Tony Merante is proud of the St. Clair Ave. West neighbourhood where he grew up. And he believed in it to the point of risking all his savings to open a restaurant in Regal Heights, a section bordered on the west by Dufferin St., on the east by Alberta Ave., north by St. Clair Ave. West and south by Davenport Rd.
In the 1950s, a wave of Italian immigrants moved into the area including Tony’s parents. The stretch along St. Clair between Oakwood and Lansdowne soon reflected the cultural preferences of its residents with cafés, bakeries, restaurants, gelaterias, and a vibrant social life that spilled onto the street. The section between Westmount and Lansdowne became known as Corso Italia, reflecting its strong Italian influence and boasting the first licensed patio in Toronto. As a child in the 1970s, Tony, with his brothers and friends, enjoyed the bustle of their surroundings while eating gelato and swinging on the chain links that separated the pavement from St. Clair.
In 2000, after years of living in different parts of the city, Tony returned to his childhood home. The flourishing atmosphere on Corso Italia had waned due to the gradual business drain towards Woodbridge (a mostly Italian-Canadian Toronto suburb) and the Regal Heights section between Oakwood and Dufferin had lost much of its luster. Tony’s sentimental attachment to his old neighbourhood created a yearning to see it thrive again. In 2004, at a crossroads in his career, he took the plunge and put his money where his heart was. He opened Regal Heights Bistro, thus asserting his faith in the area’s revival.
A self-made restaurateur, he learned his trade at Toby’s Goodeats, where he worked his way up from waiter, line-cook to manager, and through his keen observation of Toronto’s social make-up and trends. In Regal Heights, rooming houses had given way to single family homes and the people who moved in were the typical mix of Torontonians from diverse backgrounds. Tony banked on the fact that his restaurant’s more upscale fare would attract residents ready for cuisine that went beyond fast food and was served in the warm, inviting space he had designed with vintage 20s posters, art deco lamps and memorabilia.
But there were challenges. Tony took them in stride during the long wait for a liquor license and patio permit. He hired Anthony Abbatangeli and his band, Double A jazz, to perform during Sunday brunch. This weekly jazz brunch became popular with locals, grateful to walk just a few blocks for good food and convivial ambiance. Then between 2006 and 2010, construction of the streetcar right-of-way brought traffic congestion and parking issues for most businesses on St. Clair from Yonge to Keele. Plummeting revenues prompted Tony to become even more resourceful. Observing his customers’ patterns, he opened for lunch on weekends only. He started a Thursday evening open mic and later found a partner to assist him with finances and marketing. Regal Heights Bistro was changed to DeSotos to attract a wider clientele.
Tony is the kind of person who, once he sets his mind on making something work, never gives up. There is passionate commitment in his dark, serious eyes and his determined gait. For him, mistakes and impediments are just obstacles to overcome and experiences to learn from. At a young age, he discovered that the best way to gain knowledge was to take something apart and put it together again. With that philosophy in mind, he worked hard and trained fast at his jobs at Toby’s Goodeats, which led him to managing several restaurants. Practice provided the bulk of his learning, but he also took bartending and culinary courses. However, his most inspiring moments came from experimenting on his own and understanding every step as he blended and built flavours in his kitchen. He is an intuitive, hands-on type who is also willing to learn from others’ experiences and from his own customers. Tony does not have the arrogance to impose overly artful creations. When his patrons wanted great food but could not afford high prices, he adapted his menu, determined to develop a regular clientele by accommodating their preferences.
As a result of these efforts and the sense of well-being he brings into the area, customers keep supporting his restaurant, which Tony considers, not only an eatery for enjoying delicious meals, but also a gathering place for the community. He has hosted photo and art exhibitions, book launches, film screenings, movie nights, private parties and more. His Thursday open mic night is a festive happening. Singers and musicians, some from as far away as Vaughan, join this weekly music celebration and regulars have become part of the DeSotos family. Tony’s eyes soften when he sees people mingle, have a chance to chat, share their thoughts or troubles and laugh or cry over a drink with family and friends. It’s the part of the business that makes him feel all the hard work has been worth it.
After 10 years at this location, his dedication and perseverance have paid off. He is again the sole owner and last year he opened Stella’s Lunch Box, a café next to his restaurant. It offers lighter fare for lunch in a bright, cozy and inviting place where you can sip cappuccino and savour smoked salmon panini or freshly-baked pastry at leisure.
Tony’s loyalty to his childhood neighbourhood goes beyond his own business. He encourages entrepreneurs to serve the area’s needs and wants to see them succeed. He understands that a dynamic stretch, the kind where he felt safe as a child, where people are comfortable walking down the street to shop or eat, is essential for a healthy community. DeSotos and Stella’s offer an immediate sense of comfort with their friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Even newcomers from as far away as France or Japan feel right at home.
Tony is open to new events that enrich the experience of area residents and welcomes community projects and creative initiatives. It is an asset for Regal Heights to have a dedicated restaurateur such as Tony Merante.
– Peggy Lampotang
Photos by Peggy Lampotang