I know that restaurant reviews are not what you normally expect to find here, but this is an exception. My “local” is closing after 20 years, and the least I can do is write about it.
On September 9, 1985, I was the first customer through the door of the brand new Café Brussel on Broadview opposite the station. At that point, it was mainly a bakery — biscuits, cakes and light snacks — but the owner, Roger Wils, had ambitions for more. Baking occupied the early years (we had a gingerbread Cologne Cathedral in the window for a while), but soon light lunches and dinners crept into the menu. Brunch, with an endless supply of Belgian waffles was another addition, and finally a wine and beer licence.
For a while, Roger and a friend got involved in importing Belgian Beer before the LCBO and others discovered there was a market. The first shipment arrived in a truck one night and I helped unload it all. Quality control tasting was obviously needed.
Eventually, Roger decided to take the plunge and convert the Café into a full-scale restaurant. Major renovations followed (this would come to be a theme at the Café as Roger liked to renovate almost as much as cooking). The room was transformed with black walls, silver and stainless steel trim, a full length mirror and a proper bar.
One Christmas, a wall and staircase disappeared, but the job was so well-done that guests in January had a vague idea something was different, but were not always sure what. As a regular, it was fun to watch.
By early 2001, the Café was outgrowing its old space, and Roger lucked into a beautiful building on the north side of Danforth that is one of the oldest in the neighbourhood. It’s actually two buildings with the newer one at the back. That “back room” had been a Nickelodeon and had a clear two-storey height.
The newer Allen’s Theatre (now the recently refurbished Music Hall) across the street ended the Nickelodeon’s run, and it was converted to a bowling alley. The wood from that conversion is still in the Café’s floor. Later it became a bar, best known as Panama Joe’s, later Ballroom on the Danforth (no loss when that closed).
Renovations started in the spring of 2001, and the space was transformed from a sports bar complete with many ceiling-mounted TVs to an Art Deco marvel that Joanne Kates would call “The Grade Dame of the Danforth”. The same black, silver and maroon colour scheme from the old Café migrated to the new location on a grand scale.
One particular feature, the wine cellar, was built along the wall opposite the kitchen. The first thing I noticed [this is the railfan content in case you were wondering] was that it looked like a dining car was sitting half inside the building. The effect was strengthened when two decorative panels looking very much like carcards were moved from the front of the old Café to the new one.
The official opening date for the new Café Brussel was August 28, 2001.
I mentioned Roger’s love of renovations, and even the new building was not immune. There is another dining room occupying the front half of the building on the second floor that was designed for large parties. This room is as at least as big as the original Café Brussel.
The colour scheme there is a robust orange familiar to anyone who knows Veuve Clicquot champagne. Alas, business downstairs was hit badly by the SARS fallout that hurt so many Toronto restaurants, and the Veuve Room (aka Le Bar Américain) was only ever used for a few special occasions, not for regular dining.
Café Brussel has gone from the early days of cheap-and-cheerful to one of fine and not-inexpensive dining on the Danforth. Many awards from the Wine Spectator line the wall.
I will miss the wonderful mussels (in so many varieties that they had their own, long menu). I will miss other favourite dishes (including the ones too big to eat at one sitting that provided my Café at home). I will miss the decor and the ongoing challenge of finding something new that snuck in since my last visit. I’ve lost count of how many meals I ate sitting at the bar.
But particularly I will miss the years of friendship with Roger and the staff, the sense of being part of the Café’s evolution, and the feeling that it’s part of my own home.
Closing night is Saturday, May 27, and I plan to be the last customer out the door.
[Photos taken from the website at www.cafebrussel.com.]