Corey Mintz is a journalist, author and host of the Taste Buds podcast.
My wife and I had our first date at The Black Hoof. She took a single bite of the pickled tongue sandwich and pretended she was full rather than admit she thought tongue was gross, letting me finish the rest as we talked until the restaurant closed.
For the past decade, The Hoof has been the place. If you were an internationally famous chef such as Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver, it’s been where you had to eat if you were in Toronto for only one night. Using The Hoof as a base, owner Jen Agg has launched an empire and career that includes the restaurants Rhum Corner, Grey Gardens and the memoir I Hear She’s A Real Bitch.
It is scheduled to close on Monday after a massively influential 10-year run.
I first ate at The Hoof when I was a restaurant critic. It was the fall of 2008. The restaurant was only a few weeks old and the world was nervously balanced on an economic diving board, about to plunge into a global recession that would reshape our dining culture.
By now, you probably have a restaurant or 12 like The Black Hoof in your town, a 40-seat room where they cure their own charcuterie and ferment their own pickles, a place with complex cocktails but no tablecloths, where the owners play the music they like at full volume, where surprising flavours explode out of labour-intensive sharing-sized dishes, all presented with a rock 'n' roll nonchalance that belies the high bar of the room’s hospitality.
In 2018, it seems an unnecessary declaration of anti-pretension to say “no tablecloths.” No one uses tablecloths anymore. But in late 2008, there was nothing else like The Black Hoof in Toronto. I was a rookie critic at the time, already disappointed to learn that the majority of restaurants are mediocre at best – forgettable two-star reviews that no one wants to read or write.
And then The Hoof changed that.
At the crest of the global recession, as the swank top-10 restaurants, once teeming with lawyers and financial wizards, sat empty, The Hoof emerged as a new standard bearer.
A key element of the restaurant's alchemy was making cheap ingredients delicious. People couldn't afford steak, so they embraced the indulgence of fatty bone marrow. Where at the height of the economic bubble, every fancy restaurant plated dishes with 18 ingredients, here they served duck confit with cherry jam on crusty bread to a young crowd gleeful at the rendered fat dripping down their chins.
The Hoof was the right restaurant for the right time. It immediately became not just the place to be in Toronto, but a flashpoint, a clubhouse and a leader in what was a period of great change in the industry. You could see its influence ripple from one side of the country to the other, as chefs switched career trajectories from executive titles at 200-seaters to running their own, tiny, noisy, hyperpersonalized rooms, where they could make not just charcuterie, but every last thing by hand (though not necessarily well).
I fell in love, and said as much in a review: “The crowds are inevitable. The Black Hoof should be a smash hit. Not because any critic said so, but because a product this good, at this price, has an unimpeachable greatness. Having set their own bar very high, all they need do is to keep up the fantastic work.”
My rave in the Toronto Star was the first, and according to Ms. Agg, it made a difference. In truth, I got lucky – Toronto Life magazine’s critic at the time refused to eat at The Black Hoof because they didn’t take reservations. (They still don’t – you’ll have to get there early if you want to be one of the last to dine there.) After reviewing the restaurant, I found countless excuses to write about it. They were always doing something exciting, the menu growing incrementally more complex. Soon I became a regular, eating there nearly once a week.
I don’t think The Hoof ever needed my review. The restaurant was so perfectly synched to the needs and tastes of its epoch, that success was inevitable. But that era is gone. And soon with it, The Hoof.
The global recession has passed (for the moment). Those who can afford to dine out regularly do so with the same embrace of luxury ingredients they did before the economic bubble popped. I am no longer a young, single man with a disposable income to spend on dining.
So it feels fitting that Ms. Agg is closing the restaurant now, going out on a high note.
Every generation feels like they were in the right place at the right time. I’m too young to have eaten at Three Small Rooms in the 1970s or Lotus in the 1990s. But I have heard, from people of those generations, that I missed something special. For a time, The Hoof felt like it was my place. It was my clubhouse, somewhere I could always go to find a familiar face and be dazzled by a dining experience. Though I realize that I had no such claim. And this is the height of selfishness, but it’s comforting to know that if that chapter in my life is closed, it’s closed for everyone.