Around 10am, before opening for service, we are sitting at one of the bar stools, in one of the few remaining real, true-to-tradition, diners left in Toronto. This cozy neighbourhood place makes every guest feel comfortable, so much so that owner Damien Heath, has seen it all. He grew up in this neighbourhood and has resided in it ever since, but Queen West wasn’t always the boutique-filled, family-friendly, and foodie-centric area as we know it to be today.
How and when did Swan diner come to be?
It started up around the winter of 1997. It was one of those places where I used to walk past. The place closed with the previous owners, when the owner’s husband passed away. She sat in here day after day, not serving anybody or randomly serving people. Her name was Jean and eventually she also passed away in this space.
On one my many walks around the city, as I was going past my favourite places, there was finally a sign in the window saying ‘restaurant for lease’, around the earlier part of ‘97. So, I got everything together and just went in for the interview, which was between a few people whom I still know now. When I got it, I got some partners together, and spent a couple months fixing things, and doing whatever it was to get the place open.
What ended up changing?
Nothing much in the front other than the wall colour, it was a really bright canary yellow; and the glassware, hanging up some speakers, and just cleaning everything down. The kitchen and the basement were the two big issues. We needed to get a liquor license, but needed to have a certain amount of clearance in the basement, it was 6 ft 1 or 2 I think. We had to go and dig it down to get more space. For the kitchen we replaced all the floors, walls, put in fireboard, and made sure everything was up to code. So, there were a couple of loops and jumps and things to go through, but it was mainly the basement and the kitchen, and the front part was just as it was 40 or 50 years ago.
Is it the same crowd?
There was a definite time lapse between Jean’s intermittent opening of the place and when we took over. It was definitely consistent, we were open 7 days a week, and we still are.
For first time guests, how would you describe the experience.
It’s usually a lively experience, it’s a good ‘bang for your buck’ place. What they described in the presses was ‘urban comfort food’ as the descriptor…you’re not going to get ripped off. It’s not the best thing you’ve ever eaten in your entire life, or it could be, but that’s not what we’re going for. You’ve got a good sandwich, the bread’s hot and homemade, the chicken’s free-range, and the mayonnaise is homemade.
It’s just confident food that’s not overly complicated, there’s good music, friendly staff, and it’s usually busy.
Can you attribute Swan’s longevity to the area?
Definitely location’s an important part of any business. I think the food, the service, the energy and the place, is also the contributing factor to its longevity. The location’s definitely changed, back when I first used to sit here, hoping for business, there weren’t lofts sitting across the street, there were prostitutes on every corner, and crack houses on Shaw and Queen. It was a very different neighbourhood 17 or 18 years ago. The first change was the Candy Factory being redeveloped, as it went through some financial issues in the beginning, and then finally got the right bank behind it. If you look at Trinity Bellwoods Park, you’d would have been very fearful to walk through it late at night, and now you couldn’t find more cuddly hipsters hanging around, trying to drink their craft brews from Bellwoods Brewery. It became a very different scene from when you might get mugged and shot at, to a place for people chilling or where you might run into some friends.
What has been the progression of the diner scene in Toronto, and how has it affected Swan?
Its only helped. The Lakeview people finally got to keep their doors open, which was a positive, but we’re very different from them. There aren’t many diners left, actual operating ones. There’s one on King East that’s still going strong, places like Mars, the original one on College, and of course the category that we’re in, the local neighbourhood eatery. Great places like Aunties and Uncles, just casual, affordable, and have a good atmosphere.
For the diner/restaurant scene itself, I’ve watched one of our main dishes, the braise short ribs, grow in popularity. In the last 10 years, the price of short-ribs grew and now they’re more expensive than getting a strip loin. I’ve watched trends go from, using an inexpensive cut to now being more expensive. Stewing beef and stuff like that, is very expensive these days. That comfort food thing is something we’ve been doing for a long time, but that’s just the way it goes.
What do you think surprises most guests?
Probably the quality. I think they probably expect Wonder Bread or Velveeta, and are surprised that they don’t get that. We don’t go crazy in saying that we make our own bread or that we do everything from scratch, we don’t write that on the menu. I think it’s just what you should do if you’re running a restaurant. The caliber of meat that we purchase from Vince Gasparro Meat Market on Bloor, are hormone-free and antibiotic-free, and I’ve always practiced that.
I’m always like, ‘well who wouldn’t practice that?’, why wouldn’t you do everything from scratch, why would you buy a four litre pail of Hellman‘s mayonnaise when you can make it from scratch. Why wouldn’t you, you’re cooking for people.
I think what surprises people is that the choice of beverage, the food and everything is a little higher-up than what they might have anticipated by their surroundings.
When you think about social media, and you start to really garner this reputation, you throw yourself out there as ‘we’re this, and we’re that,’ and you get this following behind you that’s not warranted from anything substantial. It’s now the place to be because of advertising. Somebody said that we’re one of those places that are kind of under-the-radar. When we opened there was no such thing as an Iphone, Facebook or any other form of that, so we were sort of known just by word-of-mouth, but NOW magazine once in a while will write something, but nothing crazy.
We just do the job, just put your head down, serve people good things and treat people well, we just keep to doing it the same way.
What’s the must-try?
Depends when you’re here. In the evening, it’s the braised ribs, and that’s something I can’t take off the menu. We change the menu quite infrequently, it’s very subtle, but the thing that we’ve never touched is the recipe for the braised short ribs, it’s definitely one of our Big Mac’s. At lunch, the Club House is our signature dish during the week. For brunch, having the Eggs Benedict is probably…you know it’s a pretty traditional dish, but with the smoked trout it’s pretty phenomenal.
