When Toronto’s beloved Harbord Room closed in autumn 2016 and the space went up for sale, Victor Barry knew he didn’t want the neighbourhood to lose an amazing spot. The chef and owner of Piano Piano (formerly Splendido) used to frequent Harbord Room; in fact, it’s where he and his wife, Nikki McKean, started dating. So the couple partnered with Brendan Piunno (of Carbon Bar), snapped it up, and have transformed it into French bistro, Café Cancan.
Why French bistro this time? He was inspired by the petite space itself (“The idea of a bistro is that it’s small and packed to the gills with people,” says Barry), but also, the chef saw an opportunity in Toronto’s restaurant landscape. “There are a lot of Italian restaurants now, and not too many French ones, and we’re filling in the holes,” he says of Cancan.
Cancan represents a bit of a dream come true to Barry, who has long loved French cuisine. The Cancan menu demonstrates a chef in his element; bistro classics including escargots, steak tartare, foie gras parfait, and French onion soup are featured alongside more luxurious dishes, such as the smoked oysters dish from Splendido and tournedos Rossini (a decadent beef tenderloin with seared foie gras, brioche, and Madeira jus).
But it’s not all fancy: you’ll also find a juicy double burger on the menu (dressed with American cheese, no less) for the Harbord Room regulars who miss their old favourite, and an all-day breakfast entrée. Open all day, grab a coffee and croissant to go from the café in the morning, sit down for lunch, or settle in for dinner and drinks late into the evening at this neighbourhood spot.
No matter when you visit, have your camera ready. The ultra-pretty design—pink walls, feminine prints, mint leather banquettes, playful confetti-patterned flooring—comes courtesy of designer Tiffany Pratt, who Barry also worked with for Piano Piano’s poppy, floral look. “I’m not able to walk into a space and see what it could be,” admits Barry. “[Pratt] is a designer with an amazing ability to build something that is not common in Toronto.”
At Cancan, this means pastels, flamingo wallpaper, and florals. But the charming loveseat-style seating, where parties of two sit beside each other on the banquette? That’s all Barry’s doing—actually the result of mismeasuring the space. But they retained the number of seats Cancan is licensed for—and now couples can get a table where they can snuggle or people watch together.
Despite the name, the restaurant is not a spot to catch French cabaret dance performances—but as Barry says, a restaurant name can be so subjective. “With beautiful decor, wonderful, warm, welcoming service, great value, and delicious food, you can call it ‘Uncle John’s Roadhouse’ and you’re going to be successful.” Laughing, he adds, “Hopefully.”
Café Cancan, 89 Harbord St, Toronto ON M5S 1G4.
Photos by Nikki Leigh McKean.
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