The next chapter

Original City street map 1890

This story has its seeds planted some two years earlier when Tony asked me outright if I was interested in opening another restaurant. Without any apprehension I answered ” Yes! “. Everyone who works in this business at some point and time comes to the realization that what they want is to be the person calling the shots. My whole career I have kept a mental list in my head of all the things I have seen done right, and all the things that I have seen done wrong. Unfortunately for most, the done wrong list tends to be much longer that the done right. Once it was decided upon, we set ourselves on a course of righting the wrongs and spent many mornings in the months leading up to finding a place, sipping espresso and collecting our thoughts and ideas that would eventually form the framework for the next chapter of Paese.

After months of scouring Toronto for a suitable location to take our brand of Canadian inspired Italian food to a new audience, Tony’s friend D.C.  stumbled upon a building smack dab in the middle of one of Toronto’s oldest districts. We viewed it, took stock of the neighbourhood and made an almost unanimous decision, and within 72 hours we had won the location lottery. We beat out a lot of  other people crazy enough to take a chance and we secured a new home for Paese at 333 King Street West.

The before.............

King Street and Avenue Road looking east 1880's

Buildings were being built along this street as early as the 1860’s but it wasn’t until the late 1890’s when the Academy of Music theater opened and a few years later the Royal Alexander theater opened on King and University, becoming the first buildings in Toronto to be completely electric.  King Street was on its way to becoming the entertainment center  of Toronto.

The Royal Alexander Theater, 1908

A postcard from the 1890's depicting The Royal Alexander Theater.

In the early 1900’s King Street was a beautiful tree lined boulevard; alongside the theaters were the Lieutenant Governors private residence, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and the original Upper Canada College. During the 1920’s the areas around the theaters began to change, the Governors residence was torn down and the property was sold and turned in rail yards. This brought with it factories and to all sides warehouses, heavy machinery and loading docks sprung up. Overtime these areas became a dark and industrial place. Smog hung heavy in the air and once a place of music and dance became an industrial center. By the 1950’s this street was a rundown derelict part of town. Rents were cheap and the buildings in decay. By 1960 the theaters were slated for demolition until Ed Mirvish stepped in and bought the Royal Alexander theater.  A year of restoration brought it back to its former glory. The people returned and the rebirth of King Street was on its way. This street now boats the Roy Thompson Hall, National film board, CBC headquarters, restaurants , night clubs, condominiums and soon, Paese King Street West.

The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario's private residence, 1908.

King Street West looking east 1890's

Our building, built sometime around the early 1900’s was never so glamorous. Another in a block of multi- use office buildings, its two story plain brick existence was home to such businesses as Spiegel Max and Son’s cigarette papers and Fosters Printers and Stationers.

For the last 12 years it had been home to a bistro and night club. The previous owners had long since cared about the well being of the building and the yellow card in the front window showed that they cared even less about the customers. When we entered, the previous owners had been (censored)  for failure (censored) everybody and the building had been shuttered for weeks. Swarms of fruit flies and the stench of rotting food greeted us upon entering. It’s like they just got up and left. Tables set with cutlery and plates, drinks still on the bar, food still in the refrigerators.

Here we go! our first walk through.

From the front door looking towards the back.

Upon entering the kitchen this was the first present left for us, disgusting!

Three week old risotto anyone?

The kitchen in it's original state before being heavily degreased.

It was hard in looking at the place to envision what it could be. It felt like a bad movie from the late 70’s. Some bizarre sort of Moroccan meets Mardi gras theme, red and gold silk was strung from the ceilings, black cast iron chandeliers, crushed red velvet upholstry and the unmistakable feeling of faded glory. We had hoped for a quick paint job, some new plates and chairs and a quick turnaround of a month or two but what we got was four brick walls, a roof and six 40 yard dumpsters of garbage.

Our boys, taking care of business.

Day one of demolition

Just like a fairytale.....


The decision was made to make what was old, new again and if we were going to do it, let’s do it right. Let’s be the first in a very long time to give this block something new, like animals that had been caged too long at Bathurst and Wilson we torn into the old building with abandon.  We threw out everything; whatever we touched was covered with a layer of grease so thick it was cheaper to get rid of it than spend the time cleaning. We left only the floors and the bare brick walls. It felt liberating, like giving the old building a new lease on life. Standing proud and weathering a depression, war, fires and gentrification, 333 King Street West was going to be reborn.

masking tape marking the things that were never to return.

