Just a couple of strides outside the financial district, east of Yonge Street on King, lives the family-owned Carisma Restaurant. Entering the cozy and intimately lit interior between their lunch and dinner service, we were then greeted by Monica who was sitting at the round bar alongside her mother (Margie) and Father (Michael), whom were having lunch with other front of house staff, eating a dish inspired by Margie and Michael’s most recent trip to Jamaica. We sat with everyone as they enjoyed lunch and let the conversation naturally roll, because that’s what you do when you sit with family.
For first time guests how would you describe the experience?
Monica: Very warm and welcoming. It’s family-owned and we’re all really close. We have friendly and attentive staff willing to make suggestions to make sure you have an enjoyable experience.
How has the area contributed to the type of guests that come into Carisma?
Monica: We’re close enough to be part of the financial district, so we get a lot of business crowds and a lot of corporate parties. We’re also far enough that we have a lot of families as well from when we used to have a restaurant up on Eglinton.
Margie: We have a long list of followers from uptown, from Foresthill.
What’s the history behind Carisma and its family ties?
Monica: My parents have always had restaurants, I basically grew up in the restaurant business since we had Il Mulino up on Eglinton. My dad got very sick, and had a stroke a little more than six years ago. I was just finishing school, and was working at the bank. They ended up selling the restaurant up on Eglinton.
Margie: We weren’t going to do anything after selling the restaurant.
Monica: They were at home…It was the first time that I actually had family at home for a change. We had dinners at home, which was never the case.
I absolutely hated working at the bank. It wasn’t for me, and I moved around because I thought that I just didn’t like what I was doing, but it was actually just the corporate structure.
A real estate friend of the family, wanted to pick up a listing of this place, and so he said, ‘can you guys do me a favour, you have a history of being in the business, can you just come and take a look at this spot that’s just become available downtown, and let us know what you think?’ My mom and I, my grandma, and my grandma’s friend came not really thinking anything of it. At that time the restaurant was completely different. It was completely white, with white vinyl couches, with palm trees and was totally different than the way it looks now. The only thing that was here was the bar, and when we walked in we fell in love with it. It’s a round bar. The idea of people sitting at it, enables you to have a conversation with someone across from you, and it’s very inclusive.
Margie: We both had a really good feeling when we walked in.
Monica: Literally the next day, I came home and I said to them both (her parents), ‘you know I hate my job, and you guys are bored, and you need to do something, so let’s do it’. Before I could even say anything, my mom was like, ‘I’m totally in, I couldn’t sleep at all last night.’ That’s exactly what happened, it just fell into place.
Margie: You know sometimes when things are meant to be, you have a feeling about it.
Front of house staff member:
I am the luckiest person, to work for them. They are the best people on the entire planet. I have been working for them for 25 years in the restaurant industry, and nobodies like them.
Monica: Our chefs have been with us for forever. The two main guys have worked…
Margie: 25 or 26 years.
Monica: I feel like in restaurants, there’s a very high turnover, so we’re pretty lucky. We have guys who’ve worked…Carlos has worked with us for 29 years.
What is Carisma known for?
Margie: Our extensive wine list, and the food.
Monica: The fact that we’re family-run. That’s one of the things people love when they come here. They will see at least one of the three of us. It makes a difference. We also have really attentive and personal service, we thrive on making sure that everybody leaves happy.
We don’t advertise, so most of the ways people hear about us is through word-of-mouth. This personalised experience is really important, because it brings new people in, and at the same time keeps our existing guests coming back.
Margie: Although it’s a little bit old school, it works.
What are your views on contemporary Italian or fusion cuisine to classics?
Monica: We do a little bit of everything. We try to keep the classics on our menu, and if you come in to ask for something very traditional and very classic, we would make it. We also do specials, and we have a list of specials every night. We get really creative and we do different things. So, we kind of keep it old school, but we also try and bring in new ideas.
Second front of house staff member: It changes with the different rhythms of the seasons.
