Despite successful measures to increase Ontario’s vaccination rate, the province remains only partially open, and restaurants are still subject to capacity and social distancing constraints. Throughout the course of the pandemic, restaurants and bars have been forced to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions — among them, the restaurant Bar Mercurio near UTSG.
Adapting to pandemic restrictions
Bar Mercurio is an Italian restaurant and bar that serves healthy and crowd-pleasing pizzas, pastas, salads, and appetizers. Giuseppe Mercurio, the founder of the restaurant, decided to open the restaurant at 270 Bloor Street West — next to UTSG — because of the affection he gained for the area during his time as a U of T student.
In an interview with The Varsity, Mercurio noted that pandemic restrictions initially prevented Bar Mercurio from allowing indoor dining altogether and that more recent pandemic restrictions have only allowed dining services to resume at half capacity. The consequent lack of “hustle and bustle” in the restaurant, according to Mercurio, has forced him to shift workplace responsibilities and priorities among the staff.
“One of my chefs [and I] are working and we do absolutely everything. And in the event I need an extra hand, either my mother or my daughter or my wife would come to help us,” Mercurio said, highlighting his heavy involvement in the day-to-day activities of the restaurant. “I [do] absolutely everything from cleaning toilets to buying wine to producing the menu,” he said.
Keeping up with customers’ tastes
Regarding changes to Bar Mercurio’s menu, Mercurio noted that the pandemic has forced him to shorten his menu, consequently prompting him to regularly change the entrées he offers in order to create a “more dynamic and interesting menu.”
Mercurio explained that, as a chef, he wants to be challenged continually to make better and different products. “[If] we have steak [we’ll cook it] in different ways, we’ll have different cuts, we’ll have different sides, it’s always changing. And I believe that’s the hallmark of a great restaurant,” he said.
Pandemic restrictions have also prompted Mercurio to focus on the quality of his entrées, with much of his focus devoted to his sourdough-leavened pizza. Mercurio explains that they use organic flour to make their pizzas and their pizza dough is fermented for five to ten days. Bar Mercurio doesn’t make their bread and serve it the same day; they make it and serve it one day later. “[It] requires a whole different approach to preparation, which is much more involved and much more intense,” Mercurio said.
Changing the restaurant environment
The most significant change Bar Mercurio has made in the face of pandemic restrictions is its change of atmosphere. Following half-capacity mandates, Mercurio decided to “[move] forward with a more relaxed environment, [resembling] a private club.”
Though Mercurio is wary of the potential economic consequences of half capacity measures, he believes pre-pandemic traffic “will not return immediately” to restaurants even if there are no longer capacity limits put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, and feels that this modification to his restaurant is the best way to handle current circumstances. “There’s a limited amount of people, [so they] don’t feel like they have to leave the restaurant [right away]. And they can enjoy themselves a little longer,” he explains.
When asked about future plans for Bar Mercurio, Mercurio said that he wishes to take advantage of the restaurant’s decreased traffic to change the restaurant into a mark of his lifestyle. Mercurio explained that he likes to paint and would like to promote his artwork through the restaurant in the future. “I’ll have other paintings and sculptures in the restaurant and turn it into somewhat of a museum. And, within that context, continue to have this restaurant.”