Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
For 11 years, Chris McDonald was the man in the kitchen at Avalon, his Adelaide West restaurant, serving very fine food at the sort of prices you’d expect from one of the city’s top chefs. For less than a year, though, he also ran a little lunchroom called Zocalo in the basement of Avalon, a cheap, informal little place where he got to indulge his love of Mexican and southwestern cuisine, picked up during a stint at the Coyote Café in Santa Fe, N.M. I ate at Avalon several times, but I still remember the one lunch I had at Zocalo, which seemed so light and lively compared to the very serious food upstairs.
When McDonald closed Avalon last year, he seemed to disappear from the scene, but he quietly re-emerged uptown, in a nondescript location in a ’70s vintage shopping court at Yonge and St. Clair where, just a year before he opened Avalon, he had once helped a friend with the renovation of his wine bar’s menu. The makeover was a huge success, and his friend sold the place to go into the wine business, while every few years the property managers would call him to help out another restaurant and try and tempt him back to Delisle Court.
“They’d say, ‘Come on, Chris, take a look at this. Take it over — the shareholders in the building will buy the assets and we’ll give them to you if you just come back.’”
He was ready to move the fourth time they asked, and he opened Cava last May, a clean, unassuming space that’s a lot closer to Zocalo than Avalon, right down to its mixed menu of Spanish and Latin American dishes, like the rich, gamy lamb Pozole with its flavourful green broth. The name alone goes a long way to explaining his new direction — cava is a Spanish sparkling wine that, unlike champagne, its illustrious
French cousin, is consumed at almost any time by almost everyone in Catalan, northeast of the country, a refreshing, informal drink that gives a little celebratory lift to whatever time of day you decide to drink a glass.
“This is meant to be more flexible and not a special occasion restaurant,” explains McDonald. “I found that I would meet new people in the latter years of Avalon, and they’d ask me what I did, and I said I was a chef and owned a restaurant. They’d say, ‘What restaurant?’ And I’d say Avalon — “Oh, Avalon, that’s my favourite restaurant. My wife takes me every year on my birthday when we don’t go to the Caribbean!’”
“It was like, great — the penny dropped; you’re going to come two years out of three when your wife can’t afford to take you to the Bahamas.
This was meant to be something where people could come mid-week and spend an hour at the bar and pay 50 bucks, and then come back on the weekend, or on Friday night, or with their buddies after a hockey game. It’s meant to be flexible; it’s meant to be a neighbourhood restaurant.
“Avalon grew out of the notion — cast your mind back to 1992, 1993, 1994 — we were coming out of a recession, and there was all this talk just prior to Mel Lastman about Toronto being a world-class city, so we were all indoctrinated into the notion of Toronto being a world-class city ... This is an expression of a neighbourhood restaurant in a city that’s a bit more — I don’t know how you’d say — not a world-class city. A world-class city for me is a place where there’s global commerce going on, there’s a ton of tourism, there’s lots of money floating around, there’s movie stars all the time, and there’s growth and progress. I think we’ve all seen that Toronto is not quite all we thought it would be, and this is a restaurant you’d put in that city.”