Vanessa and Peter Willis have the energy of a couple of kids. Engaged in playful banter while sitting side-by-side, they’re quick-witted and easily moved to laughter as they describe how their dream of owning a restaurant became manifest in The Church Key Bistro-Pub, a downtown fixture that so many love today. Both the labour and the love are evident.
“The dream we had was an upscale pub with great food,” Vanessa says. “About 20 years ago a revolution was happening in the United Kingdom, the birthplace of the pub, where establishments were moving in exactly that direction. It seemed that at that time the entire world started to take food a whole lot more seriously, and everyone started stepping up their game. The gastropub was born. We love traditional pubs, but we wanted something different. A casual environment where women could also feel comfortable and in their element. I thought that we all deserved something a little bit better, and I was really passionate about it.”
After working in the restaurant and bar industry for decades (combined), Vanessa and Peter spent almost two years in the hunt for a location of their own. On a lucky break, Peter’s realty network offered him a tip on a site that had just became available. “We were the first to see it and we knew within five minutes that it was perfect,” Peter says. “Right size, right location, by the theater, downtown,” adds Vanessa. “That was it.”
But while the choice of location was easy, not every other decision fell into place so effortlessly. The name was proposed by Peter, but met with uncertainty from Vanessa. “A church key is a slang term for a bottle opener,” he explains. “But she wasn’t so sure that people would get it, so she polled everyone for months on whether they knew what it was.”
“It was weeks,” Vanessa clarifies with a smile. “But I found that it was a 50/50 split and so I just decided — let’s roll with it.”
Peter’s certainty that the clever name was perfect for the the restaurant — situated between two of London’s largest churches, with local beer on tap — appears to have been a great instinct. But the memorable name is just one of the many magic elements that The Church Key has woven into its fibres.
In a much more evident fashion is the establishment’s culture, which includes a strong foundation in customer service (you’ll always be promptly and warmly greeted), a strong camaraderie between front and back of house, and a playlist that’s ‘handcrafted’ and curated by none other than Peter himself and has become a signature part of the welcoming atmosphere. Inside and out, The Church Key feels approachable, inclusive and timelessly classy all at once. “People always comment on the ambiance,” says Vanessa. “They say that it’s beautiful and comfortable, upscale but homey. And people love the music.”
But of course, they love the food too. So much so, that it’s become difficult for the team to decide which dishes to swap out when changing the menu. As much as 80 percent of the menu is comprised of fan favourites.
“You’ll hear about it loudly if you take one away,” says Peter. “The (Church Key) burger is untouchable and so is the corned beef and cabbage, which is made right from a brisket, as well as the smoked mushroom and parmesan dip. The warm duck confit salad has been on the menu since the beginning. The list goes on and on.”
“We’re so grateful to Mike (Chef Michael Anglestad),” says Vanessa. “This [success] is as much his as it is ours. He was so integral in the creation [of The Church Key], the original menu and 90 percent of the dishes since we opened. They’re all his — all his talent, his ideas. And we’re lucky to have an amazing team of chefs working for us.”
Pastry Chef Cliff Briden has also been a part of The Church Key since the start. The brunch, for which the menu changes each week, has become legendary under his charge.
“Our two co-sous chefs, the partners in crime — Bre Reynolds and Toby Turcott — need to be mentioned too,” states Vanessa. “They’re truly the nuts and bolts of the kitchen.”
What this cohesive team is turning out from the kitchen is an intoxicating mix of comfort and exotism. Although the menu (which is changed twice a year) is rooted in traditional British pub cuisine, The Church Key has a reputation for its creative addition of game.
“About seven years ago we took a research trip to Chicago to gather ideas, and noticed a lot of game meat. I’d always loved rabbit and was curious about venison, so I talked to Chef. We suspected that it might not go over well in the London market, but we put rabbit on and it sold out in a night,” Vanessa describes. “It was an overwhelming success.
“Now we have an item on our dinner menu (not at lunch) called ‘Game of the Week’ that reads: ‘Every week our chef will create a unique dish that showcases a different variety of game meat. Ask your server about tonight’s special preparation.’ Our original plan was to run the same type of game all week, with different preparations, as the menu description implies. However, this item is so popular that we are often forced to switch the game variety several times a week. It’s a supply and demand thing.”
“People call ahead to see what it’s going to be,” adds Peter. “We try to keep it flowing, ensure there’s variety.”
Over the years The Church Key has served up a mix of game that ranges from the exotic, like kangaroo, ostrich, and wild boar, to more familiar such as buffalo, elk, bison, venison and duck.
“We do source locally where we can,” Vanessa says of the game’s origin. “There’s a really good buffalo farm close to London, and we’ve also gotten local duck, but the best venison on the planet comes from New Zealand.”
“In terms of other local sourcing though,” she adds, “We tend to do a lot of that for our Sunday brunch menu. Soiled Reputation, outside of Stratford, is just one example of many local suppliers.”
Patrons of the Church Key also appreciate another locally sourced point of enjoyment: the beer. “We have a section on the menu that’s all London beers,” says Paul. “There are half a dozen or so breweries in town now. Everyone gets about three months on the tap and a presence in the fridge.”
If you decide to come on down to The Church Key for a beer, a burger, or more, chances are you’ll be served by Jess Broadfoot during the day, or by Paul Markovich over the evening. The two have been at The Church for nine and seven years respectively. The longevity of their time there is not only a testament to their personal commitment to excellence in service, but also to the culture of the restaurant.
“We’re a real family,” says Vanessa. “What has surprised me the most about owning The Church Key is the feedback [from patrons]. The feeling of gratitude that I have, that’s constant.”
“Owning [The Church Key] has exceeded our expectation,” Peter adds. “The crowd that comes here is just such a delight, and it makes everything so easy and worthwhile. People who are celebrating their milestones choose to come and do it here. I wanted that to happen, but it’s humbling. You hope for the best, but it’s gone so over the moon. It’s so much bigger than us.”
The Church Key Bistro-Pub
476 Richmond Street, London
Tuesday: 11:30 am–10pm
Wednesday & Thursday: 11:30 am–11 pm
Friday & Saturday: 11:30 am–12 am
Sunday: 11:00 am–10 pm