Monica: We always have two fish, a meat, and two appetizer specials. It’s really like an entire menu all on its own that we change-up every single day. Like I said though, if someone wants something as simple as spaghetti with tomato sauce, we’ll do it.
What has the experience been like between Il Mulino and Carisma?
Margie: There’s a big difference. Over there we were just a nighttime restaurant.
Monica: Over here we’re open for lunch and dinner. The main difference is being downtown, you have more access to events, like corporate groups looking to book for holiday parties, and meetings.
Margie: On Eglinton, it was more of a neighbourhood restaurant.
Monica: It was more family-oriented, and was really busy closer to the end of the week, whereas downtown it can be any day. You can be busy on a Monday night without expecting it, or a Tuesday…it really all depends. People like it, you’re not really inside the financial district so you can detach yourself, but you’re close enough so that you can still arrange corporate dinners, and corporate parties.
How did you decide on how the restaurant would look?
Margie: Cozy. The name is Carisma, so we wanted you to feel…
Monica: Warm and comfortable when you’re here. We didn’t want it to feel super high-end, so that when you walked in you’d feel uncomfortable.
Margie: We didn’t want a corporate look, but we wanted it to be something that could either be casual or for a special occasion. You could come in and sit at the bar, have dinner on your own at anytime, dressed however you want, or go here for a special occasion.
Monica: We did have a designer help us, a friend of my mom’s, he’s got a store on Yonge and Summerhill called L’atelier.
Margie: His name is Youssef Hasbani. Mind you, we did the work, we did all the work, he threw the ideas at us, and then we did it all.
What happened when you told your old clientele from the previous restaurant about Carisma?
Margi: We didn’t tell anybody.
Monica: They heard through word of mouth. We didn’t do a soft opening, we didn’t do a hard opening, we just opened.
How did you find out that they knew about the new restaurant?
Monica: Through word-of-mouth again, because once one person finds out that you’ve opened up a new place, then they tell somebody else.
Margi: Because of our past history, half the city knows us, and as for the other half, we know them.
Monica: We were quite lucky in the first month, we had a lot of reviews, so they put the word out there for us, reviews from places like The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star.
What’s the direction for the menu?
Margie: Whatever we can get our hands on that’s good.
Monica: It depends on the season.
Margie: We go to the market and we pick our own produce, which we didn’t do in the past. We go to the food terminal, and wake up very early for it…
Monica: so you get first pick on everything…
Margie: and if you don’t have ideas in mind, you look around and that’s how you get your inspiration.
Monica: It’s funny at the food terminal, they know us because we’re the only girls, so we always get the best pick.
How would you say Toronto’s food and hospitality culture has developed since your parents started in the industry to now?
Margie: You have to move up with the times, because if you blink…basically you can’t sit comfortably and say ‘ok, this is it’, you have to keep going with what’s happening, because Toronto’s moving pretty fast.
Monica: You have to stay current and innovative.
Margie: The competition is huge, so you have to be up-to-date with everything.
How do you stay up-to-date?
Monica: We love food and we love eating out.
Margie: Food and wine is our passion.
Monica: When I go to New York and I have a dish, I’ll start talking to the chefs, and I say, ‘ok how can we put our twist on this and what do we do?’ Then they throw in their ideas and it turns into something completely different, but absolutely amazing. It turns out to be something that’s ours and it’s great. The head chef started out with my parents as the dishwasher, and he just grew and continues to grow.
Margie: That was his first job in Canada. Both of those boys have a passion for it. In our life we’ve seen enough people working in the dining room and in the kitchen. There are those in the kitchen that they call themselves “chefs,” but they just do it by the book, and they don’t have their own input. Whereas these guys are creative. They are just creative, very creative.
How did your parents influence your path to working in the food and hospitality industry?
Margie: Well she grew up in it.