What is good restaurant service and hospitality to you?
Friendliness, attentiveness, and the ability to know when to leave you alone. It’s a very fine line in service, I’ve been a waiter since the late 80’s, 20 something years, and the ability to anticipate is probably the most important thing, first and foremost, as a server.
How long does it take to develop that ability?
I think that some people have it and some people don’t. Over the years of having different servers, some people just pick it up, you’ll know. The one-up on the server is if they ask what you would like to drink right off the bat, then the customer can’t say that they weren’t offered something or that they were ignored. Some customers will be taking off their coat and they’ll ask what the soup of the day is, and as a server, you ask if they would like to get comfortable first – ‘I’ll bring you a drink, and we’ll talk about food.’ Some people are on a whole different time, they’re like ‘what can we eat? We only want to be here for a half an hour,’ and so then you register, ‘oh that’s how this is going to go.’
Understanding the dynamic of the customer is the most difficult, but that is the most important thing.
How did you get into food and hospitality?
It was probably just something I picked up during my pre-college days. I sort of just got into it and stayed in it. I think I was going into to college for English Lit. Looking back now, you really need to take something useful in your next world. Everyone tells you after high school to follow your passion and I’m passionate about reading.
What have been some of the challenges of owning a restaurant?
Mainly it’s just keeping all your machines functioning; staffing, and taxes. Usually your stove malfunctions, your walk-in fridge malfunctions, and your ice machine stops working all in the same week, and that is probably the most challenging, because if the food’s gone bad, then you have to figure out where to put it so you can serve it. If you can’t do that, then you’re losing thousands of dollars and more.
What do you love about Swan?
The room itself mainly, the fact that it hasn’t changed in a neighbourhood that regularly changes.
It’s funny after eating here for 18 years, I want to say the short ribs, but it’s usually any of the number of specials, like the changing sandwich of the day or the fish or the dish of the night. I usually go with the special because it’s different.
What’s the best part of your job?
Probably when everything clicks, including everything that involves the customers, because it’s all very random with the moods of people coming in. They can be going through something heavy or light, or somebody could be breaking up or proposing, you never know. When you have a busy night, and when it all just works easily then it’s just great, basically everything just connects.
How do you prepare for the day, and how do you wind down afterwards?
I find that showing up everyday is good, and thanking all the machines for working. I play squash, and have a glass of wine.
What have been some of the changes you’ve noticed in Toronto’s food culture?
I’ve noticed that everybody is more interested in food, and food knowledge…being a foodie. I think there was an article in the Globe and Mail, the other day that enrollment at George Brown in Culinary Arts is up. A lot more people are going to culinary school. There was a huge shift, eight or ten years ago when you could easily get an extra set of hands in the kitchen, now it’s like they’re choosing whether or not to work somewhere because there are so many options for them. It’s a very competitive industry. You stand in a box, for 20 hours on your feet, sometimes there’s a window, sometimes there isn’t, and you could be working with one person or 15 other people doing the same thing, making the same dishes and chopping a bunch of stuff.
How has technology and social media affected the industry?
Its almost competitive in a sense. Its affected things like coupons or all that Groupon stuff. It’s mainly positive, but then if a place wasn’t very good, there’s a lot of tension in the media because of its location or area…so it can be misleading.
The worst part about it, is that everyone suddenly turns on a restaurant. I think we gotta go back to, ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say…’
What’s your favourite app?
Songza, banking, and embarrassingly Words with Friends. For Songza…there was a time where I had a five disc changer, and three or so wine boxes of CD’s broken into styles of music. We’d put five in and put shuffle on for brunch. The CD player would die after six or eight months, the drawer would pop out and someone would walk by and just rip it off. I think Songza just revolutionized how we got music in the restaurant, and took away that whole thoughtprocess. You can put something on like reggae and it’ll give you like eight albums of music for that genre, and then you can focus entirely on everything else.
We’d be no where as a species without a knife.
What’s in store for 2015 for yourself and Swan?
Much of the same probably, and you can only say that when you’ve been in this business for as long as I have, where you have people who have ordered the same thing for 15 years, and have been coming for that length of time. When people come back and you haven’t seen them in a decade, and they’re like ‘wow you’re still here that’s so great, I’m going to have exactly the same thing I had last time’, and ‘wow it’s just as good’. You could have been somebody that worked at Swan, and you’d know their parents. After they went away and had a family, they’d come back as a customer with their whole family and it’s like two decades of life. It’s pretty heartwarming, when you get those testimonials, it makes it worthwhile.
Unfortunately, a lot of places might not make it, or aren’t able to go past the three, five, six-year marker. There’s a group of foodies in Toronto, say 5000 people, that when something opens, they frequent it, and then another five new places open, so then they abandon the first one, and the initial restaurant is left with regulars that may or may not find that that’s what they want to eat with their extra money that month. I appreciate the concepts of higher level flavour pairings, and really getting into the creative side of it, like foams and things, I get it, but I don’t know if that’s where the city necessarily is or wants to eat at. It’s a different social group or a different financial bracket. There’s definitely a group that goes to Canoe all the time, Anthony Walsh puts out great food that’s all very balanced, intricate, and composed. There’s a group in the financial district and they’re going to eat there all the time, so who’s to say, but I’d rather go to the Gabardine and have a mac and cheese.