It’s fairly common knowledge that if you want to make money in the restaurant industry, you don’t open some high end joint specializing in truffles and caviar and lobster and champagne. Oh, sure, those places do well, but for most people who have mortgages and kids and car payments, $200 meals are for special occasions only, if at all. The smart restaurateur knows that the real money is in the small bills; coffee, muffins, and of course, sandwiches.
Since 1762, when the 4th Earl of Sandwich had his cook slap together a piece of meat between two slices of bread so he could eat while continuing at his card game, the sandwich has been known as a cheap, easy and filling meal. And in the restaurant biz, a repeat customer who buys an $8 sandwich and salad combo three times every week brings in far more revenue than someone splurging on that $200 meal once a year for a special occasion. Plus, the average sandwich shop, where most customers take their food to go, can serve considerably more diners per meal than a high-end restaurant with only 30 seats and a maximum of one turnover per service.
Which might explain why everyone seems to be getting into the sandwich business these days. While Toronto has always had long-running chains such as Select Sandwich and The Sandwich Board, we can’t ever dream of coming close to the variety of sandwiches on offer in NYC. Not only does just about every corner deli offer made to order sandwiches, a number of sandwich chains have popped up in recent years catering to a high-end clientèle. Places like Starwich and ‘WichCraft service most of Manhattan offering online ordering, pick-up or delivery and gourmet ingredients. The ‘WichCraft chain is owned by well-known chef Tom Collicchio, who knows that while customers flock to his many fine dining establishments, the real bread is in the bread. And John Montague, 11th Earl of Sandwich runs a chain called… you guessed it, The Earl of Sandwich, with stores primarily in California and Florida.
Here in Toronto, we’re only just beginning to catch up to the sandwich trend. We’ve had custom-order sandwich shops for a few years, but the phenomenon of a deli on every corner never caught on here, and upscale sandwiches are relatively new. We’re still a white bread, pb and jam kind of city.
The Sandwich Box has made a name for itself downtown with locations in the business district and trendy Queen West (67 Richmond Street West and 238 Queen Street West), and was probably the first to introduce the gourmet sandwich to Toronto. Recently opened ‘Wich (319 Augusta Avenue), located at the back of Rice Bar in Kensington Market works on the create your own premise with a selection of ingredients, or customers can choose from a variety of savoury, sweet or cheese-based sandwiches named after local streets.
Of course, being out in the savage wilds of Parkdale, a trek into downtown for a sandwich is a bit counter-intuitive. The whole idea is supposed to be fast and easy, after all. We may not have a Starbucks yet (or even a Tim’s), but believe it or not, we’ve got two great sandwich shops, pretty much right across from one another.
Salvador Darling (1237 Queen Street West) started out as a vintage store with a coffee bar at the back. Now, all of the clothes are gone, although the beautiful retro furniture is still in place, and the room is a long, cool, dark and glamourous shop to buy really wonderful sandwiches. $7 to $9 will score a selection of flavourful combinations such as chicken, caramelized pear and brie; olive tapenade, goat cheese and grilled veggies; or prosciutto, bocconcini, basil and marinated eggplant. All are served on panini buns and are grilled slightly to warm the contents, and all come with a side salad of mixed greens.
Across the street at Rustic Cosmo (1278 Queen Street West), where they’re more well known for the coffee, bagels and brunch, a chalkboard on the wall lists a dozen sandwiches and wraps available on weekdays only. From a curry chicken wrap loaded with chunks of tender white meat, vegetables and a sweet curry sauce to grilled portobello mushrooms on a French stick bun, the sandwiches here are big, filling and occasionally hard to handle. The Earl of Sandwich would have found himself with a bit of curry on his playing cards. Just like across the street, all sandwiches come with a side salad and all range in price from $7.95 to $8.95.
It’s no surprise in this era of gourmet everything that sandwiches would not be left out of the equation. The old standards such as egg salad, ham and cheese and the once ubiquitous pb and j are still around, but it’s now very easy to enjoy a gourmet lunch for under $10 in the form of a fancy sandwich. We may never achieve the New York ideal of sandwiches from the corner deli, or chains of ultra high-end shops owned by world-famous chefs, but there’s hope for this white-bread town yet. Maybe we don’t have a sandwich shop on every corner, but one in every major neighbourhood isn’t too much to ask for. The Earl of Sandwich would be proud.