The end of the year can offer a chance for introspection, a way to look back on what we’ve achieved as we begin to plan what we want to accomplish next. Of course, it also tends to be an incredibly busy period, hours and days pass by in frantic whirlwind as we hurtle toward the first of the new year, which kicks off yet another flurry of bookings (we hope) and launches a new cycle of pomp, pageantry and hope across the restaurant industry.
To mark this turn of the calendar, we reached out to Canadian restaurateurs and asked about their plans for the holidays: how (and if) they’ll celebrate, what they’re grateful for, and their hopes and concerns for the year to come.
PAGLIACCI’S | VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Pagliacci’s is an Italian restaurant known for homestyle dishes and cinematically-named menu items. Located in downtown Victoria, Pagliacci’s has been a family affair for more than 40 years. “My father started this restaurant in 1979,” says co-owner Solomon Siegel. “He’s still here—he’ll be downstairs later today bussing tables. He’s still going strong, and so are we.”
With a menu featuring sharing platters and entrées with names like “A Fish Called Wanda”, “The Raging Bull” and “The Shell Game”, Pagliacci’s has something from every genre and for every palate. If guests require low-carb, gluten-friendly, vegan or allergy-sensitive selections, Pagliacci’s makes it easy—their online menu can be searched by dietary needs.
Solomon doesn’t downplay the challenges of the pandemic. He feels Pagliacci’s has a lot to be thankful for. “We did a lot of adapting over the past couple of years. There were parts where we slowed down a lot. But we managed to take advantage of some of the government programs that were offered, which allowed us to keep our guests fed and our staff employed throughout.”
“When I look back at 2022, I’m deeply grateful for my staff and my guests—in both cases, we have the best on the planet. So many of our long-term guests continue to come here, it’s a blessing. And we have the most wonderful, loyal staff. We’re very lucky.”
Solomon plans to share a little of that luck with his customers over the holiday season. “We light up the menorah in the restaurant every night, so our customers can take part in the tradition.” And on New Year’s Eve they celebrate in style. “We have a late-night seating with a five-course menu, live music, party favours, a toast at midnight—the whole shebang. It’s the only night of the entire year that we take reservations.”
His hopes for 2023 are simple but profound: that family and friends stay happy and healthy. “And, I’d like to expand our live music program,” he adds. Currently Pagliacci’s offers live music Sunday to Thursday: Solomon would like to add occasional secret, late-night concerts on Fridays and Saturdays. “I’d love to do some one-off events, when musicians are in town—the kind of thing we wouldn’t even advertise because they’re doing a big show elsewhere. We’d do a small dinner show; something intimate and authentic.”
But most of all, Solomon hopes Pagliacci’s can continue to do what they’ve done for more than four decades: give their regulars a place they love.
ODD COUPLE | SASKATOON, SASKACHEWAN
Known for Asian dishes made with a Canadian twist, Odd Couple is a family-owned operation run by Andy Yuen and his wife Rachel, together with Andy’s parents Sam and Jane. Odd Couple’s menu is inspired by Cantonese, Japanese, and Vietnamese culinary traditions recreated into fun and thoughtful Can-Asian favourites.
During the pandemic shutdowns, Andy made some some difficult and atypical decisions. “I’m a professional engineer by trade. When we were closed during the pandemic, I went back to practice, and took on a few contract engineering projects.” As physical offices began to reopen, Odd Couple began to cater lunches, which remain a focus. “Businesses are trying to attract staff back to the office by offering staff breakfasts and lunches. We’re trying to promote that side of the business.”
Odd Couple also capitalized on the desperation for novel experiences during the shutdown. “We have a series called “Travels with Odd Couple”. We pick a destination, like Vietnam, then work with local suppliers to create a set menu. We offer appetizers, entrees and desserts, working with local protein providers, breweries, ice cream shops—you name it. We’ve done eight destinations so far; next we’re going to France.” The French-Asian set menu will last until the end of the year. Andy also has plans for New Year’s Eve. “We want to offer a special four-course set menu for the night, with a fully vegan alternative.”
As he looks ahead to 2023, Andy is cognizant of the challenges. “Do you follow the Raptors? I’m sort of like Nick Nurse: my starters are great, but my bench is short.” This year, Andy was able to promote two long-time servers into management positions. He’s looking forward to seeing them take on leadership roles.
Andy also recognizes the challenges facing the industry as a whole. “Food costs are really high, and there’s a lack of labour everywhere. In Saskatchewan, we have one of the highest liquor taxes in the country, and you can only increase your menu prices so much. It’s time to revisit our menu, possibly bring in some new items. That gives us a chance to improve.”
