The Senator has a long and storied history in the city's downtown core. The self-proclaimed "oldest restaurant in Toronto," founded in 1929 and open in its current iteration since 1948, is tucked unassumingly into a neighbourhood of hulking edifices like the Ed Mirvish Theatre and the Citytv building.
Inside, the building's history shows; it's like a diner from a hardboiled detective novel (save for a few anachronisms, like a fancy red Coke fridge). Maroon-stained wood booths, few of them larger than a four-top, create a grid that criss-crosses the restaurant. On the walls, the building's past life as a jazz club is immortalized in the form of colour-saturated portraits of musicians.
After decades of steadily dishing out diner favourites, the Senator has recently made an effort to reinvent itself with the addition of a new dinner menu and a weekend cocktail event (during which the diner rebrands itself as 'Bar Senator'). It's an astute enough plan; though the diner's Dundas and Victoria location is super-central, just a stone's throw away from Ryerson and the Eaton Centre, it isn't known as a destination for younger diners or the evening crowd.
When I stopped in for a late lunch, the choices were limited to to the classic lunch menu, which sticks to standard greasy-spoon fare and a few retro picks like crab cakes, wedge salads and liver and onions.
On our waitress' very, very enthusiastic recommendation, I opted for the burger. The 6 oz. Cumbrae's patty ($6.95) comes with your standard tomato, onion and lettuce, with the added bonus of sauteed onions and corn relish; I topped mine off with some Swiss and mushrooms. It was the epitome of a killer diner burger - moist and falling-apart, with a little extra richness from the egg bun and the sweet, mega-caramelized onions.
The sides, however, didn't quite stand up. The side salad I ordered showed up as a side of fries; the waitress immediately recognized the error and quickly brought me a salad on top of the shoestrings. As it turns out, neither was a winning choice. The fries were overcooked and got unpleasantly crunchy as they cooled, while the salad dressing could have used a healthy dose of vinegar and salt. (The corn relish, meanwhile was nowhere to be found on my burger.)
Other entrees were similarly uneven. The club sandwich, according to my dining companion, was "actually just a huge chicken breast" - an unpleasant enough experience that not even the challah toast could do much to help.
Crab cakes (made of "mixed seafood") were fluffy, with a crunchy, golden-brown crust on the outside, and contained enough crabmeat to merit the name. The fish and chips ($12.95), meanwhile, featured two healthily-sized pieces of battered cod atop a bed of fries that were far less scorched than my own. The verdict: Solid, but not about to swipe the title of the city's best fish and chips anytime soon (that would be these).
Save for a refreshing, more-tart-than-sweet lemonade, I skipped the drinks. But the draft list is surprisingly sophisticated for such an old-school spot, with Beau's Lug-Tread and Amsterdam Downtown Brown for $6.50 a pint (with a guest appearance by KLB Raspberry Wheat). The new cocktail menu, too, is worth an eyeball, with a rosemary-cinnamon-espresso flagship drink and new takes on period-appropriate standbys like the Derby and Old Fashioned.
Ultimately, though, the attempts to draw a younger, hipper crowd may fall flat if the Senator loses touch with what a diner needs to succeed: Reliably great home-style food to match the cozy atmosphere and winning service. (Don't ever change that burger, though. It's a winner.)
Photos by Derek Flack.