Celebrating 20 Years: Indefatigable David Chapman at David’s Bistro, in London

Written by Bryan Lavery

“There’s a fire next door!” This was the 6:30 a.m. wake-up call from sous-chef Rick Hunt that started David Chapman’s year-long business nightmare. Initially, it didn’t seem to be too bad: the smell of smoke but no physical damage. Major cleaning was completed with the help of the insurance company and property restoration specialists WINMAR, and the restaurant was back in business.

Then things began to change. The landlord’s insurance company required a fire resistant barrier to be built on the restaurant side. There were numerous challenges to meet building and fire codes, and that the restaurant is situated in a heritage building needed to be taken into consideration. Other surprises were uncovered due to an earlier fire. Then the building started to sink and needed to be shored up. Opening days were planned then delayed due to a seemingly endless list of obstacles.

In front of the newly re-opened bistro on Richmond Street, core staff include, left to right: Sous Chef Rick Hunt, Cindy Kinsella, David Chapman, Line Cook Andrew in the far back, Natalie Baker and Head Chef Elvis Drennan.

The restaurant community rallied round. Restaurateur/chef Mark Kitching offered Waldo’s on King on four occasions to allow David and staff the opportunity to reunite with his loyal clientele and stalwart supporters. Despite working out of an unfamiliar kitchen, the events were flawless and the loyalty and affection of the guests amazing. The London Club also stepped up, offering the kitchen to cater a Kidney Foundation event at London Music Hall. David’s annual New Year’s Eve dinner (for 40 guests) was facilitated by Chef Steve James of the London Training Centre.

Chapman eventually planned to open February 10 this year, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Burst pipes in the adjoining building caused flooding, which spread into the restaurant’s kitchen and resulted in the cancellation of 200 reservations. Chapman and his staff worried about their loyal customers and the possibility of losing their connection with them. David’s Bistro reopened March 10, just in time to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a new bar, carpeting, panelling, exhaust system and walk-in cooler. Chapman’s wife Cindy Kinsella surprised everyone by secretly sewing new tablecloths for the restaurant.

Chapman started his career at the age of 16, with an apprenticeship at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1971 he was hired as a poissonnier (chef specializing in fish preparations) at the Four Seasons Hotel in London, England. He moved up through the ranks in hotel kitchens in Bermuda, Etobicoke and Toronto before moving to London, Ontario. Chapman’s first job in London was at Whittington’s, an elegant French restaurant at the corner of Wellington and York Streets.

The comfortable bar in the dining room is part of the relaxed but refined bistro ambience at David‘s

In 1980 the Villa Restaurant, owned by Tony and Irene Demas, was purchased by enterprising restaurateurs Nick and Carolyn Bonfrere, who renovated and modernized it. The Villa became Anthony’s Seafood Bistro, and Chapman became the chef. Anthony’s was later purchased by Anne and Archie Chisolm, and Chapman stayed on, eventually becoming chef and owner. After 18 years, Chapman reinvented himself and opened a traditional French-inspired bistro next door. The emphasis was not just on seafood, but classic French cuisine. The restaurant was an immediate success.

It wasn’t long before David’s Bistro, with 46 seats, signature crimson walls, chalkboard prix-fixe food and wine offerings, and black and white tablecloths, became a venerated downtown culinary anchor. David, daughter Natalie (who will take over the restaurant operation when David eventually retires) and wife Cindy Kinsella are your hosts and are on hand to dispense friendly, intelligent and professional service. David’s protégé Chef Michael “Elvis” Drennan, assisted by sous chef Rick Hunt, continues to cook superbly executed classic French-inspired dishes. Drennan apprenticed with Chapman at Anthony’s and has been working with him for the entire run.

The kitchen at David‘s Bistro, staffed by Rick Hunt (Sous Chef) and long-time Head Chef Elvis Drennan, continues to present superbly executed classic French-inspired dishes

The blackboard prix fixe menu changes daily. The restaurant is known for its multi-course “Trust Me” dinners — precursors to today’s chef’s tasting menus, that David developed at Anthony’s Seafood Bistro. The food and service remain consistently impeccable. A savoury-sweet treatment of honey and rosemary glazed wild boar tenderloin with cherry compote and sauerkraut rosti was superb. A gorgeous slab of rabbit and sweetbread terrine with pear aioli and pistachio scone is reminiscent of another of David’s terrines, made of delicate sweetbreads and leek, served with fig compote and crunchy cornichons.

Fond memories of exceptional meals at David’s Bistro over the last 20 years include a fragrant Provençal-inspired stew with tender seafood, served with a garlicky rouille topped crouton; and the pièce de résistance, a cassoulet of bacon, lamb and duck, with white beans adding a delicious intensifying effect to the stew’s earthy flavours. I recall cornmeal-crusted Lake Erie yellow perch with lemon, capers and tomato that melted in your mouth, as well as Lake Erie whitefish cake with tarragon remoulade. David’s other signature dishes have included a knockout choucroute garnie (an Alsatian-inspired mélange of sauerkraut, sausages and charcuterie) and, of course, David’s superb confit of duck, on one memorable occasion served with a delectably robust gorgonzola tart. The desserts are house-made in the classic French tradition. The torchon of chocolate and the apple tarte Tatin are unbelievably good.

With an extensive consignment selection and accessibly priced wine list, as well as interesting chalkboard features, David’s can lay a claim to having one of the best wine selections in the city, by both glass and bottle. David’s Bistro is the benchmark for friendly, professional service and impeccable dining.

“One thing that has been reinforced by our time off is the kindness and warmth shown by our restaurant community with the help and support that was offered,” says David. “Man, I love this town. See you soon?”

David’s Bistro
432 Richmond Street, London

Wednesday–Friday: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm
Daily: 5:00 pm – 10:00 pm

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.