Get to know a Bartender: Dave Mitton, The Harbord Room
Dave Mitton has been bartending since he was a teenager, and has become a prominent figure on Toronto's nascent cocktail scene over the past decade. A founding partner of Czehoski on Queen Street West, with Bradley Denton - now of Le Petit Castor - he is now co-owner and bartender at The Harbord Room. He is also president of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association, as well as working as a consultant, judge, and organiser for numerous cocktail competitions.
We dropped into The Harbord Room on a crisp, fall afternoon to speak with Dave about the Toronto cocktail scene and the joys of bartending.
Are you from Toronto originally?
I was born and raised in small-town Albert County, New Brunswick.
How did you start out with bartending?
After high-school I had worked in theatre for a few years. I had the notion to become an actor, and I knew it wasn't going to happen in New Brunswick. I had an old Volkswagen van at the time and two mates and were driving around. We stopped in L.A. for a few days, and I fell in love with it. My friends took the van and carried on up to B.C., but I stayed. I didn't know a soul and didn't have a ton of money, so I started walking down Sunset Boulevard, and I came across one joint called Red Rock Bar & Grill.
The patio was full and there were a lot of good-looking girls, so I walked in, sat down, and ordered a beer and a tequila. The bartender asked me what part of Canada I was from. It turned out that he was from Vancouver, and there were a ton of Canadians at this bar. I sat there with them, and when I left that night, I had two jobs and an apartment. One guy had an extra room, and I moved in two days later. It was fabulous.
So you got a job at that bar?
No, the job was as a bathroom attendant in Beverly Hills. I had no working papers, and I was 18, so too young for bartending, and was working for cash. Then after about a week they gave me a job greeting at the front door. They had a lot of celebrities come to this place, and I ended up being a shadow for celebrities. I became buddies with the bartender, who was from Nova Scotia, so I got into doing some bar-backing, and learning some tricks behind the bar. Eventually, I ended up moving back to Canada. I'd fallen in love with working in bars so I got a bit more experience under my belt, and then I took off and went traveling overseas. To pay my way I ended up slinging drinks at a lot of places, and after a couple of years I ended up in Toronto.
What was the cocktail scene like in Toronto back then, in 2001?
There was Souz Dal and Cobalt on College that Jen Agg owned, and there was Insomnia on Bloor. Lots of nightclubs and lots of good drinking places, but not a ton of specialty bars by any means. There was really nothing on Dundas, and only a couple of places on Harbord like Splendido. In Queen West there was everything east of Spadina - Horseshoe, Rivoli - and not much west. Maybe Cadillac Lounge but there was no Drake Hotel, no Beaconsfield. Everyone went to College Street; nobody went to Queen West or Dundas, let alone King Street, which is so funny to think of now. Communist's Daughter or Sweaty Betty's weren't even there yet. There was nothing unless you wanted to go to a karaoke bar on Ossington.
So where did you end up working?
Two months went by, and I eventually got a response from the Rivoli. They were the most lovely people, and I'm so indebted to all of them. I got a job working days, but luckily there were so many staff there - probably about 30 people - that everyone wanted a shift covered. Within a month, I'd managed to work up to night bartender, and work all 3 bars, and absolutely had a blast. I made some of my best friends that I still have today.
So how did you end up opening Czehoski?
After about two years of working at Rivoli, one of my good friends Brad approached me - I'd worked for him in Halifax earlier - and asked if I wanted to open our own little place here in Toronto. One night, we walked by 678 Queen Street West. It was an old abandoned butcher's shop with a sign out front from 1923 that said 'Czehoski' and Brad said "I always wanted to do a space in here." It had been closed down for 12 years, and there was no sign of anything happening.
One week later there was a 'For Rent' sign in the window. Apparently the landlord had 80 applicants within 48 hours and we ended up getting the space. I remember asking him years later why he picked us and he said to us "You guys were the youngest, you had the least amount of experience, you had the least amount of money - but you had the best idea." It took us 2 and a half years to build the place; the liquor license was easy, but we had to rebuild the place from top to bottom which meant a lot of permits from the city. We had to find money from an investor, and we did a lot of the work ourselves.
So you were specializing in cocktails at Czehoski?
I was interested in cocktails, and thought that since the original Czehoski opened in the '20s, we'd put some cocktails from that time period on the list. I looked through books for anything I could find on classic cocktails. I still have a copy of the old Czehoski cocktail menu from 2004, and it's funny. I look at it now and I was making half of them right and half of them wrong, but essentially we tried it and nobody wanted them. People were ordering them and sending them back, like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, complaining "It's all booze." We realized right away that this wasn't going to work.
Do you think people's taste for classic cocktails wasn't quite there at that point?
When you look back at it, the craft cocktail movement was really catching on in a couple of major cities like London, San Francisco, and New York, where Audrey Saunders was making her own bitters and tinctures and using fresh juice instead of mixers. It was unheard of! There were places around town doing lychee martinis or apple martinis, and zesty, juicy, vodka-based things were really in at that time. We did sell some cocktails on the weekends but it was more of a gin & tonic, vodka soda place, and lots of beer, as most clubs still are today in Toronto.
