Around the World and Back in Time at Butler’s Pantry

Butler’s Pantry
371 Roncesvalles Avenue
Brunch/lunch for two with all taxes, tip and soda: $30

This is supposed to be a brunch review. You’d know that because it’s Sunday. Except it’s not a brunch review because we didn’t actually eat brunch. Upon arriving at the Roncesvalles location of Butler’s Pantry we decided we weren’t really in the mood for typical brunch fare. Instead we decided to revisit some old favourites for a trip down memory lane.

That’s not to say that Butler’s Pantry doesn’t offer a decent brunch card. Although it’s been probably 7 or 8 years since I’ve had the dish, their French toast ($7.25) is still renowned, and I’m momentarily chagrined at my decision to have an entrée when a plate of the massive fluffy fried bread goes past. The rest of the brunch offerings (offered until 2pm on weekdays and 4pm on weekends) include a variety of omlettes ($6.25 – $8.25), eggs Benedict ($7.25, $8.75 with smoked salmon), and scrambled eggs ($8.95).

But what I’m craving when I sit down in the front seating area of a restaurant that has not changed in 24 years is one of my favourites on their entrée menu, the chicken bastilla pie ($10.25). Back in my youth (okay, my late 20s), when a good portion of Toronto’s Goth community used to gather at the now-defunct Queen West location for coffee and drinks before heading down the street to Savage Garden, the bastilla was a personal favourite. I gave it up when I went vegetarian in 2000, but I always missed it. And while the vegetable curry pie ($8.25) was a happy replacement, the bastilla has always had a place in my heart.

Except I don’t remember it being so… floppy. It’s obvious that Butler’s Pantry makes many of their dishes in advance and simply reheats them. I recall a bank of microwaves in the kitchen of the Queen West location, and when you’re eating mostly so that your server can make a bit of a tip because everyone else at the your table of impoverished Goths needs to save their money for beer or new PVC boots, maybe the overall quality of the food is less important. But now, the not-quite-crisp-enough phyllo dough is disappointing. The filling is fine and hearty with lots of chicken, egg, and almonds, but the pastry manages to be both soggy and tough.

The accompanying salad remains unchanged since the chain opened in 1985, with those same massive slices of carrot and cucumber arranged on the plate. The addictive dressing (which some speculate to be simply a combination of Kraft French and Catalina dressings) makes for a happy memory and the little container it comes in drips and spills just as it’s always done.

Across the table, the hungry husband also eschews the brunch offerings in favour of kosharee ($7.99), an Egyptian lentil and rice dish with tomato sauce and fried onions. It too comes with the same salad and is hearty and filling but not especially exciting.

The rest of the menu remains unchanged, except possibly for the prices, which have only slightly increased over the years. These are the exact same dishes that were available the first time I ate here in 1989. It’s a nice selection of accessible world cuisines, and no doubt the Mirvish Village location plays a hand in introducing new-to-town university freshmen to our multicultural city. Part of me wishes they’d revamp things, but it’s sort of like going home to visit the folks – you also want things to stay the same.

One thing that could use a revamp is the décor. The dishware is those same clear glass plates with the sunflower pattern from the 80s. Seat cushions on chairs are worn and tattered. The shelves of teapots in the front window were once quite charming, but with many of the pots now sporting broken spouts, the place looks as if it could one day appear on one of those How Clean Is your House-style TV shows where packrats are forced to give up their useless possessions.

The washrooms still sport local theatre handbills – in this case current ones, such as for the upcoming I, Claudia [Hi-larious! – theatre-going ed], and the bulletin board by the front door holds current versions of the same community notices for available apartments, free kittens and babysitting services that have been there for twenty years.

But the biggest charm of Butler’s Pantry, despite the broken crockery or the flutter of room for rent signs or even the reheated food, is the comfort diners find here. No one is going to confuse the grub at Butler’s with award-winning dishes from the city’s top chefs, but they’re tasty all the same. Customers know what they’re getting; things are exactly the same as they’ve always been, and that’s okay.

Sometimes the comforts of days gone by is exactly what we need.