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Toronto’s East End gains a fab tavern with great drinks and wonderful food

Move over, Ossington. East-end Toronto is coming on strong.

For years, the trendy sorts in this city have been flocking to West Queen West and Ossington Avenue. And for good reason. Places such as Boralia and The Black Hoof on Dundas and Rhum Bar have been knocking people’s socks off.

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I think, though, that things might start shifting east. There are fantastic places in Riverdale and Leslieville. And now there’s a great food and drink outpost in a part of the East End you might not have expected a couple years ago.

I was lucky enough to have drinks and some great food on Monday night at Maple Leaf Tavern, a renovated, 106-year-old property at Gerrard and Pape that opened as a restaurant in the spring of this year and is garnering great reviews.

The owners admit it was a bit of a wreck for years, a local hangout from folks who frequented the old Greenwood Race Track in the Beaches and other spots. It’s still an edgy kind of area, but that’s what makes it interesting. And things are definitely moving in the right direction.

“It was definitely a dive bar,” managing partner Todd Morgan told me. “We had a lot of work to do with this place.”

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According to the tavern’s fact sheet, it was used to be “a rough drinking den which sold beers by the tray and rented rooms by the hour. One of the owners’ sons was charged with manslaughter after getting into a fight while working on the bar.”

Morgan, who’s from Pickering originally and runs a restaurant on the Pickering waterfront called Port, said he went to Ryerson and knows the city pretty well.

“It was all happening in the west end, and I thought, ‘What about here?’” The residential area here has become much nicer, but I don’t think the commercial bits have caught up. There’s a lot of energy on Gerrard.”

Morgan bought the old Maple Leaf Tavern in 2013.

“I was driving home from a hockey game at 1 a.m. one day and saw the for sale sign,” he says. “I peaked in the windows and saw it wasn’t rotting or anything, but that it was definitely beat up.”

Maple Leaf Tavern does wonderful twists on classic cocktails.

Maple Leaf Tavern does wonderful twists on classic cocktails.

They’ve preserved some of the old stained glass and built a lovely restaurant with exposed brick, deep green subway tiles on one wall and a bit of lower Manhattan/Union Square feel to my mind. There’s also a fine patio off to one side that should be able to keep going for several weeks given the weather.

The bar area is super-cool, and they also have a killer music mix: everything from Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” to “Sweet City Woman” by The Stampeders to Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” came on when I was there. Plus one of the great remakes of all time, the vastly underrated Scottish band Aztec Camera doing an acoustic-flows-into-wildly-charged-electric version of “Jump” from Van Halen that always knocks me out.

Morgan wanted to make a big impression, so he hired on Naren Young as a consulting mixologist. Young is from Sydney originally but has spent the past 10 years or so making drinks at some of the top bars in New York City, including Dante New York City in Greenwich Village. He made my wife and I and a friend of ours some marvellous drinks last night, including a rock solid Old-Fashioned that was simple perfection (with smoked maple), a great Manhattan and a banana daiquiri that was laced with lime and fresh banana; not at all sweet and sickly like most banana drinks I’ve tried (and spit out). Another lovely drink was a pear-apple mix with Calvados, pear eau de vie, five-spice honey, lemon and apple cider; perfect for a warm summer’s night. Oh, and a fantabulous New York Sour, which I believe is a whiskey sour topped with red wine.

The lasagna at Maple Leaf Tavern is a definite stand-out dish.

The lasagna at Maple Leaf Tavern is a definite stand-out dish.

Young and the folks at the Maple Leaf Tavern do great twists on classic drinks, which to my mind is what a fine bartender should do. Nothing goofy is my motto for a great drink, but I also want a mixologist to hit me with something unusual or with their own take on a classic cocktail.

Morgan said taverns are supposed to be casual meeting places, so he’s aiming for a very North American dining experience. But, again, with a twist. The Caesar Salad was probably the creamiest, sharpest and best I’ve had anywhere, with a slab of moist bacon on top and perfect dressing and crunchy romaine. They did a variety of round sausages, including a Bratwurst and a yummy butter chicken sausage. I liked them, but to my mind they didn’t match the lasagna, which had house-made noodles and tender veal shoulder and bone marrow and came topped with porcini mushrooms and sat in a pool of creamy tomato sauce. Super moist and super-flavourful. And very different from any lasagna I’ve had before.

A welcome addition to what could become a new Toronto food destination.

Got a comment? Email me at jim@jimbyerstravel.com. You also can find me on Twitter @jimbyerstravel and on Instagram @jimbyerstravel1.

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