National Post Restaurant Review June 27 2009 â Holts Cafe *Arcadian Court
To Shop, To Eat in Toronto
New York has Le Train Blue in Bloomingdales, London has Harvey Nicholsâ Fifth Floor, Paris has Brasserie Printemps â and thatâs just for starters. The top department stores have up to six restaurants and some are good enough to be foodie destinations.
How about Toronto?
I can find only two department stores with comparable restaurants â The Bay and Holt Renfrew. In the steps of history, I head for Arcadian Court, opened by Simpsonâs (now The Bay) in 1929 for the carriage trade who dressed up just to eat lunch.
Arcadian Court was Simpsonâs riposte to Eatonâs lavishly appointed Georgian Room, inspired by luxe department stores in New York and London. Simpsonâs one-upped Eatonâs with the largest most fantastic restaurant in any department store anywhere in the world. The room was of titanic proportions, forty foot high ceilings punctured with Byzantine domed skylights, a wall of windows, Florentine wrought iron balustrades, a football field of gold tables and chairs â¦.
Uhuh. We step off the elevator on the eighth floor of the Simpson Tower- the route to Arcadian Court, and our jaws drop.
First thingâthe space is overwhelming and ghostly. The original grandeur of Arcadian Court is now a fragment of memory. The windows are painted out, Only half the space is in use. When I called to make a reservation, I was told âJust walk in.â We join perhaps twenty patrons at tables which could seat 80. Women, the very young, a baby cries in a banquette, and the very old, predominate.
Two buffet tables are offering a deal, $17.95 for all you can eat. We order la carte. Service is Fawlty Towers. Any moment John Cleese will appear and insult us. Wait a moment , a dead ringer for Manuel the Waiter gets to us first. He is enthusiastic about the Chicken Pot Pie â an Arcadian Court tradition since 1929! Like the room the pie ($11.95) is huge, enough for atleast two. The puff pastry crust is flawless. But underneath lurks chicken chunks tasting faintly of cardboard and peas which may well be left over from 1929. We try out another couple of standards. Farmed Atlantic salmon ($14.95) grilled with Teriyaki glaze is dry. Sesame chicken ($13.50) is almost juicy and comes with garlic-mashed potatoes.
We leave a terminal patient on life support â mirroring the decline of the city as a market for upscale department stores.
By contrast, Holts CafÃ© is refreshingly mod. Itâs a glossy white gift box brought to brilliant light by the bank of windows overlooking Bloor. The signature food is the tartine, an open faced sandwich made with the famous Poilane bread ($40 a loaf) flown daily from Paris.
When I call to reserve a table Iâm told that the place is fully booked today. We show up anyway and are offered seats at the bar or at the âcommunal tableâ which has been set up in the foyer. A communal table doesnât sound Holtish to us. The seats stay empty and we know why: theyâre those high chairs which require a mountaineerâs muscles to climb into.
Holts is virtually a testosterone-free zone. Women predominate â a large party of young women must be giving a colleague a shower. Iced tea is the predominant drink, salad the favourite eats.
We find seats on an overcrowded sofa and crouch over the little table. We ask to be upgraded. Never happens. Otherwise service is friendly and fast. But whatâs this, the menu differs significantly from the online menu. Iâd planned to order Canadian Caviare $28 but itâs gone and so is Lobster and Bib lettuce salad $24â¦â¦,
I settle for classic crab cakes $8, three small and crispy and entirely unremarkable and not very crabby frites. My companion chooses a Tuna Nicoise salad $16. Big chunk of seared tuna and a forest of green stuff. Wine is good, a $13 glass of New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, a $12 glass of Pinot Gris.
We finally gain possession of the sofa until challenged by a woman with a pram.
*Arcadian Court, 401 Bay, _Simpson Tower, 8th Floor_
416-393-7281 . Wheelchair accessible. Lunch for Two: food and tax $50
** Holts CafÃ© 50 Bloor W. On Mezzanine. 416-922-2333 Wheel chair accessible. Lunch for Two: food and tax $55
To read about Armaniâs restaurant in Manhattan, go to ginamallet.com