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Go now: Ossington’s Salt Wine Bar could soon be closed for licence infractions

Salt Wine Bar, a small, excellent new tapas place on Ossington Avenue, might not survive its first month in business, after a story on the Toronto Star’s Web site today exposed an open secret on the popular strip: that the room is operating without the proper liquor or business licences.

Albino Silva, the restaurateur behind Chiado on College Street, is part owner of Salt. He secured the lease for the space at 225 Ossington in January 2009, just four months before the city issued a year-long moratorium on business licences for new bars and restaurants on the street.

Stuck with the property, well into planning for the venture and assured that the ban would soon be lifted, Silva forged ahead. Then, in fall of last year, the city adopted changes to the moratorium that would have allowed a licence for smaller spaces, including Silva’s restaurant. But a handful of business and property owners in the area contested the change and brought the issue before the Ontario Municipal Board, where it has been stalled ever since. Everybody’s hands are tied until the OMB rules on the issue, city officials say. Hearings aren’t scheduled until November.

So when he opened on August 4, Silva did so with the space’s existing grocery licence—he intends to fill the room’s floor-to-ceiling olive wood shelving with Portuguese and Spanish specialty foods—and by serving wine and cocktails on the catering licence he has through Chiado.

“You know what, I said to my kids, I’m exposing myself here, but I’ve always been an honest businessman and I’m going to be truthful about this, and I hope I won’t have any problems,” he said in an interview early this week. (Toronto Life chose not to publish the story at the time, knowing that doing otherwise could get him shut down.) “What am I going to do, lie about it? No.”

The restaurant is very good: fun and casual but completely mellow, sophisticated without being pretentious, wine-focused, with an impressive selection of sub-$40 bottles. And the small Iberian-inspired plates from ex–Prego Della Piazza chef Dave Kemp are in many cases as good as you’ll find in Lisbon or Barcelona. The charred bread, for example, is as close as you can get to Catalonia’s incredible pan con tomate without actually being there: fresh, sweet, pulpy tomatoes, oil and sea salt that you spoon (they rub it in Spain, but no matter) over crusty garlic-rubbed bread. It is hardly the sort of raucous, booming nightclub that the city’s ban seemed intended to prevent; if anything, it’s the sort of place the street and the city need more of.

City councillor and mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone said today that he hopes city officials will be lenient with the wine bar. “I have absolutely no doubt that this is an excellent place, and it’s the kind of place that we want. I’ve said to them, if you should find yourself in any technical difficulties with the city…I would be pleased to write any letters and to suggest to city officials that they should apply discretion,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s really a technicality, this whole issue.” But Pantalone added that neither he nor the city has any pull with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which is responsible for issuing and inspecting liquor licences.

Silva says inspectors from the city and from the AGCO visited him earlier this week, before The Star made his rule-breaking public, but noted that he hadn’t yet heard back from officials with either body. The Star piece, if anything, could speed their decision. Silva is furious with the paper. “They were after blood, and I don’t know why,” he said. “At the end of the day, there will be 18 people out of a job.” The Star’s Amy Pataki, who wrote the piece, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon. For now, Silva says, he plans to keep opening every night. “I’m going to open until somebody closes me down.”

Get there while you can, in other words.

Despite ban, frustrated restaurateur opens on Ossington [Toronto Star]

  • kerrym

    I hope they are closed. I have a friend who recently whent there with her husband. She advised her server that he is allergic to peanuts. They were reassured nothing they ordered had nuts in it. Of course, when he got sick about 15 mins later they found out some chutney had peanuts in it. The best part: they offered “half-off” the bill. Guess his life is only worth 50 bucks? WTF??? had nuts

  • Neidi

    I have had a great meal at Salt and it would be a shame if this place closes down. The chef is brilliant and the wine selection is great. I was there in the first week of operation and all they needed was some time to work out the kinks of a new opening.
    At the same time a restauranteur should know how to handle a reporter!

  • Shannon

    While I agree that Salt is a great place to eat, and a wonderful addition to the neighbourhood, I must also speak up for all of the restaurants that DO obey the rules. Many responsible owners wait months to be approved for a liquor license, losing potential revenue as well as customers in the interim.
    As for the whole ‘catering liquor license’ thing, we all know, Mr. Silva, that liquor licenses are issued to very specific spaces and measurements, not to mention fire inspection, health inspection and building inspection.

  • fred smith

    the agco is not known for having a progressive, elastic or inclusive stance w. permit holders.
    if salt stays open, a flood of others may find the same loopholes, good people or not.
    all licence-holders are subject to the same archaic laws, no matter how many employees.
    silva may want to help them by not skirting laws.

  • william

    to the person that wrote about the peanuts, Salt does not have any peanuts on premises, Salt uses almonds in a preserve, i believe the person was informed that we do not have peanuts, i would think that the person would not have almonds either?

  • Phil

    Fred Smith: No, the AGCO is known for lack attitudes when it comes to understanding their own legislations. They give licenses to large foreign owned brewers that, by law, cannot own a liquor license. Then they turn around and jump on small brewers for cleaning beer lines for their customers. They are a highly selfish organization full of dictators that couldn’t get a job elsewhere. They fail in a major way. If the City is to put a moratorium on a location, then have some lead time so people don’t get stung trying to invest in our city. Of course, the AGCO being government, they wouldn’t actually know what that means, because everything is free for them. So no, all licence holders are not subject to same archaic laws.

  • perry

    This is a great place with a great feel. There should be more like it along this strip. A comfortable spot that has a great food and wine selections. A definate attribute to the neighbourhood and we should be fighting to keep it alive.

  • sunya

    Didn’t know about this until I recommended Salt to a friend and discovered this on-line. We had a great meal, great service in a gorgeous atmosphere. All politics a side. Who wouldn’t love another quality place to go. Hope it all works out.

  • alohaT.O.

    “(Toronto Life chose not to publish the story at the time, knowing that doing otherwise could get him shut down.)”
    Hmmm… this makes me very suspicious of your journalism ethics and practices, TL… any other stories you withhold so you don’t ruffle some feathers or shut down some friends?

  • DavidS

    Albino Silva admitted he was breaking the law in the article. He should have waited like other law abiding citizens. His behaviour is criminal. It was not a mistake. It was a blatant attempt to break the law. Èliquor licenses are issued to very specific spaces and measurements, not to mention fire inspection, health inspection and building inspection”. He should be punnished and shut down. We have laws for a reason. Take away his other licences too! We dont need people like him in Toronto.

  • andrew

    DavidS: Criminal? That’s a bit much. I’m pretty sure a contravention of the Ontario Liquor License Act is not also a contravention of the Criminal Code of Canada!