Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Restaurateur Sylvia Llewellyn stands on the patio at Julie’s Cuban.
Address: 202 Dovercourt Rd.
Hours: Tues. to Sun., 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Capacity: 30 inside, 30 patio
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $70
**** (out of five)
Patio season is winding down across the city, as each successive night brings a brisker chill than the last, and we’re forced to contemplate five months of near-hibernation. It’s bittersweet time, and we’d best try and wring the last of the sweetness out of our nights, because the end is nigh.
Unlike the vast majority of the city’s patios, Julie’s Cuban can boast a set of fake palm trees and a view of one of the most vital residential streets in the city, and not the car-choked thoroughfare of a main street. Sylvia Llewellyn remembers when the nearly completed condos just down the street, in a building that towers over the neighbourhood, were a factory, and her mother’s lunch counter and grocery store served the neighbourhood.
The sign above the patio at Julie’s Cuban still reads Julie’s Snack Bar, and she says that her neighbours and customers “would lynch me if I changed it.”
Julie was her mother, who ran the store for 43 years, and Sylvia grew up in the back. She left when she was young, had a career as an actress, and met Jesus, her husband, before coming home when her father died and her mother had a stroke.
She and Jesus cleaned the place up and opened it up for breakfast, “hoping that someone who wanted a restaurant would come and rent it, but it didn’t happen, so we ended up staying, applying for a liquor licence, which we got almost immediately. And the rest is history.”
Julie’s Cuban opened for supper and caught on, thanks to Jesus’ authentic Cuban food, and to the magical location. “It’s probably magical and odd for Toronto,” says Sylvia, “but if you were in Montreal, this would be very normal. I remember going to Montreal and every little neighbourhood had their own bistro or sandwich place. Toronto got away from that.
“All these places were corner stores,” Sylvia gestures up and down the street, “and in the ’60s, before supermarket, that’s where you went to shop ... A farmer would come down the road and he would sell fresh vegetables to the storekeepers.”
Julie’s menu starts with salads and a mix of Cuban and Spanish tapas, before moving on to mains that feature pounded and sweetly spiced steaks, and dishes like Ropa Vieja — literally “old rope,” an authentic dish of savoury, slowly simmered beef, served with rice and plantains, the starchy Caribbean staple. Just as good is the Picadillo de Mamita, a pork and beef hash that gets an extra kick from jalapeño peppers — a rarity in Cuba’s sedately spiced cuisine.
Julie’s is approaching its 10th anniversary, and Sylvia has seen customers who came on dates come back for showers and wedding rehearsal dinners, then pulling up to the patio with strollers, after buying a house nearby. Things are changing all over the area, but her customers have provided new continuity. “For me it’s still the old neighbourhood,” she says. “Only now I work here.”