photos by brian towie/metro toronto
440 Bloor St. W.
It’s 3 a.m. in the downtown and you’re famished, but there’s nothing open except for the guy on the corner selling street meat. Don’t worry, there’s a restaurant nearby that can ease your gastronomical pangs. Just follow the smell of smoked meat.
Located on Bloor Street West between Spadina and Bathurst, Mel’s Montreal Delicatessen has been filling late-nighters’ bellies since 1998 (1992 if you also count the years on Adelaide Street.). The Annex landmark, which never closes, caters to your typical 2-2:30 a.m. post-clubber, and the kind of hardcore insomniac who noshes large at 6:30 a.m.
“It’s a very eclectic area that has a very diverse group of people and that’s one of the most interesting aspects,” owner Melanie Simpson says. “There are a lot of students who study late and they come in to relax and have a good meal. We get a lot of the bar staffers too. It’s kind of like Queen Street West in its pre-Gap days.”
A casual dining expert since 16, Simpson specialized in what she knew, being deli cuisine from her native Montreal. It was a successful choice. Mel’s is a Toronto legend, rivalling the likes of her hometown counterparts Schwartz’s or the now-defunct Ben’s. Meals range from a straight $6 meat sandwich to a $19 steak platter. The Ste. Anne Club Roll is one particularly notorious dish, being smoked meat (which you can order sliced from medium to extra fatty) stacked under chicken and spicy salami on a garlic onion Kaiser, served with fries (or mashed potatoes), coleslaw and a pickle for around $9.
“The smoked meat items are big hits, but probably the most popular meals are the egg dishes and the all-day breakfasts,” Simpson says. “We serve them with rhubarb jam, which we make ourselves.”
Mel’s didn’t make its name through smoked meat and rhubarb jam alone. For the first four years of its existence, the deli became a media darling (check the tabletops adorned with newspaper articles.) What got the attention was Simpson providing on-the-job training for some of her 28 adopted brothers and sisters, a number of them handicapped, by employing them in the restaurant.
“(My mother’s) idea of adopting was that kids needed to understand that they had a permanent place, that there was no temporary situation, that regardless of where they were or where they went, this was the end of the line,” she says. “For some of the more handicapped ones they needed training on how to wash dishes and stuff. It was an easy way to gain them some experience on their resumé.”