Grant van Gameren doesn’t want you to notice that the lighting changes over the course of your dinner at Bar Isabel. He doesn’t want you to notice that the number of pieces of crusty bread beside your bone marrow is always the same as the number of guests around the table. And he certainly doesn’t need you to notice him in the kitchen window at Bar Raval, under hanging legs of jamón ibérico and tubes of sobrassada.
But all of these things are on purpose, details and decisions pored over—sometimes for days, in the case of choosing an espresso cup for Raval—to make sure you notice nothing, yet feel it all. “People remember an experience. They don’t necessarily remember the food,” says van Gameren, who looks like a leather-aproned, sleeve-tattooed Miles Teller. “We’re trying to create a time and place that’s not necessarily Toronto—an experience they want to have again and again.”
As far as Canadian chefs go, van Gameren is a celebrity. At 34, he owns two of Toronto’s most popular restaurants and cut his teeth at the rest (Canoe, Enoteca Sociale, Black Hoof, et al.). Three and a half years ago Max Rimaldi, co-owner of Enoteca, sent him on a tasting tour of Europe. It was on that trip that he fell in love with Spain—less the food itself than the art of eating there. “It was really just the social aspect,” he says. “The energy of eating and drinking in Spanish culture is much louder, more rambunctious. And very simple food.”
Van Gameren started modestly—a Pizza Pizza at Ontario Place—but food wasn’t his first business. When he was in his early twenties, he bought a snake at a pet store. One quickly turned into 50 blood pythons, boa constrictors, and other rare breeds, coiled in cages around his apartment. “I’m an excessive person,” he explains. “So when I get into something, I go 100 percent.”
To step inside Bar Raval, van Gameren’s latest undertaking with partners Robin Goodfellow and Michael Webster, is to see that excess in action. The tapas and pinchos bar is packed from open to after-close, with guests rubbing shoulders (literally) against a backdrop of Gaudí-esque molten mahogany that swoops around its parameter. It feels like walking into a bar in Barcelona or San Sebastian. Or the home of a very fancy hobbit. A few blocks west along College Street is Bar Isabel, named the number-one new restaurant in the country by enRoute Magazine in 2013. It’s a familial hole-in-the-wall, mismatched pendant lamps casting a red glow over patterned plates of steak knife-speared grilled octopus and smoked sweetbreads teetering atop hunks of tuna.
They’re the kind of restaurants that require special disclaimers for suburban parents: You may have to speak up. You may have to stand. There will be a line. There will be no house burger. “We try to make it a sexy, intimate experience, so people aren’t just taking pictures the whole time,” he says. Looking forward, van Gameren won’t elaborate beyond working on a few new dishes (“a ceviche” is all he’ll disclose) and focusing on his staff—there are 90 between Isabel and Raval. He wishes he could pay everyone what they deserve, but tries to make up for it in company culture: “awesome” staff parties, yearly research trips to Spain, and helping up-and-comers get their own culinary dreams off the ground.
As for the snakes making a comeback?
“The wife says no.”