Dressed in a black tuxedo, career waiter Mark Sage—who, in his 40s, is the youngest waiter in the house—began the ritual with a wooden bowl, a clove of garlic, and a fork and spoon. Methodically, silently, he crushed and smashed the garlic against the bowl with sea salt, cracked pepper and lemon juice, then mashed in an anchovy filet with mustard powder until a pungent paste was formed. He then cracked an egg, separated the yolk and whipped it into the mix, slowly drizzling in olive oil, then red-wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Tabasco, until everything emulsified together. After 10 minutes of furious tableside effort, he tossed the mixture with torn romaine lettuce, small croutons and grated parmesan, producing a Caesar salad so packed with spicy, garlicky, fishy punch, it immediately put every Caesar within a 100-kilometre range on notice.
The salad, consumed with a stiff Manhattan, was served in surroundings adorned with gas lanterns, thick burgundy carpets and rich oak, and warmed by light filtered through stained-glass windows bearing the lion of St. George. This wasn't a London supper club, or some Mad Men –themed party, but Tom Jones Steakhouse, one of the last strongholds of WASP dining in Toronto.
In all our boasting about Toronto's cosmopolitan diversity, we often seem to forget the founding culture of this city. Until the '70s, Toronto was white. Montreal was the city of Latin flavour, of Italians, Greeks, Jews and Catholics, while Toronto “The Good” was the law-abiding haven of her majesty's faithful subjects.
In that otherworldly Toronto, fine dining was a clubby, continental affair, where French and British flavours and affectations came together in Tudor decor. Restaurants like Hy's, Sherlock's and Ed's Warehouse were built on a foundation of stiff drinks, steamed vegetables and red meat. Dining out was formal. The waiters were trained in service à-la-minute, carving a chateaubriand or flambéing Crêpes Suzette right under guests' noses.
Of course, the cultural influence of Toronto's Anglo-Saxons has waned dramatically in the past 30 years, due to the massive influx of immigrants (according to the latest census figures, only 19 per cent of Torontonians now claim origins in the British Isles). On the food front, continental has given way to Californian, Mediterranean, Cantonese, Japanese and beyond. Fine dining has adopted a casual air, with stripped-down decor and relaxed dress codes. Servers no longer fawn over you. In many cases, they make you wait outside for a table, often for hours.
WASP food, dismissed as a tired relic, still holds out in the exclusive dining rooms of the Toronto Club and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, but its public presence has been reduced to a precious few stalwarts like Tom Jones.
Ironically, this guardian of old Toronto taste is actually Greek-owned, run by George Goutzioulis and his son Frank. Dressed in French cuffs and Saturday Evening Post suspenders, the elder Goutzioulis rejects the idea that his restaurant, which still serves cherries jubilee, is a relic.
“We serve what our clientele wants,” he says, framed by pastoral hunting scenes in the private dining lounge upstairs. “If we weren't doing something really good, we wouldn't be here after 45 years. We're a classic, and classics endure beyond everything else.” True enough, the past few years have seen a renewed interest in this type of fare. Witness the revival of deviled eggs at places like The Gabardine, or just try to get into New York's clubby Minetta Tavern. Tom Jones, with its stately townhouse foothold on Leader Lane, and its bar built around a piano, has this formula down pat.
And who could argue with warm garlic toast, golden with butter, and a fat shrimp cocktail with a liberal dose of horseradish? Or ribsteak, seasoned lightly with salt and pepper and grilled juicy, tender and perfectly bloody?
But it's the little touches that make dining here worth it. When the Dover sole meunière arrives at our table in its lemony butter glaze, waiter Sage takes great effort to debone it without wasting a scrap of flesh. Working with a fork and spoon, he removes the head, tail and spine with surgical precision, placing the perfect filets onto a gold-embossed plate that has been set atop a sterno flame, so the fish (god bless it) doesn't get cold.
The sole tastes of the sea wrapped in a delicious crust of butter, lemon and fresh parsley. But most notably it tastes of class. The kind of meal you can still dress up for, pay $55.50 to have prepared in front of you and enjoy like it was 1979.
Tom Jones Steakhouse, 17 Leader Lane, 416-366-6583 , www.tomjonessteakhouse.com
17 Leader Lane
Toronto, Ontario M5H 1L8
HOURS OF OPERATION:
Mon - Fri: 11:30am - Midnight
Saturday: 5:00pm - Midnight
Sunday: 5:00pm - 10:00pm
Monday - Saturday: 8:00pm - Midnight
DRESS CODE: Business Casual.