The Toronto nightlife scene is losing a legend: Bistro 990, one of Yorkville’s longest-standing institutions, is set to close. General manager Victor Magalhaes confirmed yesterday that “the building has been bought, but the business has not.” The new owner of 990, 994 and 1000 Bay St. is Cresford Development, a local company that will soon break ground on a 400-unit condo complex in that space. “At this point we have no indication of exactly when we will be closing,” says Mr. Magalhaes, but for the party people who once clamored for a table at Bistro, it’s safe to say this marks the end of an era.
Opened in 1986 by Tom Kristenbrun, Bistro 990 (so named for its enviable address) quickly became a clubhouse for the rich and famous (along with the currently incarcerated – Conrad Black was a regular, so was Garth Drabinsky). It is often hard to pinpoint exactly why some restaurants work while others fail, but in the case of Bistro 990, that old real-estate standard held spectacularly true: location, location, location.
At that time, The Sutton Place Hotel (which also announced its sale and soon-to-be-condos status this week) was TIFF ground zero and Bistro was just a hop, skip and a stumble across the street, making it a natural habitat for the likes of Denzel Washington, Sean Connery, Sharon Stone and just about every other celebrity ever to set a Manolo-clad foot in our fair city.
“It was the place,” says Jeanne Beker. The Fashion Television host and institution in her own right has fond memories of martini-drenched lunch dates (“the kind that went well into the afternoon”) stretching back to the nineties. That, and Bistro’s popular salad niçoise, which, at the time, was a menu revelation.
“You have to remember that, back when Bistro 990 opened, Toronto had yet to undergo its bistro-ization,” says John Macfarlane, who was the editor in chief at Toronto Life for most of the nineties and remembers when eating steak frites came with a certain cachet: “There were hardly any French restaurants in the city when they opened – if there was a better one, I can’t think of it.”
Starting in the late nineties and continuing to 2006, Toronto Life launched its annual Fiction Issue in Bistro’s upstairs party space.
In the early nineties, after TIFF had become a major A-list draw, but before luxury hotels and high-end restaurants were commonplace, Bistro 990 offered one-stop shopping for star-gazers. “It made my job a lot easier,” says celebrity photographer George Pimentel, who nowadays has to send staffers north, south and west on the festival’s bigger nights.
Mr. Pimentel recalls how the strict “no cameras” policy (one of the things that made Bistro such a draw for the famous and flashbulb-weary) could mean logging serious hours in the adjacent alleyway. On one particular night in 1995 he waited five hours, hoping to catch a rising “it” boy named Quentin Tarantino, fresh off the mega success of Pulp Fiction.
During the same TIFF visit, the fast-talking Mr. Tarantino, seated at one of Bistro 990’s best tables, became besotted with a doe-eyed blonde named Mira Sorvino, who would be his girlfriend for the next three years. Quite a few passions were sparked under Bistro’s golden (and oh-so-flattering) lights: Jeanne Beker had a first date there that led to an eight-year relationship; Goldie Hawn famously stormed out following a lovers’ quarrel with Kurt Russell.
As recently as 2006, Bistro was still very much the place. A fête for All The Kings’ Men drew cast members Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini as well as other boldfaces such as Nicole Kidman and the now defunct Demi and Ashton, many of whom had to escape out of the back entrance to avoid a frenzied mob.
But of course, all glam things must come to an end. When the Sutton Place ceased acting as temporary headquarters for the film festival during those 10 days in September, the hotel was no longer the default hot spot to stay. As celebs began to spread out in Yorkville, staying at the Four Seasons and the Park Hyatt instead, Bistro’s pre-eminent status faded. Now with its home base on King Street, the festival’s “it” spots have moved southward; last year, a pop-up restaurant, Soho House on Duncan Street, was the place to be and be seen.
From a culinary standpoint, Bistro 990 had long fallen off the city’s best restaurant lists – some critics say the food had faltered, but it was also a simple case of supply-and-demand. “We used to joke that Toronto had a bank on every corner. Now you could almost say the same thing about bistros,” jokes Mr. Macfarlane.
That may be true, but you can bet that this Bistro will go out with a bang.
Mr. Magalhaes says the staff have already started planning what is sure to be one hell of a goodbye bash. “We started in 1986, so that’s the era that we’re going to go back to,” he says. Eighties party!
Special to The Globe and Mail