Monica: I had a playhouse in the basement…
Margie: Of our restaurant and it was a horrible basement, freezing cold. I had a huge fur coat that I used to put on the floor in the office, and she used to play on it. At that time it was the busiest restaurant in the city. We had two other restaurants too, Barolo on Carlton and one on Yonge and Eglinton, called Gavi, which is Grazia now.
She was sick every month, and I couldn’t spend time with her because of the restaurants, so we had to get rid of them. There was an article in Toronto Life, around 26 years ago, that said ‘for the first time in history, a restaurant was sold because it was too busy to handle.’
Monica: I’ve worked every Saturday since I can remember.
Margie: She learned how to behave in a restaurant, she knew that she couldn’t be loud and run around.
Michael: Every Sunday was spent counting, and just writing down everything. We had 3 restaurants going on.
Why did you work corporate first, since you’ve been in the restaurant industry your whole life?
Monica: I wanted to try something else before, and they encouraged me.
Margie: Let me be honest with you, if you’re a restaurateur, your life becomes the restaurant. We don’t treat it as a business, we treat it like it’s our home. If it’s a business and you have a manager, then you can have other people do it, but we’re a little obsessive.
Monica: If you wanted to get married, then you can’t do a lot unless your husband or significant other is in the business with you, it’s very difficult.
I went to UofT to get a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, took History in Italian, and figured I’d start off at the bank. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I figured, ‘let me start in the corporate world and see if it’s something I want to pursue,’ but I turned into a different person. It’s not like in a restaurant, when you have an issue you pull the person aside deal with it straight up. In the corporate world, you have to setup a meeting with a manager. It’s just totally different communication with people.
Second front of house staff member: That’s what’s unique about this neighbourhood, there are so many restaurants that have that corporate feel, and this one is on the same caliber as those corporate restaurants, but it’s family-owned.
What’s your favourite dish?
It’s hard to say…I don’t have a favourite, I like everything.
Favourite flavour pairings?
I like salt and crunch.
What are you craving right now?
Lately I’ve been craving sweets. Yesterday I went to a Portuguese bakery and brought those Portugese custard tarts for everyone, and I had three on my way here.
How do you stay motivated?
Everyone keeps me motivated, and it’s the constant ‘go go go.’ You don’t really have time not to be motivated because people are constantly coming in, so it’s never boring and that’s the best part. In the corporate world, everyday you have your things that you have to do, and you sit down and you do them. It’s very repetitive, and it gets boring. Whereas when you’re in a restaurant, you’re constantly meeting different people and constantly doing different things.
How do you and the servers prep for service, and what do you guys do afterwards?
Second front of house staff member: Detail the room, make sure everything’s clean, talk to the chefs to see what the specials are, look at the reservation book, make sure we have all the tables assigned, and that we have enough room. We’re all preset.
Monica: My dad treats it like a soccer field so they have different playing positions as to where they’re stationed.
Margie: We chill with a bottle of wine. All of us.
Second front of house staff member: We raise a glass together.
What’s the best part of your job?
Margie: Eating well.
Second front of house staff member: When we make everybody happy. It’s rewarding to make a difference in someone’s day, in a positive way.
Monica: The fact that we have fun everyday.
Margie: The best part is that it’s like you’re entertaining at home.
If we don’t know you by the time you come in, we know you by the time you walk out.
Favourite Mobile Apps?
Amazon, Facebook, Starbucks.
Where do you hope Toronto’s food culture heads towards?
I think it’s growing at a pretty quick pace. There are restaurants opening all the time, and I hope it continues. I hope it’ll eventually become a mini New York, where it’s a big foodie city.
What is on the bucket list for 2015?
To continue doing what we do, to keep it going, and ensuring that everybody’s happy. To keep our existing guests happy, and to bring in new ones.
Margie: There’s always room for improvement, but we’re pretty happy with the way we are. Consistency is very important, because there are many places in the city, that open with one chef, and then within a year, they change chefs many times, so there’s no way you can have the same thing as last time because it’s a different chef.