From the end of the 1960s until late this spring, a diner called People’s Foods stood on Dupont Street near Davenport Road.
Unlike the maple-lined streets of the Annex to its south, or of Summerhill just above it, Dupont has for most of its history been a service road – a blue-collar throughway of coal depots, car washes and dry cleaners – a place where manor-born Toronto briefly ceded, of necessity, to the city’s working class.
People’s was Greek-run and open 24 hours. At nighttime, the cops and fraternity kids who ate there would squint every few minutes as headlights at the top of St. George Street panned north across the cramped little diner’s glass facade.
People’s had six vinyl booths, five stools and a two-storey-high marquee out front that read HAMBURGERS in red block lettering. The burgers were griddled and then charbroiled and served with lettuce, tomato and onion slices – they tasted greasy and beefy, salty and refreshing. They tasted of nostalgia, even if that was never their intention. But then in time, Dupont Street stopped being working class and the rent shot up. Last May, People’s Foods’ owners moved on.
Anthony Rose grew up on diner food. Whether at The Drake Hotel, where Mr. Rose was executive chef until last spring, or in New York at the start of his career, he has always looked backward as much as forward. His stock-in-trade is pop classics – the foods of 1940s Chinatown, or old-school bistros, or summer camp – with just enough tweaking to make them new again.
“I like simple. Get people in, give them a good punch in the face with the food and then you’re done,” Mr. Rose told a city food blog a couple of years ago. When the People’s space came open, Mr. Rose jumped at it. The place was a perfect fit.
Rose and Sons opened two months ago. The signs outside are the same, pretty much; the place still looks like a 1960s diner. Mr. Rose kept the interior layout, as well, with booth seating and a small counter. The tiny room is as friendly and as raucous as you’d hope for in a neighbourhood diner. The cooks and the waiter shout orders back and forth across the noisy space, and the amiable kitchen crew often weighs in unbidden on customers’ choices.
The offerings earlier this week opened with schmaltz, gribenes and fried onions on toast – that’s solid chicken fat and deep-fried chicken skin, for the uninitiated. Another appetizer was called “pork chop salad.”
The mains included fried chicken, a patty melt, steak on garlic toast, cola-braised brisket, and – in a minor concession to the health-conscious – steelhead trout with creamed squash and green sauce. For dessert there was bread pudding and wild blueberries, with or without a triple-thick bacon slice.
You become a regular here at extreme mortal peril. Even then, it’s tempting. “At most restaurants you have no idea what makes the food taste so good,” a friend announced one night as she pushed back from a plate of what the menu called “soft and sexy grits,” and chopped barbecue pork. It was sweet, salty and deep-caramelized, composed of no less than 40-per-cent hot, jiggly fat. “Here you know exactly what the deliciousness is,” my friend said.
In fairness, the broccoli with chili and garlic is good, and the “grilled romaine,” which comes dressed in creamy anchovy and garlic dressing, has pretty good crunch, though not quite enough dressing. (I know. You’re damned if you do … ) Earlier this month, Mr. Rose did a salad composed of half a lobster and pink horseradish dressing on a handful of sad-looking arugula leaves. Its more recent form, in which the lobster is drenched in tarragon tartar sauce and set over French fries, was far, far better.
The best course of action is to surrender to the kitchen’s maximalism. To wit: the special fried rice, a sweet-salty-greasy mix of rice, egg, ginger, peanuts and “Chinatown sauce,” as the menu calls it. Or the cheddar and apple salad that has half a brick of white cheddar cheese in it, from the taste of things.
The “fried chicken in two courses” is very good, as far as cries for help go. The first course consists of meaty wings with drumettes attached, brined with chiles so they’re juicy and jammed with flavour. A surprise: quick cucumber pickles on the plate – dill, sweet and salty, delicious.
For the second course: buttermilk fried chicken thighs over double-butter spaghetti, with a spoonful of sweet tomato sauce on the side. Tasty stuff, though a bracing mound of rapini, or anything green, really, would make it an exponentially better plate.
Mr. Rose’s skirt steak looks to British pub tradition, and it’s excellent. The steak comes medium rare and aged to the edge of whiffy. (That is praise, not a complaint.) He drops a knob of blue cheese over top. It does a seductive melt into the meat. Underneath the steak, bread fried in a vat of garlicky, sugared butter. There are a couple of sweet, hard-roasted beet wedges, also. They taste like candy.
It’s the quintessential death-row dinner. Which, you never know, really. Eat enough of it and your odds are pretty good.
The only Rose and Sons dish that rivals the steak is the hamburger, which makes me happy for nostalgia’s sake. Mr. Rose’s rendition is thick around and pink in its middle. He stacks the patty with sweet, slow-caramelized onions, and sandwiches the works in griddle-browned caraway bread. Cooking knows few meetings more magical than beef, fat, salt and caraway – just ask a Jewish deli man.
Mr. Rose hasn’t tried to build a four-star restaurant. Give or take a vegetable or two, it’s a superb neighbourhood diner, where the food, as promised, gives the people a good punch in the face. You bloat for a while, you get over it, you want to go back again. Same as diners ever were.
May it become as much of an institution as People’s did.