The Paese wrecking crew, refueling before getting back to destroying.

Where to begin, it seemed overwhelming.

In coming up for a design of the new Paese we decided to brighten the place up, introduce clean contemporary lines, and create a relaxed and casual feel.  We were recommended a highly regarded design company and luckily for us they agreed to fit us in. Our timelines were strict, we had been given 2 months of free rent and there was a lot to do. We should have ran the other way when the first set of drawings came back; we were given nothing that we had asked for. The century old yellow brick adorning the walls was to be painted, the beautiful hardwood floors were gone, the vaulted ceilings lowered and the walls where there was no brick was to be covered in dark walnut.  What? Where did the soul of the building go? Where was the Italy meets Canada guideline we had asked for?

The first very expensive set of poorly designed drawings.

What the hell?

The process had been started, and we were chomping at the bit. It was August when got the building and we had a window of time in order to open and hopefully catch some of the Christmas crowd but that window was closing fast, without sets of finalized plans nothing could be started.  The electricians couldn’t start because they didn’t have any walls to put their wires in; the plumbers couldn’t start running lines because they didn’t know where the walls would be and the carpenters couldn’t put up the walls because we couldn’t get the designers to decide what the hell they were doing.

What we hoped would be hiding some more yellow brick turned out to look like this when we opened up the walls.

The managers office, before being remodeled.

And after remodeling.

And so everyone sat at home, for two months the building sat empty, a huge divide separated us and the designer’s vision. Threatening phone calls were made where unpleasantries where exchanged and tensions mounted with every passing month of writing rent checks on an empty building. If it wasn’t for the intestinal fortitude of Tony and his unfaltering belief in Deirdre and myself,  it might have been easy to pack it in. No amounts of misguided architects trying to turn the place into an uber modern Chinese restaurant, or shifty unpaid club promoters brandishing copper pipes were going stop us from opening.

Things were taking so long Tony managed two vactions. Here he is in Sedona multi tasking trying to figure out whats going on back in T.O.

Anyone can open a restaurant, but to have it be functional is a different thing. Only with experience can you properly design a functional space. There are a million things that the customer never sees and for a reason. We are the people who look at every little detail of everyone elses restaurant and take that information home with us.  We are those people, that when sitting in another restaurant will ask the busboy for a tape measure so we can calculate the width of the table. We analyze everything, like the number of tables in the room, how many people we can comfortably sit, how much space between tables we need for the servers to walk, how high the lights must hang, and how many different combinations of stemware, plates and cutlery are needed and can fit at your table. We are the people that weigh cutlery in order to know if it’s going to be too heavy to hold over the duration of the meal or if it’s going to slide off the plate as your server carries it away and come crashing to the floor. We pour water into soup bowls measuring the capacity; hold the edges of plates to see how easy they are to carry, lift bowls off tables at other establishments to see where they got them from , and steal menus and wine lists wherever we go.

We have moved every conceivable wall in our space, blown through countless measuring tapes, made the ceiling look like Swiss cheese trying to perfect the position of the lights, designed and redesigned everything about a hundred times, made carpenters crazy, have had to answer on more than one occasion “What difference does moving it 4 inches make?”  drank a hundred cups of Starbucks over early morning bitching sessions, and have finally started to see the seeds of our plan hatched so many years back, start to come to fruition.

It is now the beginning of February and the wine cellar has been sprayed with insulation, the kitchen has been tiled, the stoves rebuilt, the hardwood floors patched, the brick refurbished, the sound system wired, the dishwashers refurbished, the electrical finished, and the walls are in place.

Taken late last night, progress!

The plates have been decided on, the wine glasses bought, cutlery weighed and ordered. The kitchen small wares picked out and all the custom stainless steel has been built. The end is near and the finish line in sight but there is yet so much to do. Months of dreaming and planning, days spent blurry eyed in front of computer typing employee hand books and checklists, scraps of menu ideas, piles of cook books, and a never ending to do list are just the start of a mad rush to opening day. Watch it all unfold, highlights coming daily!

First draft of the new menus!


1 Response to “The next chapter”

  1. May 13, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after browsing through many of the posts I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyhow, I’m certainly pleased I stumbled upon it and I’ll be
    bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

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