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Restaurant Reviews Saturday Dinette: A real Toronto neighbourhood finally gets a real neighbourhood diner

Chef Suzanne Barr of Saturday Dinette.

Danielle Matar/The Globe and Mail

Name
Saturday Dinette
Location
807 Gerrard Street East, Toronto, Ontario
Phone
416-465-5959
Website
saturdaydinette.com
Price
Appetizers, $7 to $11, mains $12 to $19.
Cuisine
Americana, Diner
Vegetarian Friendly?
Yes
Drinks
Three good whites, three good reds, all inexpensive, as well as local craft beers and excellent milkshakes.
Atmosphere
A friendly, low-fi modern diner with a neighbourhood vibe and stacks of vinyl above the bar.
Recommendations
Cod fritters, fatty sticky ribs, charred romaine, coconut mac and cheese, chicken and biscuits, fish burgers, burnt marshmallow shake.
Additional Info
No reservations, fluctuating hours; check website for latest.

A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip

I was coming home from a late-summer dinner the first time I saw Saturday Dinette. The place is a corner diner like nobody's built them in 60 years: wide glass to the north and east, with the original mid-century soda fountains behind the bar. There were patio lights inside – a warm glow through the windows. Good music. The sound of happy chatter. I wrote down the name and then forgot about Saturday Dinette. I didn't get back until early this year.

The little room was glowing still, but now like a beacon in a snow storm. I stamped off the cold and stepped past the draft curtain and got my first look inside through foggy glasses. Which is to say that I fell in love with the feel of Saturday Dinette before I fell in love with anything specific. The place feels unpretentious the way corner diners are supposed to be, but with De La Soul and Fine Young Cannibals spinning on a turntable. The cooking, some friends had told me, is home-style cooking, mostly, instead of cheffy cooking. And it's cheap enough that you can go there often. Everything about it felt comforting, without anybody seeming to try too hard.

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We ordered French onion soup, zucchini latkes, kale salad, pan-fried chicken and biscuits with collard greens – diner food with a side of wanderlust. There was an old Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer behind the counter, on which they whirl up double chocolate malt shakes that they'll happily spike with Jameson. Score one for Leslieville.

The restaurant is the work of Suzanne Barr, an itinerant chef who was born in North York but never properly lived here until 2013. Ms. Barr's father, a bookbinder who emigrated here from Jamaica in the 1970s, got a job in Fort Lauderdale when she was a toddler. She grew up in Florida, went to college in New York, spent four years in Atlanta as a camera assistant in the film industry. She lived as a Rastafarian for a while. She worked at MTV, she says, before leaving it all for chef's school eight years ago.

It's hard to keep track of where she's been since: Miami, Maui, Bedford-Stuyvesant (she ran a vegan bakery there), the Hamptons, where she worked summers as a private chef, and as of a couple Octobers ago, back home, if you can call it that. Ms. Barr doesn't really know where home is, she says.

Leslieville seemed like a good place to open her dream restaurant. It was a real neighbourhood with real community. The locals bring in their vinyl when they come for dinner, so they can play it on the restaurant's sound system. There's often a stack of strollers behind the bar during weekend brunch.

And anyway, a peripatetic past isn't such a terrible thing when you cook for a living. Ms. Barr's fried chicken tastes like the U.S. South, but the hot sauce in the marinade is Grace brand, because that's what her Jamaican family uses, and the flour mix is chickpea flour and cornmeal so that Saturday Dinette's fried chicken is gluten-free. It's the sort of fried chicken that fosters mid-dinner turf-wars and 3 a.m. cravings. It is crisped to dark brown and tastes sweet and meaty and as juicy as a late-summer peach, before the low hot feedback hum of that Grace brand sauce kicks in.

The biscuits – those are pure crumbly buttery decadence. The collards come in a pool of their braising liquid, which is mostly caramelized onions, white wine and heavy cream.

Ms. Barr learned to cook at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a "health-supportive" chef's school in Manhattan. Health and nutrition figure prominently there. And so if you're not into fried chicken and biscuits, Saturday Dinette's also got very good bibimbap on brown rice, or a toasted millet burger that's reminiscent of falafel, with roasted tomatoes and chickpeas in the mix and salsa verde on top.

I loved the double-stacked trout burger sauced with North African lemon-oil-cilantro chermoula sauce, and thought the beef and lamb burger was good enough, but not about to win awards.

The "livers, lentils and lardons" was a dream of a mid-winter starter, made with fat bacon lardons and chicken livers and zipped up with sherry vinegar. Between that, a good salad (check out the charred romaine with roasted tomatoes) and a half-bottle of the restaurant's $42 Rhone, I'd be set to shovel snow for a solid two hours at least.

The savoury pies are superb. The fillings change daily (we had a Moroccan-spiced lentil with currants) and the pastry is excellent. The "fatty sticky ribs," sweetened with dates, are a can't-miss dish here. The salted cod fritters are light and sublime; they are also can't-misses. The desserts are full-on sweet.

The service, run both times I ate there by a preternaturally warm and competent 19-year-old, makes you wonder why so many more established, more expensive places can't get service this right.

Earlier this week an announcement turned up on Saturday Dinette's website in all-caps lettering: ATTENTION! ATTENTION! BABY ARRIVING! Ms. Barr is 30 weeks pregnant. In other industries, no big deal, you take the mat leave, somebody back-fills, you return to work in a year. In cheffing, in a small, sole-owned restaurant with a tiny staff (one of the lead cooks left last week), and scratch-made food, it's not that easy. And business owners don't always qualify for maternity benefits. "I'll be here cooking after three months with my baby on my back," Ms. Barr said. There are so few women-run kitchens in the city that the path forward is far from clear.

And so she figured she should go straight to the community. "We hope you continue to support us as we get closer to Suzanne leaving the kitchen for a brief maternity absence," the announcement continues. She hopes to bring in guest chefs, pop-up concepts and Sunday roasts with live entertainment. I hope it works.

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As we left after that first visit in January, Ms. Barr came out from the kitchen to wish the friends I was with, locals there, a good night. It wasn't the sort of preening, let-the-fans-bask-in-the-chef's-glow sort of moment that you often see in bigger restaurants. She was happy to have them back again and began telling them how excited she is for spring produce to arrive. Dinner there felt like a neighbourhood get-together instead of a business transaction.

I wished just then that I lived closer by.

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