What do you think changed that?
When we opened The Harbord Room in January 2008, I wanted to give some classics a shot again, especially seeing how in the States it had really taken off. I remember one night a couple both asked for an Old Fashioned, and I was kind of excited as it wasn't on the menu. I started making it and they were watching me very carefully, and they asked "Can you tell us, what's in an Old Fashioned?" I was confused at first and then clued-in.
I asked, "Did you guys by any chance see this on Mad Men?" and they were like "Yeah." I started realising how much Mad Men was probably gonna help the movement here in Toronto, and sure enough it did. People come in and ask all the time for certain things, to the point where I find myself not knowing the recipes. People are asking for the most obscure things, which is great because I like to learn something new every day.
The bartending community really seems to be coming together here in Toronto.
It's been a long time coming and it's only going to get better. Imbibe Magazine just did its first piece on Toronto, which is amazing. It's my favourite drink publication. They did a piece on Vancouver a few years back, and I believe it's their second piece ever in Canada - it's a six-page spread just on Toronto. We're one of the major features along with Black Hoof, BarChef and there are mentions of Miller Tavern and Blowfish.
I know you've been working hard to bring the bartending community together.
I'd been doing a lot of traveling, and noticed that when you went to places like New York or San Francisco, the community of bartenders was so tightly-knit. They were all friends, they all recommended places to go, shared secrets, and at cocktail events, the bartenders knew each other from across the country. Here there wasn't such a community. A couple of years back I approached thirty people - cocktail makers, barkeeps, aficionados, writers - that I thought really cared about the cocktail movement and said "I'm gonna close the restaurant for the night, my partners have agreed to it, and I'd really like every single one of you to come and let's just talk about anything."
Kevin Brauch, The Thirsty Traveler, helped me put it together and we introduced everyone and we sat around and shot the shit for three hours. That was January 2011, and now the list has grown to 300 people, mostly Toronto people, but also a few people from New York or Vancouver that just want to know what's going on here.
Has the list helped build the community?
It really has. A few years ago, we would do competitions, and nobody would come and watch. Now we host a Bowmore competition at Parts & Labour on a Tuesday night, or a Hennessy competition at The Drake Hotel, and we get 200 people coming out. The sense of community and the pride is really taking off. You're seeing people share each other's recipes on menus, or see people do guest spots at other people's bars which is fantastic.
How do you think Toronto compares now to cities in the U.S?
From doing events down in the States, I've realised lately that we're kind of on par with places like L.A. and Chicago, where the movement's moving along at the same pace as us, and started around the same time. Because it's so new, everyone's getting excited, working extra hard, and being more creative. Three years ago, I would've been hard-pressed to send you to 10 places for cocktails in this city, but now I could set you up with two weeks worth of nights out to go try different cocktails, whether it be from certain bartenders or just places that specialise in them.
Many restaurants have realized how important it is to have even the smallest cocktail list as part of their repertoire, along with wine, beer, and food. Even at local neighbourhood haunts, where I'll just go and have a pint of Guinness and a Jameson, they've started up small cocktail lists because the customers are asking for them now.
You have a wide range of bitters. What's the most interesting one you have?
That's like asking me what my favourite movie is. Off the top of my head I would have to say the most interesting I have at the moment would be a batch given to me by good friend Danielle Tatarin from the Keefer Bar in Vancouver. She makes them herself with traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients, and they are exceptional.
What drove you to make your bitters?
Couple of reasons really. One, I wanted to see if I could do it; and two, back when I started making bitters, we were extremely limited to what we could buy here in Ontario. I would drive to Buffalo all the time for bitters, or friends or customers would pick me up bitters if they were traveling in the good ol' US of A. I still make one or two, but thanks to Donna & Kennedy Pires of The Crafty Bartender we now have access to more bitters than we'd ever imagined here in Canada.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming bartenders?
Learn your classics. Don't start trying to invent things right now. Learn how you can take a spirit, a sweetening agent, and a bittering agent and balance them out, like a Negroni, an Old Fashioned, or a Manhattan. Once you figure that out, then you can start playing around. Have lots of fun when you're doing it, and don't take it too seriously. We're here to enjoy each other's company. There's nothing I love more than people coming here at 6 o'clock at night because they just gotten off work and wanna loosen their tie, take a load off, have a couple of drinks, and have a laugh with some friends.
It's the best feeling in the world to know I'm helping these people to unwind, and just enjoy life a little bit. You know, I'm not a mixologist and I don't get into crazy things. We don't reinvent the wheel here. We just simply try to do things well, plays on a lot of classics.
What's your favourite drink when off duty?
Guinness would be my go to drink. I love trying new drinks, but let's face it: cocktails catch up with you much faster than a beer or a glass of wine. If I do have a cocktail, it'll be a Negroni or a Vieux Carré, and now that we've got the Antica [Formula Carpano] in town, too, I love a goddamn Negroni with the Antica.
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Writing by Vincent Pollard. Photos by Jesse Milns.