Cookie Roscoe remembers when just about the only option for a meal out on St. Clair Ave. was Fatso’s Burgers (“run by this young Greek guy who thought he was a god, and would wear a banana-coloured Speedo to sit in the park and suntan”). Fatso’s served up typical fare; “deep fried – horrific,” she laughs. She remembers when St. Clair was grittier, abounding with triplexes and empty storefronts.
Now, savvy restaurateurs have their eyes on the stretch of St. Clair between Bathurst and Winona—which means the strip is filling up with new places offering culinary delights.
Roscoe herself started the St. Clair farmers’ market—now The Stop’s Farmers’ Market at Wychwood Barns—which runs every Saturday, year-round. Last week she showed off a growing list of vendors hawking everything from organic pea shoots to wild boar to heirloom tomato chutneys.
The steady march of gentrification was apparent when I returned to St. Clair, ten years later, to see that my former place of employment, a video store, had been replaced by a doggie day care. There are still the empty storefronts (partially due to a sizeable business property tax break), but they are now interspersed by cutesy boutiques and gourmet restaurants. Among the new arrivals on the strip are Catch, a seafood restaurant; The Stockyards, a barbecue place; and Pukka, serving up modern Indian.
“On a good Saturday night we can pay our rent,” said Derek Valleau of Pukka. “If we were downtown we’d be paying two to three times as much.”
Pukka focuses on the nuanced flavours of traditional Indian cooking, as opposed to a brazen spice assault. It’s casual yet upscale; walls covered in colourful artworks by Jane Roos, and a wine list spearheaded by Peter Boyd (of Scaramouche fame). “There’s a new insurgence of young families moving back into Toronto as opposed to moving into the ‘burbs, and I think that’s why these communities are taking off,” said Valleau.
A few doors down the street at Roast Butcher Shop and Fine Foods, a steady stream of customers filed in to stock up on rabbit “rabbitouille,” Muscovy duck, and Vancouver Island Danish Blue Cheese Sea Salt. Affable staff fetched cuts of meat for customers—they will even cook it for you if you’re pressed for time. The décor is old-school early-60s butcher shop with a modern twist, the dry-aged beef is prime, and the clientele (predominantly young families and well-heeled professionals) are eating it up.
Roast owner Ben Latchford has lived in the area off and on for years. “Every single time I was living here I noticed there was nowhere you could go to get naturally raised meats and great prepared foods that you could take home that isn’t going to a restaurant. Pretty much everyone that comes into the store is like, ‘thank God you guys have opened. We’ve been waiting for something like this forever.’”
Across the street at Ferro Bar Cafe, the Pronesti family have been refining service to a broadening clientele since opening their doors 21 years ago. Carmen Pronesti worked side by side with welders to make the wrought-iron chairs and hammered copper bar, transforming the former pool hall into a raucous restaurant. Pronesti’s son Domenic, the owner and general manager, has seen a significant uptick in business the last few years. St. Clair West is increasingly becoming a destination, like a burgeoning Ossington or a Leslieville.
While the right-of-way construction phase wasn’t exactly a boon for business, St. Clair is rebounding – quickly. Ward 21 councillor Joe Mihevc attributes the remarkable growth to increased condo development, undergrounding hydro lines, festivals like Salsa on St. Clair, the Wychwood Barns revitalization, slower cars and the transformation of St. Clair from “a tired street” to “a place where people go for walks.”
Back at the market, a well-dressed toddler gnawed on a Tibetan momo as her mother steered her through the sizeable crowd. “Food really drew people together,” Roscoe said.