Maybe you've walked past 416 Snack Bar the way I had: late at night, with the streets rain-slicked and quiet, the thunk-thunk and screech of streetcar tracks and a hooting drunk on Queen Street the only sounds. Then there it is, a warm window into a tiny bar on Bathurst Street, with candlelight from proper candle sticks, the happy crescendo of London Calling and shouted conversations, a lineup inside the door.
It's just a dive bar, though, isn't it – a dive bar with a generic, kiosk-in-the-Greyhound station name?
I went in one night, earlier this time, and noticed the drinks list. There was Italian craft beer, cult Chablis, top Champagnes, and a custom-bottled "416 cuvée" Muscadet of sorts from Prince Edward County's Norman Hardie winery. Here I'd been expecting flat Labbatts and oven-temperature Yellow Tail.
The servers seemed all-pro: smart, economical with words, efficient in the manner of the waiters at expensive steakhouses.
And the crowd looked odd, come to think of it – not at all a dive-bar crowd. There were groups of single, bejeweled young women slurping trays of oysters and sipping from flutes, sitting thigh-to-thigh with middle-aged couples gorging on platters of cheese and charcuterie; there were young men in need of shaves and belts to keep their pants up, in backwards ball caps, next to men in ties talking Blue Jays ("Trade Dickey!") over tall boys of Neustadt Sour Krautlager and sloppy, delicious-looking sandwiches.
For two years I'd walked past 416 Snack Bar and didn't get it. Who eats at 1 in the morning? Mea culpa. They open at 5 p.m., I later realized. There's good food there. I should have known – especially because this is where chefs eat, crowded around the tables after their kitchens close.
They eat puffy, beef-fat basted Yorkshire puddings stuffed with whipped potato, short rib and freshly-grated horseradish. They eat crisp-sweet Korean fried chicken, spicy tuna hand rolls, fresh, crunchy vegetable-packed steamed buns, and $4 "mini-Mac" sliders (Big Macs, but so much better; take note, the menu changes often). They eat platters of deep-fried arctic char brandade and tempura shrimp with citrusy, savoury ponzu, and alabaster scallop ceviche with feathery dill sprigs, on tortilla chips.
On the best nights, 416 also has Trinidadian doubles, which are sandwiches made from golden, fried-to-order fritters, stuffed with spicy chickpea curry and tamarind chutney and fragrant with tumeric. They're not "elevated," or "deconstructed," or dumbed down – they're just terrific Trini doubles that you can eat with a glass of Riesling, while listening to Lost in the Supermarket. This last part makes them unbelievably good.
Owners Adrian Ravinsky and David Stewart met in elementary school, and worked together as bus boys at Ferro, on St. Clair Avenue West, when they were teens. Over the next decade they moved up through the city's service ranks, wondering all the while why Toronto didn't have better late-night spots to eat and drink, Mr. Ravinsky said.
They opened 416 Snack Bar in January, 2011, with five years of tip money as their budget. Their chef is 28-year-old Rory McGouran, who learned to cook at Scaramouche.
Everything is cheap; everything on the menu is hand-held. (416's motto: "Cutlery-free since 2011.") It's a bar, it's a restaurant, it's whatever you want to make it.
And it's a must if you like good food and drink and loud, danceable music and gorgeous, lively late-night people. Because 416 serves some of the tastiest not-even-close-to-a-dive-bar eats in town.
Archive, a wine bar in Little Portugal, is a more subdued environment, opened by brothers Joel and Josh Corea with an admirably simple plan. They planned to serve delicious, off-beat wines and small-plates food for not too much money until 2 am every day, in a laid-back, neighbourhood-friendly room.
They appear to have succeeded, and then some.
Their chalkboard wine list, which runs to about 25 by-the-glass selections lately, is available in 3-ounce and 5-ounce pours. If you've never tried a Zweigelt or Lagrein or Nero di Troia (all excellent) or a super-funky Italian natural/biodynamic number (I believe the word is "interesting,") this is an excellent place to do that. Same if you've been holding out on Ontario wines (sigh), in which case a glass of Charles Baker Riesling should forever set you straight.
The Coreas have a rare knack for being bona fide wine geeks without acting it – they don't talk much about the wine unless asked to, which is nice.
The food is humble, intended more for pre- and post-dinner snacks than the full-meal deal. There are good cicchetti: Venetian-style toasts slathered with white-bean purée and anchovies, or piled with wild mushrooms. (The toast is too authentically Venetian, though – bland and slightly cakey.)
The croquetas de cerdo – pork croquettes – are excellent; same for the meat and cheese platters, the firm, garlic-and-oil marinated lupini beans, the hot, prosciutto-wrapped, Manchego-stuffed dates. However many of those prosciutto-wrapped dates you plan on ordering, order double.
And get a double-order of the rice pudding arancini, also – triple if it's after midnight. They're deep-fried Italian arancini balls, but made with rice pudding. They taste as good as that sounds.
416 Snack Bar
181 Bathurst St. (at Queen Street West), 416-364-9320, 416snackbar.wordpress.com
- Atmosphere: Loud, friendly and a little wild, with candlesticks for lighting (don’t catch that hair on fire!) and solid service.
- Wine and drinks: Superb wine list (ask for the big one) with options for every budget; beers run from Lowenbrau tall boys to Italian Bruton di Bruton.
- Best bets: Trini doubles, mini macs, veg steam buns, winter salad, Yorkshire puds.
- Prices: Small plates, $3 to $7, fish, meat, veg and cheese boards, $8 to $11 per person.
- NB: No reservations, no Amex
909 Dundas St. West (at Bellwoods Avenue), 647-748-0909, archive909.com
- Atmosphere: Exposed brick, plywood shelving, friendly neighborhood service, admirably un-noisy for a bar.
- Wine and drinks: Delicious, off-the-beaten-path wines by the glass or bottle, at prices that allow for lots of sampling.
- Best bets: Cicchetti, croquetas, dates, spinach and chickpea stew, cheese boards, dessert arancini.
- Prices: Most small plates cost less than $5.
- NB: No reservations