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The Senator

Posted by Natalia Manzocco / Reviewed on April 29, 2014 / review policy

the senator torontoThe 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.

the senator torontoAfter 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.

the senator torontoOn the (very, very enthusiastic) recommendation of our waitress, 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 brought greens 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 senator torontoOther 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.

the senator torontoCrab 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 crowd may fall flat if the Senator loses touch with what makes a diner legendary: Reliable execution of comforting, classic dishes, year in and year out. (Don't ever change that burger, though. It's a winner.)

the senator torontoPhotos by Derek Flack.



Mayor Dodge / April 29, 2014 at 02:48 pm
By golly, a real honest to goodness diner that takes me back to when I was a kid. This place looks great! Save a seat for me, you wonderful people, 'cause that burger platter is calling out my name. They even serve lemonade!
Confused / April 29, 2014 at 03:03 pm
Maybe, just maybe, if your intention is to review a restaurant's new dinner and cocktail menu, you should actually eat dinner there and order a cocktail. Can't believe you got paid for this useless review. Then again, this is, where informed food critique goes to die.
Steven / April 29, 2014 at 03:12 pm
Lemonade too? (tear rolling down my cheek)
I'm visiting the Senator... within 24 hours.
Randy / April 29, 2014 at 04:48 pm
Been there a bunch of times and its great! A true hidden gem behind Dundas square
A fan / April 29, 2014 at 05:14 pm
I actually really love this diner. It's one of a handful in Toronto that I truly enjoy and go out of my way to eat at (rather than just end up at because it's near or open).

The food is top notch and the service is friendly. Wish they had longer hours, but times are tough I guess.
Also a fan / April 29, 2014 at 05:52 pm
Love this diner too! After the New York Times article we went for dinner and had the short ribs, which were incredible! Thanks for the burger suggestion... I'll be trying that next.
PJ / April 29, 2014 at 08:55 pm
This place is ok - the food is inoffensive, but it is not better or worse than a place like Frans. Location is good, but the interior is tired. Its more hidden than hidden gem though.
Stacey / April 30, 2014 at 12:19 am
No Way! AGREED Hidden Gem!
Saer / April 30, 2014 at 10:09 am
Oldest restaurant in Toronto? What about the plenty of much older hotels around that have been serving food in their restaurants/bars? The Black Bull Tavern opened in 1833, The Wheat Sheaf in 1849 and lots of others like the King Edward, Royal York, Hotel Victoria etc...etc.. Maybe the claim should be oldest diner?
Sarah / April 30, 2014 at 12:00 pm
I love going here for breakfast. Challah toast, over easy eggs with home fries and baked beans. Delicious.
Whaaaa / April 30, 2014 at 01:25 pm
Did you just compare this place to Frans!?!? Go have a Cumbraes burger here and then go have a frozen patty on wonderbread at Frans. Please don't make statements that are utterly ridiculous. +1 for hidden gem.
Another fan replying to a comment from PJ / April 30, 2014 at 08:56 pm
Saying "its more hidden than hidden gem" is like calling The Beaches "The Beach". It doesn't sound right, and moreover it's wrong.

The Senator isn't gourmet, but it does comfort food really really well -- just want you want from a diner. There are only a few restaurants in Toronto that I would call an institution. The Senator is one of them.

a source replying to a comment from A fan / May 1, 2014 at 01:49 pm
Hey a fan (the first). we just extended our hours so that lunch is served all night and on thursday, friday and saturday we're open til 12 serving food until late. We also have a cocktail program we just started as well, so come check us out!

Mention this for a promo card.

Cheers guys!
Yet another fan replying to a comment from a source / May 1, 2014 at 08:50 pm
You guys are the best! Long live The Senator!!
Shawn / May 27, 2014 at 01:47 am
If you go for dinner, don't leave without trying the sticky toffee pudding. It's divine. Make sure you get a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. You're welcome.

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