If you haven’t already noticed The Early Bird restaurant and its adjoining sister, The Nite Owl Upscale Rock Lounge, tucked tidily into Talbot Street near King, you’ve probably heard about them. Especially since the diner’s local popularity recently inspired a visit from “You Gotta Eat Here!” of Food Network.
Once you step inside, The Early Bird’s décor is a visual mash-up of thoughtful homage, linking “Mad Men” references to urban-cool bands like The Hold Steady — no random array of vintage Coke bottles and James Dean here. A block of vinyl records mounted on the wall meets stainless steel, and the clean, simple booth seating capacity is only about 35, lending a Chicago, hole-in-the-wall feeling. Even the four Elvises who preside over diners are self-assured in their customized Kiss makeup — they’re funky and they know it.
The musical references are no surprise, given that co-owners Chef Justin Wolfe and business-savvy brother Gregg are also musicians and continue to maintain a passion for the industry. Justin’s band toured extensively and successfully worldwide, and as a result of that he experienced many food influences that he determined to put his own spin on one day.
“It’s true that you really appreciate a good breakfast when you’re on the road away from home,” Justin laughs. “I wanted to recreate that comfort-food feel with a kind of big-city, speak-easy feeling. I knew a diner could work well with the bar angle, too.”
This has proved to be an understatement. Although Justin and Gregg launched The Nite Owl just under three years ago, they only opened the adjoining Early Bird ten months ago, when the space presented itself. Already there is a renovation in progress, which will open up more of the diner into the front of the bar. (A trial patio seating in the summer essentially doubled their capacity). In the meantime, food stats are impressive: 1,000 perogies every week, 500 bacon-wrapped dill pickles, a myriad of meats prepped including brisket, pork shoulder and duck, many of which will be treated to a high-maintenance combo of curing, brining, smoking, grinding, or being made into sausage — all in-house. The Early Bird’s own smoked meat takes days to prepare from start to finish, but is extremely popular and every bit as succulent as its Montreal counterparts. Dips — including the BBQ sauce — are also homemade.
Popular dishes include the awe-inspiringly huge TurduckKen sandwich, Poutine Perogies nestled in swooningly dark gravy, and an architectural feat called the Pancake Stacker, which alternates strata of bacon and potato hash and wears a crown of fried egg. Tender braised pieces of duck are served as sliders, and a variety of homemade soups are available to add heft. No wonder there are often lineups outside the door, and interestingly, Justin proudly points out that The Bird has a growing fan base with London’s seniors.
Rave reviews poured in to the Food Network, nominating the Early Bird as one to watch, and social media networks Twitter and Facebook have been full of praise for the restaurant since it opened —“The Bird is the word!” being a common shoutout. The Food Network team from the hit series “You Gotta Eat Here” recently came to town with host John Catucci for a two-day filming and a mission to find London’s outstanding comfort food.
On day one, Catucci — who is highly likable, charming and funny — comes directly into the Early Bird kitchen and gets stuck in. He seems genuinely curious about how everything comes together, repeating what he is told to be sure he understands, and twining bacon around more than a few dill pickles till he’s mastered the technique. (He’s cheerful with it though, and despite the early hour, he’s prone to bursts of random, falsetto scatting in between takes!) From the pickles, he progresses to massaging a turkey breast, and it’s clear he’s up for any culinary challenge. It’s equally clear that he has seen a lot of food in this quest across Canada, but he has only good things to say about The Early Bird.
“First of all, it’s the honesty Justin and Gregg bring,” Catucci explains between takes. “It shines through and it’s real. You can taste the difference with this kind of care, and people appreciate that. Customers are made to feel like family. Plus, Justin’s bringing the ‘cool factor’ to London.”
He also notes that people are, on the whole, much more discriminating now — they don’t want to eat greasy, reheated food, and they know the difference. The Early Bird is offering quality, local ingredients, king-sized portions, and a particularly distinct menu for extremely reasonable prices. If Facebook is anything to go by, the film shoot was a huge success, and there’s a definite zip of excitement.
John shrugs. “When you wake up smelling bacon, it’s hopeful. It’s gonna be a good day. A great day even. Maybe some people feel like that if they wake up to boiling kale, but really? I don’t think so.”
The Early Bird
355 Talbot St., London
hours of operation (subject to change) monday: 11am-3pm tuesday & wednesday: 11am-midnight thursday: 11am-2am friday and saturday: 11am – 3am sunday: 11am-9pm
Sue Sutherland Wood is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.Read more of Sue’s work at www.womenspost.ca