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Beaujolais brawl: Will granting a liquor licence to J.P. Challet’s Harbord Street bistro bring down the neighbourhood?

Beaujolais brawl: Will granting a liquor licence to J.P. Challet’s Harbord Street bistro bring down the neighbourhood?
Battleground bistro: Joe Pantalone cites alcohol availability as a reason to prevent the opening of Ici (Photo by Quinn Dombrowski)

It’s unusual to see a Toronto councillor acting against the wishes of his constituents, especially with an election looming, but it seems as if Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone has chosen that lonely path. As we first reported in July, the issue concerns the liquor licence for Ici, the 22-seat bistro that renowned chef and educator J.P. Challet and his partners hope to open at the corner of Harbord Street and Manning Avenue, where their catering business is already operational.

It’s a fairly sketchy strip with several schools close by, and when Challet first applied for his licence, he encountered a few objections from locals. Ten years ago, an 18-year-old was stabbed to death in the video arcade that stood on the property, and the neighbourhood has opposed several liquor licence applications since then. But Challet won them over. An upscale bistro, he argued, would not pose a danger to residents or a temptation to schoolchildren. Indeed, drug dealers who hang around that “dead stretch” of Harbord after dark would be discouraged by a busy, well-lit bistro on the corner. Ici could even become a seed bringing other respectable businesses into the area.

Convinced by these arguments, more than 250 neighbours signed a petition supporting Challet’s application. The Palmerston Area Residents’ Association also got on board. At the moment, only Joe Pantalone, councillor for Ward 19, and a handful of others object. He has ignored repeated invitations to meet with Challet or to visit the bistro. Instead, he has tabled a Motion Without Notice, bringing in the city’s lawyers to fight the application when it comes before the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. Challet and his partners can’t afford lawyers, so they will be arguing on their own behalf. Their case seems promising. Objections that granting them a licence would open the doors to other, less respectable businesses would seem to be a criticism of the policies and effectiveness of the AGCO. Suggestions that Ici will one day move on and the licence might be inherited by an undesirable tenant do not hold water: Challet has already built concessions into his application that would make that impossible.

So what are Pantalone’s objections? He claims the majority of locals do not want licensed premises and that issuing one licence will mean the AGCO will have to issue others in the neighbourhood when other people apply. He has nothing against Challet personally; he just feels this is the wrong place for a restaurant. Both sides of the argument will be aired at the AGCO’s public hearing on September 30. Challet is hoping for some moral support from fans of gastronomy—or anyone else who thinks such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Concerned parties should show up by 5:30 p.m. at the AGCO offices at 90 Sheppard Avenue East, 3rd floor.

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