Jean Pierre Challet

The Battle for Ici Bistro and Why Joe Pantalone Dug His Own Grave in His Quest to Be Mayor

When chef Jean Pierre Challet applied for a liquor licence for his new restaurant Ici Bistro, he dreamed of a place where locals could meet over brioche. Little did he know he would instead bring the community together over a political battle that still lies smouldering.

After working for years in some of Toronto's most respected restaurants (The Fifth, Le Select Bistro, Windsor Arms Hotel, Auberge du Pommier) Challet turned his attention to opening a small bistro on the corner of Harbord and Manning. He was confident he had chosen the right location.

"Each time something opens in this neighbourhood people hope for a little bistro; something casual, a little bit creative. But instead it is always just another fast food restaurant. I think that we really have the right formula," said Challet.

The space he chose was small and bright, but had a dark past. In 1999, when arcade games littered the floor, an 18-year-old student was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old boy. This made local schools and business associations fearful of a repeated situation when Challet first applied for his liquor licence in 2009.

Fearing the worst, both principals of Harbord Collegiate and Clinton Street School wrote letters of opposition to the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). The Palmerston Area Residents Association (PARA) added their voice to those opposing the licence.

Then, Deputy Mayor and city councillor Joe Pantalone of Ward 19 (Trinity-Spadina) joined the crusade against Ici. He would turn out to be their biggest, most challenging enemy.

Though Pantalone never visited Ici, despite numerous invitations from Challet and his partners, he was quick to put his political weight against the licence. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Pantalone said he was convinced that the bistro would only spell trouble for the neighbourhood in the future. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," he said.

Challet would not be defeated. He found an ally in Sam James, owner of nearby Sam James Coffee Bar, who carried his croissants and his message. He attended community meetings and invited countless people into his small bistro.

"He kept an open door," said James. "He would walk people through there, show them what he was doing, what his plans were." These plans were to open a small, quality focused, fair priced establishment focused on bringing the community together.

He agreed to fifteen stipulations made by the PARA; some of these include specific business hours, no TV screens, teenagers are not allowed without guardians, smoking is allowed on Harbord Street but not on Manning, and more.

One by one his opponents became his allys.

"It created a new buzz;" said Challet, "there were neighbours who had lived a few doors from each other who had never met and suddenly they met here, they met at Sam [James Coffee Bar] for coffee. The neighbourhood came together."

When Ici finally won their license after a hearing with the AGCO, Pantalone called it "the beauty of democracy." Since then, Pantalone's secretary has approached the PARA to set up a meeting with Challet and his partners, which they have refused. As Ici finalizes licenses, construction and prepares to hire staff Challet has not warmed to the politician that "robbed" him of 6 months revenue.

"What he did here is unacceptable," said Challet. "And now we want him to be mayor? We should ask him to quit! He never supports the neighbourhood."

Sam James agrees.

"As a mayoral candidate he has left a negative impression on a lot of people as far his support of small business and community. It is something you do not expect from a politician of that tenure," said James. "But to each their own, everyone is welcome to dig their own grave."

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