Aquiet renaissance has arisen along Toronto’s Harbord Street, a new vanguard of boutique restaurants. At the forefront is the pride of the neighborhood, chef Cory Vitiello. A Stratford Chefs School graduate, Vitiello worked as a sous chef for 14 years before seizing an opportunity.
“There weren’t a lot of small restaurants opening at that point,” he says. “I saw myself approaching a wall in the industry, and I loved the idea of cooking behind the stove at my own pace, and being surrounded by people I love working with. It happened serendipitously that I was connected with the right partners, and the right space became available. Everything happened at the right time.”
The Harbord Room, with its pink eraser coloured walls is inviting. Vitiello commands the room, handsome, calm and in his element. The room, menu and service all embrace an unpretentious whimsical style of dining. “How our guests are treated and the overall feel of the room is just as important as what we put on the plate.” He adds, “We want to create a space that is as much fun to be in as the food and the drink is to enjoy.” In this he has succeeded.
Very much a character-driven establishment, their loyal clientele of locals, foodies and celebrities know and trust who is on the floor, behind the bar, and in the kitchen. “We’ve created a family, and that plays a big part in our success.”
After six years, a second opportunity knocked. The restaurant next door became available. “We wanted to create this network along Harbord Street that could grow outside the walls of The Harbord Room. We knew if we didn’t do it someone else would, and we’d be regretting it for as long as we lived.” Now, chef Curt Martin heads the kitchen at THR & Co., while mixologist Liz Campbell and sommelier Mike Logue manage and “keep the family intact.”
Like a theatrical production aimed at breaking the fourth wall, The Harbord Room and THR & Co. have created a dynamic of buzz and intrigue in which patrons can flow between the two, enabling the dining experience at one to include the other.
One need only look at the menus of The Harbord Room and THR & Co. to recognize Vitiello and his partners share an honest, simple and playful love for creating dishes that are as thoughtful and artful in their conception as they are truly interesting and deserving of appreciation. No ordinary pizza at THR & Co. Try grilled eggplant and summer squash with stinging nettle pesto, walnuts, sheep’s milk fresco, tender greens,
Turkish olive oil and a fresh farm egg. At The Harbord Room, we are loving a porcini mushroom-filled chicken leg with ricotta gnudi, and a bavette of beef with crispy onion rings, each with a stunning array of edibles on the plate.
Combined with his own personal style, Vitiello knows that any good dish starts with the raw ingredients. At both The Harbord Room and THR & Co., the food philosophy is always “under promise and over deliver.” “We start with simple beautiful ingredients and let them speak for themselves,” he explains. “As much as possible we try not to manipulate ingredients, cover them up or mask flavours with extraneous garnishes and sauces. We like the ingredients to shine through on the plate.” He refers to his beef burger with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions on an egg bun with fries and slaw, consistently rated as among the best in the city. “We take the best meat we can, grind it in-house daily, bake the best bun we can, and prepare all our condiments in-house. On paper, it’s just a standard hamburger, but there are a lot of steps involved behind the scenes.”
THR & Co. shares this approach, but there is a North African, Mediterranean flavour profile, with a core focus on pizza and pasta, both of which are made from scratch in-house daily. While the Harbord Room’s menu ranges from Mexican to Asian to French and Italian, guided only by the imagination of the kitchen and the availability of fresh ingredients.
“Getting back to a neighbourhood restaurant is what we’re really trying to instill in the community,” he asserts. “We very much embrace a family and community environment. That goes along with the amazing staff that we’ve cultivated over the years—a lot of our original staff after seven years are still here. It breeds this positive work place that is translated into the dining experience. I think people really pick up on the fact that we’re a small business, we care about the community, and give back to the neighbourhood. It is essential for us to be involved in the community outside of the restaurant as much as we can.”
Chef Cory Vitiello has staked his claim, and declares, “This is my local.”
THR & Co.
The Harbord Room