When the Atlantic opened on Toronto's Dundas West strip 2010, there wasn't much to distinguish it from any other food-focused hole-in-the-wall in the area (although, granted, it did serve hay-smoked crickets every now and then). But for years, chef and owner Nathan Isberg has held a deeply rooted cynicism toward certain restaurant clichés and the culture of consumption. So he's slowly stripped away parts of his restaurant that he feels are non-essential. Last year, he abandoned the concept of a menu, opting instead to cook what he feels like and offering it on a pay-what-you-can basis. Now, in a bold move, he's taken away that ever-reliable guarantor of profit: booze. Is he destined to sink his own business for the sake of principle? We talked to him about the role of alcohol, what makes a good food pairing and the importance of being a good host.
This couldn't have been a quick decision for you. Can you tell me about what was going through your mind when you started thinking about going booze-free?
Even when I first opened the restaurant I was contemplating it – kind of like how I wasn't serving red meat. Over the last two years, it kept coming up. I kept turning back to the question about what kind of space I wanted to create.
Do you have a negative opinion about drinking in general?
Yes, but not absolutely. I'm not going toward teetotalism. I do enjoy being able to have a couple pints at the pub, or having a glass of wine.
There are many people who think wine is an integral part of the dining experience.
I think that certainly there are styles of food where that's worth a discussion. That's something that's culturally specific and there is a dynamic between food and wine in French and Italian cooking. But there are a lot of other styles of cooking where it's not integral. And while I've had exceptional wine pairings with meals, it's very rare that it's actually a fundamental aspect. There are people who are doing that and I really admire what they're doing, but a lot of people try to convince themselves that it's an indispensable thing – probably because they want to drink.
Do you feel that consumption of alcohol can actually detract from the dining experience?
I think that while it will elevate some things, it's really detrimental in terms of being able to engage with the experience and also remember it. One of the most important things for me right now is how food makes you feel, and alcohol is fundamentally not good for you.
So what are you serving instead of booze?
I'm serving a few different types of drinks. For instance, there's shrub, which is a slightly fermented fruit-based drink. I've done a warm apple cider with orris root. I've made a sparkling drink with yuzu to pair with a Japanese-style dish. There's kombucha, and there's whey soda. I've done another drink based on green tea and elderflower. In a way, it's an extension of the dishes I'm doing, using ingredients that would match well.
Can we call these drinks "mocktails?"
I tend to stay away from that. You could use the term "mocktail," but it's important to me to not imply a lack of something by suggesting that they're pretending to be cocktails. It's part of each dish. I'd almost rather call it food than anything.
What's the customer response been like?
It's been divided. Most people are really into it, but on the other hand there have been a couple people who at first are very uncertain about it. So I've had to present the offer that I could recommend a place nearby that has wine. But nobody has actually taken me up on that.
Is it different serving tables without having alcohol to placate the customer?
It does make it more difficult in some ways. Even the very idea of alcohol seems to calm people down a bit. And it's much easier for people to have an effusively happy experience with alcohol. It's a facilitator for a certain type of experience. So I'm relying more on the food and really trying to be attentive to the rest of the meal. It's a bit of a handicap.
It forces you to be a better host, I imagine.
You definitely don't have anything to fall back on. But if I'm relying on the fact that people are going to depend on alcohol for their experience, that in itself is an issue.
Now for the obvious question: Alcohol makes money. How do you compensate for that?
It's the same with other decisions I've made, like the pay-what-you-want concept. The way to cover yourself is to not waste money. A lot of restaurants lose money on wasted time and wasted product. And if I'm profiting off of something that is unnecessary and potentially harmful, there's an ethical question there. Why are we depending on it in the first place instead of making things work? A lot of places don't depend on it, so it's disingenuous to suggest that it's fundamental.
This interview has been condensed and edited.