Barberian’s: tradition and evolution as the recipe for longevity in the restaurant world

Barberian’s: tradition and evolution as the recipe for longevity in the restaurant world

When a restaurant is heralded as an institution it can be difficult to pin down what exactly makes it so special. Barberian’s Steak House is such a place. Looking at the stark white facade in downtown Toronto it might be hard to imagine the just-as-white tablecloths and spirited atmosphere inside. To anyone who ventures into the warm and welcoming space, it’s clear the restaurant has the kind of old school charm that is impossible to manufacture.

One of the city’s most beloved places to eat, Barberian’s has been a favorite for intimate dinners for decades. We caught up with the owner Arron Barberian to learn more about what has made this traditional spot the fine-dining choice for generations. While we’re sure that the exquisite meat, 4000-strong wine list and consistently excellent service is part of the reason, the magic also seems to lie in the charismatic restauranteur’s innate ability to balance tradition and evolution, and his strong desire to give back to the community in which is father founded the place over 60 years ago.

For someone who hasn’t had the pleasure, how would you describe the restaurant?

It’s a strong, vibrant steak house. Toronto’s oldest white tablecloth restaurant, founded by my father in the 50s. We continue to be a part of the community. It’s been involved in a lot of people’s celebrations, from engagements to weddings to wakes. We become part of people’s lives and every day there’s somebody famous in the restaurant which is kind of cool. Actors, musicians, artists, politicians. It’s also a very traditional restaurant, the menu hasn’t changed a whole lot. We believe in those traditional white tablecloth values. Although the truth is we relaxed the dress code years ago.

It was nice to see people dress in fine, bespoke clothing but at some point it happened. It’s actually a funny story. In 1974, this woman walked into the restaurant looking for a table. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and the manager on duty turned her away and everybody was horrified because he didn’t recognise it was Raquel Welch. After that we were like, maybe we don’t need this dress code anymore.

You’ve been open for 60 years now. How did it all begin?

That’s also a funny story. My father’s brother won a small restaurant in a game of craps. At the time, my dad was eighteen working in a foundry, making tractor parts. And he basically took my father out of the factory and said I want you to run this restaurant I just won. Then about two months later he lost it. But my dad had got the bug. He started traveling around. He went to New York and other cities where the great restaurants were, working in a couple of places. By the time he was 24, a young man who had never finished the 7th grade, he had opened his first restaurant. Then in ‘59 he opened Barberian’s when he was just 29 years old.

What was your father like?

My father was larger than life. Even though he was a little guy, he was only five foot six. And a friend to everybody. When dad passed away, the city and the province had a minute of silence. If you could imagine how important a little businessman was that the city stopped. He was a great guy, a spectacular man, loved by many. At Barberian’s, we try to live up to that. We are very community involved and give almost all the profits from the business to charity. We never ask for our name on things, but still find our name on rooms at the local hospital, or the road next to the restaurant.

Did you grow up in the restaurant?

I did, but I didn’t. I was always interested. Growing up, I used to wait up late at night for my dad to come home from work, just so I could eat with him and listen to how his day was and what happened at the restaurant. Then he’d give me a glass of orange juice and put me back to bed. But when I was 13 years old, my dad sold the restaurant and we moved to Florida in the United States. I’m 60 years old now, but 30 years ago I got the chance to buy it back. The new owners hadn’t done a good job, the business was failing.

Has the restaurant changed a lot?

The menu changed slowly over time. We still have our dedication to the finest wines in the world, our list has just grown. We still cook over hardwood charcoal, which is kind of unique in the restaurant business now. A lot of the layout of the restaurant is the same. We take an ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ approach to running the restaurant. You know?

That’s quite similar to how we do things at Atelier Munro. Taking the best parts of tradition, while evolving them for today.

Yes, and that’s why you’re successful. You’re selling artisanal suits, coats that honor tradition. We have the same ethos.

What I did change when I took over the restaurant about 30 years ago was the wine list and the beautiful wine cellar that you guys recently came to have dinner in. I built that 20 years ago, just shortly after my dad died. I wanted to have a place to really showcase our vast wine collection, which is the largest in the country. It actually only houses about a third of our collection. To get everybody’s buy in on that was a little bit crazy because most people only know cellars to be one story underground. I wanted to do something more magnificent, so I decided to go two stories underground and everybody thought I was crazy. It took 56 tonnes of steel, 500 cubic meters of concrete, but it looks good, it worked out. It’s our most popular private dining room now. It was kind of a happy accident.

I didn’t originally want a table down in the lower part. I wanted more wine down there. There’s an upper level, a mezzanine level, and I was just going to have the table for 14 there. But when we finished it, the builder wanted to throw a party to show off the space and somebody asked can I have a party down there? and I said sure. We quickly realized a table down there would generate even more for the restaurant. You know the rock band Rush? Geddy Lee and I are really good friends and we do a series of charity dinners. Last month, we did a dinner down there and raised $150,000 a head for climate action with that table. Good design often leads to happy accidents like that.

You say the restaurant is a traditional place. How did you go about balancing that and bringing it back to life?

You have to really stay on top of it. When you’re talking about wine, it’s very expensive. It’s very easy to make mistakes and invest in a region that no one wants to drink anymore. We did hire a new chef a couple years ago, Jesse Vallins, because we wanted to be a little more creative with the menu, on the appetizers and some of the non-core items. At the beginning of the Ukraine War, for example, we added pierogi and we gave all of the proceeds to UNHCR. We raised over $50,000. Just by adding some $10.00 perogies. So that’s the kind of way we keep things interesting, being community involved. It’s good on many levels.

You guys have been the place for intimate dinners for decades. Why do you think that is?

Toronto, like a lot of cities, has got a problem. A lot of restaurants won’t last a long time. When people go to dine out, they are always asking what’s new, what’s hot? But there is another subset of diners that want to know what the oldest restaurant is, the traditional place, the one that has stood the test of time. And in Toronto, we are that restaurant. And we love our customers. We’re open every night of the year except for Christmas and one other night. We close on the anniversary of my father’s passing to raise money for Mount Sinai Hospital with a dinner. It usually raises about $300,000 for them.

We are also very much involved in everything from dealing with certain abattoirs and selecting our own produce to aging our meat here at the restaurant before cooking on the charcoal. We’re very vertically integrated. By doing that, we can control very carefully the product that we serve. Four waiters have been working for us for over 30 years. Some of them actually pre-date me. That standard, that reputation is important. It’s a really interesting test, putting your name on a business. When it’s your name on the door, it’s your legacy. You know, I hope one day maybe one of my kids might take it on.

It sounds like you’ve inherited quite a legacy and your dad’s wonderful personality too. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to chat today.