“We’re now booked solid every weekend until mid-July”: What reopening is like for the city’s busiest patios

“We’re now booked solid every weekend until mid-July”: What reopening is like for the city’s busiest patios

After a seemingly endless hiatus, patios reopened in Toronto on Friday—a couple of days ahead of schedule—to much jubilation. Patrons across the city lined up and joined miles-long wait-lists to enjoy food and drink (prepared by someone else for a change) and support their favourite local spots. We hit the streets on Friday evening to capture scenes of the city’s great reawakening, and spoke to restaurant owners about how the weekend went.

Lavelle
Jessica Addario, managing director
“The past year and a half has been challenging—constant pivoting, laying off and rehiring staff, navigating public health guidelines that are not always clear. We have great chefs and great food, but Lavelle is known more as a nightlife spot than a dining establishment, so our takeout wasn’t getting much traction. In March, we decided to pause takeout and focus on reopening. We had a feeling that we’d be open for the summer—we are very seasonal and our summer season is always crazy—so our management team was back to work full time by March. We were preparing to open on June 14, but when we heard the whisperings that patios might be able to open earlier, we moved our staff training up by a week so we’d be ready. And it was a good thing we did! We were fully booked all weekend. The atmosphere was really lively—people seemed happy just to be out and to see one another again.”

Birreria Volo
Julian Morana, general manager
“Early on in the pandemic, we transitioned into an Italian grocery and bottle shop called Bodega Volo. When we reopened for patio service last year, it was an experiment in how we could operate as both a bar and a bottle shop. It worked really well—if a customer was drinking something at our bar that they loved, they could get a bottle to go. After some false starts, I was happy that the government gave us more notice for reopening this summer. When the date got bumped up by a few days, it caused a bit of a frenzy. The CaféTO application for our other location, Bar Volo, was declined. We’ve been working with our city councillor to get approval. Fortunately, Birreria’s application was approved, and we were able to open our back patio. Birreria is in Little Italy, and Italy won a game at the Euros on Friday. The vibe was nothing like I’ve ever seen in Toronto—it felt like I was in South America. Everyone was stoked. I’ve been working in the bottle shop alone for the past 12 months, walking the deserted streets of Little Italy at 9 p.m. on Saturday nights. It was incredible to see them come to life again.”

Lee
Kelsea Knowles, executive assistant, chief of staff and PR coordinator
“Takeout has been very successful for us during the pandemic. Our special-occasion meals—Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, New Year’s—were our highest sales ever, including dine-in. We were anticipating opening on the 14th, but when we got word that patios could open on the 11th, we pushed hard to get ready. It was a mad dash for the management team to get all our health and safety policies up and running, and to update our training manuals, but we had a good system in place from the last reopening. We had our staff in to clean and set up two days in advance, so we were ready to go early on Friday. We opened our online reservations at 10:30 a.m., and by 11 a.m., the weekend was completely booked. Everyone who was at our patio on Friday had booked within the first five minutes. People told us they had set alarms to get a spot. We’re now booked solid every weekend until mid-July. Our guests have been so kind. We feel really lucky that so many people want to dine at our patio.”

El Rey
Nick Halligan, part-owner
“We’ve reopened and closed several times over the last 15 months, as the government has directed, and we started doing takeout and delivery, which was new for us. In preparation for this reopening, we ordered a new awning and umbrellas, refinished our tables and ordered tons of food, beer and wine. We didn’t lay off any of our staff after the most recent closure, so it wasn’t a huge deal to bump up our opening by a few days. This weekend was super busy—we’re walk-in only, and we had a wait-list all weekend long. At times, there were 50 to 70 people on the wait-list. We’re also still offering shaken-to-order cocktails to go, which have been really popular. There’s a lot of pent-up demand that I think we’ll continue to see throughout the summer.”

El Catrin
Rik Ocvirk, vice-president, Distillery Events

“When restaurants shut down a year and a half ago, I had to lay off hundreds of staff. It was awful, and I hope I never have to do anything like that again. In previous reopenings, notice from the government was always poorly timed. It was like, ‘Hey, you have 18 hours to open.’ Well, gee, thanks. This time, it was so much better: we had five days’ notice to order food and drink and schedule our staff. During the pandemic, we lost about 50 per cent of our staff and had to hire new people, so the advance notice gave us time to get everybody trained. Luckily, about half of our seating capacity at El Catrin is on the patio. We started the process of getting ready for reopening months ago, cleaning and repainting our tables. Twenty minutes before we opened on Friday, there was already a lineup of about 30 or 40 customers. When we started seating people, everyone in line started applauding. It was a nice show of appreciation and support for our staff. We were busy all weekend. It felt great to put people back to work.”