a big restaurant, so Carter had to simplify his dishes to deal with the high volume (“On any night, we could be cooking for the regular diners, two private functions and the catering business, each having a different menu”). Also, Carter notes that uptown diners tend to be more traditional than their downtown counterparts. “Downtown has a younger crowd that is a bit more adventurous. Also, here the diners aren’t going to give you as much time, because a lot of them have a long commute or families to take care of, so they can’t stay out.”

The menu isn’t set in stone, but Carter says that he’s going to work with a lot of fish, including black cod with saffron and a salade niçoise. Also, expect lamb to be a regular feature. Mano adds that with the exception of one dish, all the plates for the main dining room are priced under $40. “There will always be a room for fine dining, but considering we’re a big restaurant, we’re not going to fill up every seat with a $120-a-head tasting menu,” he says.