From Piano Piano to the Cancan
Victor Barry has transformed Harbord into one of T.O.’s yummiest gastronomic destinations
Restaurateur and chef Victor Barry sits at, yes sir, a piano at Piano Piano
Two years ago, Victor Barry and his wife, Nikki Leigh McKean, promised each other to not open a new restaurant for at least a year. It was a difficult proposition for a chef still glowing from his latest venture — transforming the fine dining restaurant Splendido into the wildly successful Italian eatery Piano Piano. But when the Harbord Room closed in October 2016 and the space went up for sale, Barry couldn’t resist temptation.
“My wife and I started dating at the Harbord Room,” Barry says. “It has a huge history, not only with us, but with so many people in Toronto, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Barry and McKean, along with Piano Piano co-owner Brendan Piunno, had finally transformed their Italian eatery into well-oiled machine. The number of meals served has grown from 180 to more than 280 on the busiest evenings, and the restaurant has earned spots on “best of” lists along the way. The married couple also had the important duty of raising their toddler-aged children, Sofie and Charlotte, on their busy plate.
But the three business partners jumped at the chance and purchased the space, beginning renos to transform it into a casual French diner named Café Cancan.
Barry’s dedication in the kitchen dates back to the age of 11, when he spent weekends at his uncle’s Niagara Falls pizzeria. (“It was probably illegal,” Barry says, joking.) He then found work at the Prince of Wales Hotel as a co-op student, which segued into a full-time position after graduation.
There, Barry excelled, developing an impressive work ethic that saw him rapidly ascend the Prince of Wales’s culinary totem pole. On days off, he’d head into the restaurant to learn how to clean fish.
“At 17 years old, I was working the fish station, which people were just livid about,” Barry recalls. “I was cooking food that I should never have been cooking at that time in my career.”
Following the departure of a trusted mentor at the Prince of Wales, Barry moved to southwest England’s Gidleigh Park, equipped with a ruthless dedication needed to survive in the two Michelin–starred restaurant.
“Everyone was willing to cut the legs out underneath you to get ahead,” he recalls. “I learned discipline, and it built an incredible amount of character in me.”
After two years in England, Barry moved out west before joining T.O.’s Splendido as an assistant pastry chef. But his first stint was short-lived. Frustrated by the kitchen dynamics, Barry shipped off to Bermuda, where he worked as the sous chef of the Waterloo House Hotel.
It was there that Barry prepared a life-changing meal for his vacationing former Splendido boss, David Lee. “I cooked him dinner, and the next day, he offered me the chef de cuisine job at Splendido,” Barry says. “Then I bought the restaurant in 2009.”
Under the cloud of the financial crisis, Barry downscaled Splendido to a stylish trattoria. But the allure of fine dining nagged, and he found himself returning to $180-a-head tasting menus replete with half ounces of caviar, king crab and foie gras.
“We worked really hard for two years and became the fifth best restaurant in the country,” he says.
But the stress of running a high-end restaurant was piled atop a slew of changes in his personal life since taking ownership. Barry and McKean had two daughters, his father passed away and McKean was diagnosed with cancer. Something had to give. So Barry closed Splendido on New Year’s Eve 2015 and reopened with much trepidation as a mid-range Italian restaurant a few months later.
“It’s quite incredible how busy we’ve been and the positive press that we’ve had,” says Barry.
This time around, Barry calmly approaches Café Cancan’s early summer opening date.
“I’m more confident with Café Cancan than I was with Piano Piano,” Barry says.
Following Piano Piano’s formula of classics “done right,” Barry hopes his new restaurant will achieve similar success. On Cancan’s menu, diners can expect reinterpretations of French staples like rib-eye steak and trout sorrel. His eyes widen with excitement as he describes the spatchcock chicken, cooked in a wood-burning oven and topped with a ginger-vanilla jus de roti.
Alongside these refined menu options, Barry has made a few deliberate additions to remind guests that Cancan, which will open at 10 a.m., isn’t Splendido 2.0.
“It will be a café where you can grab a coffee and a croissant,” he says. “We’ll have classic French baguette sandwiches for lunch, and there will be eggs on the menu all day long.”
Notably, Barry will offer a double-patty cheeseburger with none other than an oozy square of fromage American in its centre.
“I truly believe that the best cheese on a cheeseburger is an American cheese slice,” Barry says.
Processed cheese and all-day eggs will leave Barry’s Splendido-era fans aghast, much as Piano Piano’s pizzas and pastas did at first. With Café Cancan, T.O.’s fine dining champion cedes yet again for the modest mid-range. But he’s found a sweet spot, balancing well-made food with affordability.
“It’s important to me that people feel like they can have a really good time and not worry about how much it’s going to cost them.”