How one Toronto bar pivoted to become a fake Italian restaurant with really good spaghetti
Emily and Josh LeBlanc are the husband and wife team behind Bar Mordecai, a Budapest Hotel-inspired speakeasy on Dundas West that opened a month before Covid hit. Since then they have done a whole lot of regrouping and rethinking, including their latest innovation. West Side Maria’s is an old-school (but also new school because it’s virtual) Italian eatery that may be Toronto’s first ever fictional restaurant. How does that work exactly? We found out.
Step 1: Go back to the drawing board (again)
Nine months into the pandemic and the LeBlancs have performed more pivots than a professional figure skater. Flash back to July when Bar Mordecai partnered with Unboxed Grocery to create Venice Beach Bar in an unused lot across the street. Getting their own CaféTO permit was complicated by Bar Mordecai’s corner location, but it finally came through in September. Permit in hand, they launched a hot drinks (and warm blankies) program on a heated patio in October…and then along came lockdown: part deux. “We realized that we needed to figure out something that wouldn’t have to change every couple of weeks depending on the latest restrictions,” says Josh.
Step 2: Give the people the comfort they crave
In contemplating a move to takeout and delivery, the LeBlancs decided that the Bar Mordecai menu (a little bit fancy, elaborate plating) wasn’t a good fit. “We talked about what kind of food people—what we ourselves—are really craving right now, and we also looked at what was doing well on delivery apps,” says Emily. The answer: low-key classics like burgers, chicken, sandwiches and pizza. They consulted with their chef Brian Ho, who has a background in Italian cuisine (and a mean red sauce recipe) and pretty soon the idea started to come together. “We started thinking about that neighbourhood Italian restaurant—the one with checkered tablecloths, the kind of place you went with your family as a kid,” says Josh. Ho’s menu is a mix of the can’t miss classics—garlic bread, bolognese, baked ziti, veal parm—along with some more inventive fair. An Italian poutine subs out the gravy for (you guessed it) red sauce, and the Impossible Spaghetti Bolognese (made with Impossible vegan meat product) would fool any unsuspecting carnivore.
Step 3: If you can’t make it, fake it
“Normally when you’re opening a new restaurant, you start with a concept and then you work it out—the food, but also the décor, the feel of the place,” says Emily. Current restrictions mean an actual restaurant doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that didn’t stop the LeBlancs from contemplating every detail. “We went pretty deep into this,” says Emily. “West Side Maria’s is the kind of place where they have crayons on the table, where everybody knows everybody. Half the staff are teenagers and the other half are lifetime servers. The bartender is probably dating the head server—and they’re always fighting.”
Step 4: Pay tribute to the people who got you there
The name started off as a joke. “I said, instead of East Side Mario’s, what about West Side Maria’s?” says Josh. But the more they thought about it, the more it made sense. “First of all, it’s in the west end, but more importantly, our landlord and our property manager are both named Maria and they have been so amazing and supportive through all of this, so that was really the clincher.”
Step 5: Keep the kids happy
In keeping with the family friendly theme, both delivery and takeout orders come with crayon packs for the kiddos (and adult colouring enthusiasts, hey it’s wholesome at-home entertainment). In the new year, the plan is to add an “ambiance package,” complete with a candle, some wine and a checkered tablecloth. (Until then, you can up the romance factor by enjoying your spaghetti Lady and the Tramp-style).