143 Danforth Avenue
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and beer: $90
The hot new thing for restaurant critics these days is to complain about the volume at the places they’re reviewing. Having to scream across the table to be heard is never a good thing, and the more, um, mature, our ears get, the harder it is to like a place that makes us work so hard. Not so at Allen’s. Yes, on the night we were there for the A Taste For Life fundraiser for Fife house, the place was packed and loud, but it’s the first restaurant I’ve been to where the loud volume added to the atmosphere.
Allen’s website states that “Allen’s stands as owner John Maxwell’s loving tribute to the Irish-American saloons of his native New York.” He’s made a homey, comfortable place with blue-checked tablecloths, a tin ceiling and warm oak floors. The tables are arranged so there is actually space between them – the volume is not because the place is over-packed, but from customers actually having a good time.
Service from the get-go, is exemplary. Little things that get overlooked in other places are noticed and corrected here. A fork removed with the appetizers is automatically replaced; dishes arrive at our table carried by a runner, not the server who took our order, and are set in front of the person who ordered them without the typical vacant question of “who gets the burger?” An empty space in front of one diner while others at the table have seconds previously received their food warrants a noticeable frown and effusive apologies as our server rushes past. It’s amazing how we don’t notice the bad service we get at most places until good service is offered as a matter of course.
And the food is just as great.
Appetizers arrive at our table in under 5 minutes, literally. The seafood chowder ($7.50) is a gorgeously smooth cream base with generous chunks of different types of fish including crab and sole. Second only to my Dad’s secret recipe, I’d return to Allen’s for this alone, it’s my perfect comfort food. Calamari ($8.95) is hot and crisp on the outside with only a few of the squid rings passing from delicate to slightly bouncy and overcooked. Mongolian fire sauce isn’t all that hot, but adds a spicy zing. The goat cheese dip ($7.95) is not recommended for a first date, so redolent with the stinking rose is this creamy offering. And the portion is extremely generous – the designated eater saves the remainder of the dip to enjoy with his pizza.
Allen’s burgers are made from sirloin and are ground on-site, allowing the kitchen to cook them to order. A Swiss burger ($10.05) is gloriously pink and juicy inside when ordered rare and the restaurant doesn’t lie on their menu when they claim “we also serve what are widely considered to be Toronto’s best hamburgers”. Served with the blacked potato salad ($5.95), this was a fabulous dish to ring in patio season.
The chicken curry ($14.95) impressed this critic who doubtfully expected typical glommy, tasteless pub curry full of frozen veg and rubbery meat. With the tender chicken chunks outnumbering the potatoes 10-to-1, the fragrant rice and house-made chapati were almost overlooked in favour of the coconut-based sauce with just enough spice. A vegetarian pizza ($13.95) was the only thing that didn’t knock my socks off, but as one of only 3 vegetarian mains, our meat-eschewing guest thought it okay, but not fantastic, reminding us all too much of something we’d make at home. Allen’s strengths are quite obviously at the meat station.
Dessert offered plenty of classics with a twist. The coconut cream pie ($7.25), so hard to find in Toronto, was a more custard-like version served on a chocolate crumb crust. It was good, but I’d have preferred a typical pastry crust instead. Rhubarb crisp ($6.75) was a hint of spring, but the crumble topping was a bit too sweet, even for my sugar-craving tooth.
Known for it’s extensive beer selection, Allen’s has gained a reputation as one of the best pubs in Toronto. Many places have a lot of beer, but Allen’s is the first place I’ve found that has been able to match that draw with truly great Irish pub classics and outstanding service. It may be a little bit loud, but it’s a good, friendly loud, the kind it’s easy to ignore when there’s great food to be had.