Named after owner John Maxwell’s mentor (Joseph C. Allen), Allen's is a restaurant, informal in style, but utterly civilized, specializing in local food and drink. The Danforth Avenue haunt has been serving local residents and visitors since 1987. “It occupies the status of an institution,” says John. “It’s institutional because of its legendary hospitality, warmth of welcome and a VQA wine list, which is one of the largest — if not the largest — in the world.” Allen’s is also renowned for its beer selection (140 strong, many microbrews) and a whisky list that numbers 300.
John has been in the restaurant business for more than 50 years. He opened his first Toronto dining establishment Joe Allen in 1980 and later opened Italian hotspot Orso in 1985. Both are now closed, but today John owns one other bar in addition to Allen’s, Dora Keogh’s on the Danforth.
Many members of John’s staff at Allen's have been with him for more than 20 years. This guarantees, he explains, that customers are not just welcomed, but recognized and feel like they are part of a family. “We know a large proportion of our customers,” John says proudly. “As with other restaurants that succeed by making guests feel welcome, we don’t 'wow’ them, but instead comfort them.”
When it comes to the food menu, John relies on locally sourced, very fresh ingredients. Allen’s is especially well-known for its organic, locally-sourced meat. “This is something very special we do that gets lots of publicity,” says John. “We are really the house of local. Before the term locavore was coined we were trying to buy from locals and bypassing the existing distribution system.”
John is not only the owner of the restaurant, he is also one of the beef farmers from whom the establishment sources some of its beef. “I’m deeply connected and committed to idea of organic,” he says. “I grew up in an urban environment in downtown Manhattan but I got involved in farming because of a lifetime in the restaurant business. First, I started making connections with farmers and then I became one!”
When asked what makes a good hamburger, another Allen’s specialty, John smiles and says, “good beef!” “There should be nothing in the hamburger but beef, which is rarely the case these days. The handling has to be minimal and the cooking has to be done properly.”
One bottle of whisky in Allen’s extensive scotch selection is worth noting. Back in 2008, John purchased a bottle of 50-year-old Balvenie from the LCBO, which was valued at $32,000. The price: only $1,750 a shot. “We’ve sold, as I remember, nine shots to date, so assuming with evaporation and spillage there were 17 in total," John says. "There are still some left should you be celebrating a new contract!”
According to John, the wine list is also truly something special. “We have built a cellar and are able to offer vintages that even the wineries are not able to offer," John explains. "I also write a guide to the vintages on our wine list so the consumer is aware of the great ones.”
When the weather warms up, Allen’s is also known for its 90-seat backyard patio, overlooked by some rare century-old willow trees and home to an outdoor grill.
Asked for any final advice on what makes his restaurant a success, John has the following to say: “Keep it real and don’t follow the trends. Find those things that separate you from the masses, not what makes you competitive with the masses. And never stop working!”