You don’t have to be in the food business to know that keeping a restaurant in operation can be particularly tricky. And even harder still when forces beyond your control suddenly make your location hard to, well, locate.
When Blackfriars Bridge closed to vehicular traffic in 2013, it threw a wedge between Blackfriars Bistro and the clients who had relied on Ridout Street for easy transit to and from the restaurant. But while these sorts of barriers can be the harbingers of death for a business, Blackfriars Bistro owner, Betty Heydon, and her strong and caring team have proven that they have staying power.
This February marked Blackfriars Bistro’s 21st anniversary, and the little restaurant located at 46 Blackfriars St (just southwest of Oxford St. and Wharncliffe Rd.) is better than ever. Things are looking up for the neighbourhood. The other premises in the restaurant’s building are now fully rented, and a new loose-leaf tea shop called Teatcha has moved in across the street.
“We just got busier and better, both with catering and the bistro,” Betty says of the past year. “The amount of support we’ve seen from dedicated clients and new clients is just overwhelming”
For those who are discovering (and rediscovering) the bistro, putting the restaurant’s tastes and flavours into a category may prove to be easier said than done. What Betty describes as “tradition with a twist,” the Blackfriars taste is eclectic, ever evolving and uniquely attributable to the restaurant and the history of the people who work there.
“My philosophy has always been that we first have a respect for tradition and then we go forward into the future,” Betty explains. “What that means is that you’ll always find the favourites that people have loved and come to expect from Blackfriars. Yet we’re constantly reinventing, to give people what’s new and innovative.”
Some of the items on the menu were inspired by Betty’s Italian grandmother, Nona Bridget, from Sault Ste. Marie. “We had a very matriarchal family of 10 daughters and two of them became nuns. When they came to visit, Nona would make steak and eggs for them — pan searing it really fast and flipping it. She didn’t know it, but she was making a beurre blanc, using white wine and butter. We, the children, would get to dip our crusty bread in the sauce. I’ll always remember that dish because it was such a special occasion when they came to visit.” (Nona Bridget used round steak: the Blackfriars’ twist is to use sirloin instead.)
And while that recipe holds special meaning for Betty, patrons have clear favourites too. Some of these include the banana rum and raisin bread pudding, served warm with caramel sauce and whipped cream, and the gourmet grilled three-cheese sandwich on multigrain, with spiced apple and onion, and served with a cup of soup. If you think those sound decadent, Betty has something else for you to consider. “Our savoury cheesecakes are definitely a signature dish. We have a Stilton cheesecake with grilled chicken on the lunch salad, and at night we serve it with prosciutto,” she says, adding that “a sundried port soaked cranberry and sage cheesecake” will be making its way onto the spring menu.
The Blackfriars menu changes seasonally, and the shape of each new iteration of the menu hinges on input from all Blackfriars stakeholders, from the kitchen staff to the customers.“I like the direction to be clean, clear taste. Fusion, but not confusion — complexities and layers should always be traceable back to the ingredient,” she says, noting that the menu creation is a team process. “That’s always my goal, to be able to hear everybody’s voice and the customer’s voice in there too.”
With the increasingly sunny weather, Betty and her husband will go in search of produce, meat and fine ingredients from local farms. She also plans to continue to grow and harvest some herbs and vegetables — like tomatoes, zucchini and kale — from her own home garden.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the Blackfriars menu is that the menu serves as a jump-off point and clients are invited to further customize their vegan, vegetarian or meat selection.“We try to have something for everybody on the menu — but people can play off of that,” she says. “If someone were to say, ‘I see you have this selection, but I’m not feeling that tonight,’ we can go talk to the chef and give them another couple of choices.”
The customizability and flexibility that the kitchen staff welcome has created a pseudo-secret menu, from which even past menu items can be revived.“Someone could ask for the Portuguese shrimp, which we haven’t had in 15 years, and we’ll make it for you,” says Betty.
This aspect of her business is one that Betty clearly takes pride in — and it extends to the catering side of the business, which is available for small groups as well as large functions, like weddings and celebrations. Offering personalized menu creation (Blackfriars doesn’t have a standard catering information package), Blackfriars wants to create the perfect, experience, tailored to each client. “I want you to just enjoy yourself (at your event) knowing everything will be well taken care of,” she says. “My lovely staff is truly professional. If they come into your home they will leave your home so clean that you wouldn’t know you had a party — and this is what we’re known for.”
But if you’d prefer, you can always have your event on-site at the restaurant. The whole Blackfriars Bistro can be reserved for private functions, provided you have a minimum of 24 guests on a weeknight, and 34 on a weekend.
For those interested in pairing their dish with just the right drink, Blackfriars has an answer there, too. With a wide selection of craft brewed beer, consignment wine and a bring-your-own-bottle licence (corkage fee of $15), you’re sure to find the right beverage to complement your meal.
“I always want to give a salute to all of those people who are making beer,” Betty says. “We started about 12 years ago with small batch breweries, like Stonehammer [formerly F&M Brewery] and Railway City. These people are all just really great people.”
But all “food and drink” aside, there is something special about Blackfriars that goes a step beyond. When Betty, an arts graduate, first decided to open the eatery, she and her husband had “nothing” — but a vision of bringing people together.
The restaurant’s purple walls are adorned with large works of art, featuring conversation-provoking scenes that Betty herself has painted. The square bistro tables are topped with mosaics that she and her husband hand-built. And even as she sits, being interviewed for this article, Betty’s phone continually rings with patrons looking to reserve tables for later in the day —and she fields each one with warmth and mostly on a first name basis.
“Growing up in an Italian household, food was where we talked and where we met and worked together. We would sit at a counter from the youngest to the oldest, banging out gnocchi to put in the freezer for the whole family. You always had that conversation and the rhetoric and it was a kind of bonding that would be hard to take place without food.”
“I’ve always worked in this industry because it’s a good honest way to connect. It’s just what you do — you genuinely take an interest in the people that you take care of. I believe all people deserve to eat, and to eat well.”
Blackfriars Catering & Bistro
46 Blackfriars Street. London
Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30–2:30
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:00–10:00
Brunch: Sunday 11:00–2:00