Iconic Dishes: 416 Snack Bar
Toronto's late-night legend and industry favourite 416 Snack Bar shares the stories behind some of their best-known dishes.
Ten years on, 416 Snack Bar feels as close to a restaurant institution as you could hope to have without a plaque on the wall. Always a fun time, the raucous dining room — which offers bite-sized portions from every cultural corner of the city — is a larger-than-life (sometimes sweaty) experience that belies its diminutive square footage.
Still relevant, still delicious and still that cool-as-hell spot you can’t help but show off to out-of-towners, the Bathurst Street icon is perhaps the best representation of Toronto as a whole.
“There’s a low self-esteem thing that Toronto has had going for a long time with self-comparisons to Montreal or New York,” says Adrian Ravinsky, co-owner at 416 Snack Bar. “And it’s like, no, man, this is a sweet, medium-sized city — and I think that’s something worth celebrating.”
Classier than a dive bar, but way too much fun to be deemed just a restaurant, the small-plate staple was inspired by a pintxo-fuelled trip to San Sebastián more than a decade ago.
Initially imagined as a Toronto sandwich shop, the bar’s offering began to unfurl into a multicultural medley of handheld delights, from Japanese-inspired Temaki spicy tuna handrolls and Taiwanese-style bao to Ethiopian injera.
“It’s sort of like a tapas bar, but it’s not Spanish,” explains Ravinsky. “Small plates of delicious food that you’re meant to drink with and take your time eating, and everything is three to six bites. There’s no cutlery, so prepare yourself for that.”
Toronto is a sweet, medium-sized city — and I think that’s something worth celebrating
Before inspiration for their bricks-and-mortar spot struck, 416 Snack Bar was a food blog with a healthy following chronicling Toronto’s under-the-radar culinary scene. When they weren’t bussing tables, school pals and co-creators Ravinksy and Dave Stewart could be found on food tours of the inner suburbs.
“That’s kind of what 416 Snack Bar (the blog) was about, discovering ingredients in Chinatown and finding the best Jamaican beef patty in town.”
No less noble a pursuit, the snacking spot also aimed to fill the hospitality industry’s late-night dining dilemma. “After 11 o’clock, there was absolutely fucking nothing to eat in the city,” says Ravinksy. “Being open until 2 a.m., seven days a week, no matter how busy or slow, has been our M.O. from day one.”
In fact, the bar’s insider clientele of cooks and servers is how I stumbled upon 416 Snack Bar before I’d even moved to Toronto. A VICE Munchies Chef’s Night Out video from 2013, following Grant van Gameren, Guy Rawlings and Bar Isabel alumni on a crawl around the city, with stop offs at faves like 416, made me feel like I’d been given the keys to the city.
Ravinsky, who showed his long term girlfriend this video for the first time just a few months ago, believes that it should serve as a welcome reminder that things won’t always be so bleak. “I texted some industry pals afterwards and said, ‘Guys, don’t forget — things are gonna go back to being great again.’”
In our first installment of this series, Ravinsky walks us through five of the most iconic dishes at 416 Snack Bar.
"This is one of my favourites. It was actually an adaptation that one of our staff members requested, because we had an eggplant sandwich where the eggplant disc was the filling. Maggie Chu [of Maggie Chu’s Noodlebar], who worked for us for years, said ‘Can I have two eggplants on the outside and all the other stuff on the inside?’
We all agreed that that was a vastly superior way to eat it. And the rest is history. I gotta be honest, the quinoa crunch is a little bit inspired by Fresh Restaurants’ onion rings. It’s just made with buffalo mozzarella, a bit of arugula, some tomato sauce and that’s it. That’s one dish I don’t think we’re ever going to get bored of.”
Korean Fried Chicken
"Korean fried chicken is everywhere now, because it’s a delicious dish, but I had never seen it in a non-Korean restaurant. Frankly, I would love to take it off the menu, but there are a handful of our stalwart dishes that have been on for eight or 10 years, that we’ve tried taking off and people are actually angry at us.
The idea is to honour these dishes and to bring them to the attention of people that otherwise probably wouldn’t be experiencing them. It’s something that I’m still negotiating personally.
There’s a difference between bringing a respectful adaptation of a dish to people, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. In 2021, I think this concept is very different, culturally, in what it means to people than it did in 2011.
At the time [of creation], our chef was Jon Vettraino — he came up with this recipe and it’s sort of a twist on Korean-fried chicken. It’s not as sweet, a little more gingery and heavy on the gojuchang.
Double-deep-fried chicken thighs, bites of it with sesame and green onion: It’s delicious, great drinking food. I love fried chicken as much as the next person, but if I can eat it quickly with skewers as opposed to getting myself all dirty...”
Taiwanese-style Steamed Pork Belly Bun
"Before we ever opened this place, me and Dave held snack parties at our respective apartments and invited a bunch of friends. We made steamed buns using the Momofuku cookbook recipe, which we’ve tweaked over time — it’s pork belly, in a milk bun. There’s a little touch of hoisin sauce, pickled carrot and daikon radish and a little leaf of watercress.
After a year, I was so sick of selling pork buns. I’m more inclined to recommend the fish bun or the veggie buns — they’re low-key killers. We buy the crispy salmon skin from this place in the east end called Kristapsons, which is a Leslieville institution that’s been selling smoked salmon for 30 years. It’s basically salmon bacon. The veggie bun uses a Korean-style nori seaweed cracker that we make called gim-bugak.”
“It’s almost like a jerk fish in Bo Ssam’s clothing — boston bibb lettuce, julienned mango and just crunchy, delicious things. Some escabeche, which is a spicy vinegar. And you’re meant to make your own salad-cup-thing. We put jerk sauce on the fillets and grill them, and then we deep fry the carcass, so you get all that crispy deliciousness off the bone.
Some people really do the job properly and eat the whole head and the tail. We give some chili salt on the side, some lime and a creamy slaw that you normally would find at a Jamaican take out. It’s not really a snack-sized portion, but a lot of people come and eat it by themselves.”
“Ten years ago, serving steak tartare was out there for something of this style. Of course, tartare was to be found at Le Sélect, Le Paradis, La Palette, you know — the French restaurants downtown and even the bistro-y ones. It couldn’t be more classic.
But in terms of our audience and for the price point, I think a lot of people have had their first steak tartare experience here. They say things like, ‘This is the best bruschetta I’ve ever had!’ Uh, Sir, I think you’re drunk and I hope you’re not vegetarian. It’s gone through a few iterations of vessels, but we use Forno Cultura sourdough that they make just for us in this shape, and I think that contributes so much.”