In our city of neighbourhoods, every neighbourhood has a diner –– and most of them have been around from time immemorial, beloved by the communities they cater to. But two new restaurants have elevated the concept, offering pedigreed cooking and expertly crafted cocktails with a side of Formica coziness.
Le Swan, the new project by Jen Agg, is a veritable culinary time machine, designed to send diners back to 1960s Paris, the epitome of cool.
Meanwhile, Aloette, chef Patrick Kriss’s down-to-earth answer to the world-renowned Alo two floors up, perfects greasy spoon offerings with a refined perspective. Both have been able to avoid the pitfalls of pastiche when it comes to revamping the diner concept while staying true to tradition.
SEPIA-TONED SOPHISTICATION AT LE SWAN
Under the meticulous supervision of a post–Black Hoof Jen Agg, the perennial Trinity Bellwoods hangout Swan Restaurant has been reincarnated.
Less the retro-’50s greasy spoon of its former life, Le Swan is ’50s new wave bistro-cool.
Gone is the “Have a Coke” sign, and in its place is a vintage Aix-Les-Bains poster from the absinthe era. The space feels somehow naturally sepia toned upon entry.
Soft vintage lighting, gleaming white tiles, burgundy-hued booths and a playlist that is Charles Aznavour–infused (RIP) transform all patrons into characters from a Godard film, not a chignon out of place (and the return of turtleneck season certainly assists the vibe). At Le Swan, anyone holding a smartphone seems like an anachronism.
The menu pairs French bistro comfort fare with diner staples: on offer are the gravy-drenched hot chicken sandwich and also its sophisticated cousin, a whole Parisian-style rotisserie chicken, quartered and served as rustic as they come: au jus with a handful of roasted veg and potatoes, alongside a basket of crusty bread ends.
The tuna melt at Le Swan
Similarly, a refined diner may opt for the smoked trout rillette, whereas the comfort craving customer can order a perfect, pillowy tuna melt, all creamy-centred goodness with crispy, cheesy edges, and douse it themselves with accompanying Tabasco sauce.
892 Queen St. W., 416-536-4440
DINING CAR CHIC AT ALOETTE
The first-floor, pedestrian-friendly Aloette may bill itself as an American diner, but one step inside its narrow, wooden interior indicates an elevated experience.
Indeed, Aloette promises a menu that is stocked with French and American bistro classics, but a few ambitious gourmet touches are thrown in.
The iceberg wedge salad, for example, is not the cherished wedge of yore. For one thing, it’s not even a wedge.
It’s a hemisphere, topped with creamy avocado, Parmesan, crunchy pepitas, shaved radish, evenly distributed chive cream and wild rice.
The finely engineered burger is a better burger: juiced up with aged beef fat, cooked medium rare by default and topped with a thick slab of Beaufort, and a wispy mound of lettuce and pickled onions. The messy marvel is served alongside hand-cut frites.
The interior of Aloette eschews all the pretension of its upstairs forerunner.
Closer to a diner of the train car variety, it’s all smooth, rounded edges; arched ceiling; booths steeped in natural light; and a long, narrow aisle separating bar patrons and booth tabletops. And unlike Alo, there’s no months-long waiting list –– in fact, with its walk-ins-only policy, there’s no waiting list at all.
Aloette, 163 Spadina Ave., 416-260-3444