Above all, Andy wants Odd Couple to stay true to its roots: providing regional Asian dishes with a contemporary Canadian twist. “We’re not super-expensive, but not cheap. We don’t want to be cheap; it’s harder to find diamonds in the rough. It’s up to us to find the gaps, to try to provide more value while being more efficient. Challenges are also opportunities.”
MARBEN RESTAURANT | TORONTO, ONTARIO
Known for its exquisite, sustainable farm-to-table menus, Marben Restaurant is also a pioneer in employee relations and outreach. In September 2020, Marben discarded the tip-based wage model, instead raising their menu prices to boost employee compensation across the board. Doing so allowed Marben to eliminate discrimination and racism built into tip culture, providing employees with a health spending account and access to an Employee Assistance Program. Marben was an out-of-the-gate leader in offering staff a fair and tangible future in foodservice.
With menus that promote local producers and agronomists and a sister speakeasy, Cloak Bar, Marben collaborates with local farmers to bring customers the true taste of terroir. Nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto, Marben expects to be in full swing this season, hosting holiday parties for local businesses.
“Our space is very warm and cozy and leans in perfectly to the holidays,” says executive chef Chris Locke. “For New Year’s Eve, we will have a six-course tasting menu (with both regular and vegan options) and our guests will ring in the New Year to the tune of corks popping and champagne being poured.”
Chris is looking forward to the potential offered by a new year. “I really want the city to come back alive with pop-ups and chef collaborations. This year has really been lacking in that regard—everybody is so incredibly burnt out. What I’m really saying is that hospitality workers should be able to see some normality in their fields, with predictable days off, no staffing shortages and appropriate pay to be able to live in the city. Only then will they be able to recover and put focus and energy into doing fun and exciting things in their communities.”
Looking ahead, Chef Locke would like to see more originality and variety when it comes to dining choices. “The city is being populated with more and more restaurants that belong to corporate groups. The independently-owned restaurant is dying; it is becoming too expensive to operate as a single venue. Groups are surviving due to their increased bargaining power with suppliers and economies of scale.”
At Marben, Chef Locke and his team enjoy executing tailored menus, exploring experimental ferments and creating with hyper-seasonal ingredients. “I really hope that independents get a chance to breathe and don’t disappear. They are the backbone of unfabricated, authentic hospitality. The more we lose, the further we get away from what restaurants really are: a home away from home.”
DOG AND TIGER | TORONTO, ONTARIO
“The goal of The Dog & Tiger was always to have great, locally-sourced craft cocktails, beer and food,” says owner Luke Nicholson. “When Covid happened, it allowed us to regroup and find a chef who shared that vision.” New chef de cuisine Thomas Salvo has carefully curated the reimagined menu with sous chefs Josué Vergara and Damon Martin, bringing together regional farms, butcheries, fisheries, breweries and wineries to create an elevated local dining experience to their College Street location in Toronto.
With a new farm-to-table approach, The Dog & Tiger provides a chef-led menu that still feels like a neighbourhood local. To help introduce the new direction, they plan to run monthly events showcasing their new partners, including Pasture Butchery, a whole animal butcherm, and Fogo Island Fish, which provides ethically harvested fish from Atlantic Canada, and GTA-based local food distributor 100km Foods. “We’re supporting a host of sustainable food providers,” says Nicholson, “And we’re giving guests the opportunity to be a little more open-minded, try something new, and to consider the importance of eating local.”
With so much new on offer, Chef Salvo is looking forward to the holiday season to start things off on a high note. “The Dog & Tiger will kick things off with our Fogo Island dinner on November 24th and then roll right into holiday parties. Our space lends itself very well to holiday celebrations. Not only do we have the option of full-restaurant buyouts, we also have a private back room complete with a cozy fireplace to set the mood. For New Year’s Eve we’ll offer a three-course, prix fixe menu, with champagne and a party to follow.”
In addition to the excitement of the holiday season, Chef Salvo looks forward to seeing a level of consistency when it comes to dining out in 2023. “With the rise of inflation and cost of living, the dining out expenditure for our guests has understandably declined. This leaves the restaurant industry in a very unpredictable situation. With consistent business, I hope we see a return to collaborations/pop-ups and events among industry peers. If inflation continues to rise and the cost of living in Toronto doesn’t level out, I fear that dining out at restaurants will be a luxury for few.”
Most of all, Chef Salvo looks forward to bringing Nicholson’s visions for The Dog & Tiger to life. “For me, the product always comes first. I take pride in serving our guests the best sustainably-sourced produce, seafood and meat possible,” he says, “And in always acknowledging the farmers, butchers and fisheries who supply it. It makes my job so much easier to just let the ingredients speak for themselves. We’re only beginning to put our mark on the Toronto food scene.”