What’s on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
Not even an expropriation order from the city could keep Seng Luong and Jason Jiang down
Name: Lao Lao Bar
Contact: 5 St. Joseph St., 647-948-8018, laolaobar.com, @laolaobar
Neighbourhood: Downtown Core
Owners: Seng Luong and Jason Jiang (Sabai Sabai)
Chef: Roj Piradechdamrongpan (Sabai Sabai)
Accessibility: Fully accessible
Sabai Sabai fans, rejoice: Seng Luong and Jason Jiang (partners in business and in life) are back, this time with Lao Lao Bar. Sabai Sabai was often compared to Cheers, the type of place where the regulars knew one another, the owners were larger than life, the soundtrack was always on point and celebrities (Simu Liu, Michelle Yeoh) made occasional cameos. If Sabai Sabai was a sitcom, a sudden record scratch—in the form of a 90-day notice of expropriation from the city—threatened to cancel the beloved series. With little notice, the restaurant was set to become another casualty of the TTC’s Bloor-Yonge Station expansion. But the ever-pragmatic Luong was thinking of contingency plans.
The two had already relocated Sabai Sabai once before. In 2016, a condo developer booted them from their original location at Yonge and Dundas. But, this time around, the timing couldn’t have been worse: the restaurant had just survived years of pandemic lockdowns, and things were finally picking up again. After a lot of thought, they decided to press pause on Toronto for a while. “After 10 years in hospitality, Jason and I needed a break, so we bought two tickets to Argentina,” says Luong. Right before their scheduled takeoff, the restaurateurs got a call from their real estate agent about the St. Joseph space. “This was the first location that really grabbed us—we’d been drooling over it since it was the Wickson Social,” says Jiang. So they decided to sign the lease—South America would have to wait. The Sabai Sabai phoenix, though, wouldn’t rise for a third time. Seng and Jason decided to take this opportunity to open a new restaurant, one that celebrated their shared Lao heritage. While Sabai Sabai offered northern Thai and some Lao food, this new spin-off doubles down on Laos.
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“At Sabai Sabai, we were slowly introducing Lao dishes to the menu, but we held back,” says Luong. “It didn’t seem like the right time,” adds Jiang. “Today, diners are more curious about food from all parts of the world, but the city doesn’t have any great Lao restaurants. So, if we were going to open a Lao restaurant, we wanted to do it properly, which meant authentic Lao food with the right music, vibes and an excellent bar program—our culture viewed through the lens of Toronto.”
For those unfamiliar with Lao food, Luong describes it as very similar to northern Thai food, but with a profile that veers away from the savoury-sweet (less coconut milk) and more toward tangy, umami and herbaceous flavours. “We’re a lush, landlocked country, so there are a lot of fresh vegetables and herbs eaten raw, and not much seafood. What we’re serving is pretty much what we grew up eating—the only difference is the spice level, which we’ve toned down a bit.”
The drink card is tight but thoughtful. Everything on it has been chosen to complement the food or to amplify Lao cuisine’s penchant for fresh herbs and warm spices. “It’s all very crushable,” says Tommy Kelly, the manager behind the beverage list. “Spicy food needs drinks that refresh the palate, but we also wanted drinks that could be enjoyed on their own.”
While the cocktails are mostly riffs on the classics, the wine list (with 20 or so bottles on rotation) is far from standard. Guests can expect rare indigenous grape varietals, natural wines and exciting reds like a Chilean País served cold and a Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna, Italy. The beer selection, meanwhile, is two bottles long: Tiger and Far Yeast Brewing’s Tokyo White Saison.
The 80-seat space designed by Truease Studio looks to Laos for inspiration: a hand-painted column, Southeast Asian antiques and a bar festooned with marigold, a flower often used in devotional offerings at Lao temples. “You could call the bar our temple,” jokes Jiang. The historic 1905 cathedral windows lend a further hallowed quality to the bar area, with multicoloured booze bottles acting as ersatz stained glass. The room’s dark colour palette (puce walls, walnut and green granite tables) is warmed by the abundant use of plant-derived materials: wood, jute, reeds, grass, bamboo and living greenery, including two seven-foot-tall trees.
The 110-seat restaurant is divided into three spaces: the main dining room, a 14-seat private dining room and a 25-seat room that they’ve nicknamed Down Lao. Come spring, a sprawling streetside patio will be added.