From the outside, Barberians Steakhouse and Tavern appears to be a rather low-key spot. Adorned with crests and an awning, the unassuming exterior doesn’t give away that one of Toronto’s most iconic restaurants is just behind the front door. The unrivalled steakhouse is as committed to showcasing the country’s history as it is to serving the city’s top steaks.
Opened in 1959 by Harry Barberian, the restaurant started out in a small space with an even smaller kitchen for the charcoal grill. The restaurant has since gone through several expansions and now includes two main dining rooms, two private dining rooms and a two-storey subterranean wine cellar that houses over 30,000 bottles. The astoundingly beautiful cellar space can be rented for private functions. The kitchen is now in the back, but they still use a charcoal grill to prepare the meats.
For the past 30 years, chef Scott Thompson has been manning that grill, cooking up favourites like dry-aged rib steak and filet mignon. It’s a tricky gig that he’s mastered over the years. His job is to cook the steak perfectly, depending on where the flame goes. “It’s a skill to cook on that kind of a surface,” says Scott. “I’ve been working on it for so long; I know what I’m doing.”
Scott’s favourite part of the job is meeting the famous patrons who have come through over the years: everyone from heads of state (including all of Canada’s Prime Ministers of recent memory) to athletes to movie stars. A devoted hockey fan, Scott’s favourite celebrity encounters have been with team members from the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While the interior décor at Barberian’s is not unlike that of a traditional pub — low-lighting, paisley wallpaper, landscape paintings — upon closer inspection, customers will realize that the restaurant is steeped in history, Canadian history to be precise.
Many of those landscapes are original paintings by members of the Group of Seven including A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris. The rifles hung above the front bar are from the Riel Rebellion. A framed cover of The Globe and Mail greets patrons; the vintage newspaper displays a Confederation Day date. There are cabinets full of invaluable collectables and enough antique treasures to make any auctioneer swoon.
“Harry was just a fan of Canada,” explains Jon Andrews, the restaurant’s manager for the since 1998. “He loved Canadian art and wanted a place to showcase it. You wouldn’t know the importance of some of the pieces but that’s the beauty of the place. It’s really understated.”