When I first heard about a secret brunch place in the middle of Hart House, I had a fairly specific picture in my mind. I thought of breakfast food — high in carbs and protein, quick, and probably fairly cheap. I pictured a student-run stop filled with friends taking a break from classes or studying after a midterm.
Gallery Grill is none of those things.
To be fair to the Grill, it doesn’t actually advertise itself as a “secret brunch place” — that was my own misconception at work. The restaurant’s website bills it as a lunch spot, featuring “inventive cuisine served with sophistication.” It does feel like a secret, which is impressive given that it’s located right across the hall from the Hart House library.
When I went to the Gallery Grill in June for a gay brunch with an old friend, I had taken a quick look at the website to double-check the location and make a reservation, which I learned was apparently necessary. Other than that, I was basically going in blind, which was probably a bad idea.
From the moment our waiter came over to ask if we preferred still or sparkling water, I realized I was out of my depth. We were seated in the lounge amid a few other scattered tables, a case of half a dozen museum-quality classic viols, and some armchairs arranged around an up-to-date copy of the Toronto Star. As I stared down at our six dollar focaccia, I couldn’t help but wonder — what had I stumbled into?
The answer, it turns out, is a bit of a long story. The space where Gallery Grill sits today was originally designed in the early twentieth century as a place for faculty to dine. In 1995, after an electrical fire prompted Hart House to renovate this faculty dine-in lounge, Gallery Grill opened in its stead as a specialty à la carte restaurant to both faculty and students. It’s still most often frequented by professors, but Jerry Horton, its long-time manager, tells me that it’s also the site of a number of business lunches and alumni visits.
One group conspicuously absent from the restaurant, however, was students. This probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the price point of the restaurant. Not only do main courses range from about $20–30, but the portions are a little small, indicating that you’re supposed to get an appetizer alongside them. It feels like it’s designed to be a kind of three-course dining experience that most students aren’t usually looking for.
The current staff of Gallery Grill have been looking to make the restaurant more student-friendly, though. “At the end of the day, this is all for the students,” said Marco Tucci, Hart House’s executive chef and culinary operations manager, in an interview with The Varsity. Although Tucci’s been working at Hart House for most of the last 23 years, he’s new to Gallery Grill, and he’s noticed a disconnect between the restaurant and the U of T student community. He noted that if no one tells you about it, then you won’t know it exists.
The people at Gallery Grill have been brainstorming ways to fix that disconnect. The management team has been looking into whether the restaurant can start accepting meal plan dollars. At the same time, Tucci has been trying to change up the menu to include foods that might appeal more to students.
Tucci added that it’s also easy to try out new menu items. He tries to keep the menus at Hart House and at the Grill fairly simple — mostly based on foods that he’s enjoyed throughout his life — but he’s also always willing to try new ingredients and methods of cooking. If he likes them, he often incorporates them into his menus. Lately, he’s been trying to incorporate more vegetarian and vegan fare into everything put out by Hart House, from the Grill to catered events to the five-dollar lunches offered monthly in the Great Hall.
Personally, I really enjoyed the food — it was all flavoured well, in ways I wouldn’t necessarily think to try. They had a gingery pear juice that tasted enough like my absolute favourite kind of pie, which almost justified paying six dollars for juice. We tried their maple syrup gelato, which seems to be a fixture on their menu — and I can see why, because it disappeared very fast.
I could spend more time talking about the food — I took notes on everything we tried; however, they’re a little incomprehensible, because I was definitely more interested in eating it.
Coming out of the restaurant, though, there were many other things occupying my mind. Gallery Grill seems a bit incongruous — everything about it made me feel like I’d just walked into an expensive Yorkville dining experience that someone teleported into an old lecture hall. Gallery Grill’s not the kind of place I would ever expect to meet a fellow student in, and I could barely believe I was still on campus — but, from the blazoned plates to the caricatures of 1920s professors on the stained glass windows, it still felt distinctly U of T.
In some ways, Gallery Grill’s enigmaticness aligns it more with U of T than anything else. It’s exclusive. It’s expensive. It’s confusing to navigate. Its history is longer and more ‘storied’ than I would have ever thought. I’ve talked to plenty of people who genuinely seem to care about innovating and making the place better than they found it, but it’s still kind of inaccessible to students.
Maybe Gallery Grill is the most U of T phenomenon that could happen in Hart House. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and it’s just an upscale restaurant in a bit of an odd place. Either way, I had a fun time, and I’m glad I went — but I don’t know if I’ll be heading back anytime soon.
Gallery Grill will re-open for the fall starting September 12.