Introducing: Winchester Kitchen and Bar, a new Cabbagetown restaurant with a storied past
“Al Capone used to sit right here.” Well, not exactly, admits Michael McRobb, co-owner—along with Anesti Tsiourantanis (Canoe, Tomi-Kro, Nota Bene)—of the Winchester Kitchen and Bar, which opened last week. “The stool is new, but this was his spot at the bar.” During the Prohibition Era, the gangster is said to have made the Winchester Hotel his home away from home—booking the whole third floor, according to McRobb—while he built his rum-running empire with Canadian rye whisky, brewed just down Parliament Street at the Gooderham and Worts distillery (now the Distillery District).
The room still oozes a sense of its elegant, shady past. “We want this place to be known as a great venue for music and local art,” explains Tsiourantanis, “and we want to use this space to give back to the community by having charitable events here.” McRobb, meanwhile, points to the ceiling. “You see those two metal hooks up there? That’s where the trapeze hung. They used to have burlesque shows here in the ’20s and ’30s and some of the biggest entertainers of the time played here. Billie Holiday sang on that stage.”
The vibe is still decidedly speakeasy—the place has been licensed since 1935—but the menu, created by consulting chef Daniel Hadida (currently Note Bene’s
chef de cuisine ) and executed by 32-year-old chef Binh An Nguyen (Monsoon, Spoke Club), is more ambitious. Ontario trout ($8) and pork loin chops ($16) are smoked in house over apple wood, and the orange-scented ricotta gnocchi ($15) is made by hand.
Not since the Laurentian Room’s three-year run (2004–2007), has anyone tried to turn this storied watering hole into a respectable restaurant. Capone’s ghost has seen the owners of the Stone Grill downstairs run it as a lounge, and Rumen Dimitroff, the former owner of Pravda and Rasputin, briefly gave it a go as Samovar, a vodka bar.
In this heritage building (dating from the late 1880s), it feels like time stands still. This room—protected by the city’s heritage committee—was updated in the 1941, and remains a rare example of true art moderne décor. With a shrug of resignation, Tsiourantanis says, “We’d like to put our signature on the place, but we’re not allowed to change the bar or the ceiling.” Which may be just as well.
Winchester Kitchen and Bar, 51A Winchester St., 416-323-0051, winchesterkitchen.com.