Marché Rises Again

The Globe and Mail, August 27, 2010

“No reservations” policies at a handful of acclaimed new restaurants – from Black Hoof to Guu – mean that Torontonians have recently grown accustomed to the most New York of habits: Waiting in line. It might herald the arrival of a new era of Toronto dining – an era that includes restaurants that are actually good enough to warrant a lineup – but it’s worth noting that Torontonians were queuing up long before they knew their charcuterie from their izakaya. They were waiting, of course, at Marché, the market-style Mövenpick offshoot, which arrived in 1992 to much acclaim, and which reappeared after a seven-year hiatus earlier this month in much quieter fashion.

Back in the Paleolithic era of Toronto dining, Marché was unquestionably worth the wait. More than a meal, it was culinary extravaganza, a postmodern food performance unlike anything the city had ever seen. The European market concept, which consisted of 10 or so distinct food stations, inspired giddiness in diners: So much choice! Rösti! Bouillabaisse! Authentic Belgian waffles! (Way more sophisticated than Golden Griddle.) The menu offered a smorgasbord of continental delights, and whether a dish was Austrian or Belgian or French, it felt like it came from the same place, and indeed it did: Europe.

As a pre-teen, when I had friends visit from Michigan, I’d take them to Marché. Betcha don’t have this in West Bloomfield, I might have actually said. The lineup was part of the draw; back then, it was the only club that would let us in. Inside, we didn’t have to deal with patronizing waiters. We ordered for ourselves, often just by pointing. We’d sip Shirley Temples and retell great stories. And the bathrooms. Oh, the bathrooms. Their walls, adorned with artsy black-and-white posters of topless female boxers, were a revelation.

For less hormone-addled diners, the appeal was the connection the restaurant offered to their food; you could chat with the cook as she prepared your meal. You could imagine, for a moment, that she’d in fact harvested the wheat used in your crepes that very morning. It was a market Disneyfied, a place where everyone’s hands are clean and money is eschewed in favour of fun stamp cards.

At the time, of course, few Torontonians had heard the term “farmers’ market.” (A pair of young, idealistic chefs – Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander – had founded the city’s first significant farmers’ market, Knives and Forks, just a couple years earlier, in 1989.) The 100-mile diet was more than a decade away. And Toronto’s international cuisine comprised mostly egg rolls and ravioli. Marché was killing it.

Within a few years, however, success bred contempt. In 1997, Jorg and Marianne Reichert, who owned the North American rights to the Mövenpick brand, founded Richtree, a public company that would control and grow their assets. (The Reicherts had held the rights privately since arriving to Toronto in 1982, when they turned around Mövenpick’s then-fledgling York Street flagship.) At that time, the couple engaged in a series of lengthy and complex legal battles with Mövenpick and then Richtree, and by 2004, it all fell apart: Mövenpick pulled out of Canada, and the Reicherts, facing allegations of financial impropriety, were deposed from Richtree.

Today, the Reicherts are far out of the picture – their most recent venture, a highway rest stop near Barrie, was short-lived – but the Toronto to which Marché returns is a very different place. We’ve now got an abundance of farmers’ markets, a United Nations of cuisines, and a proliferation of young, talented chefs. There are, in other words, better places to get seasonal produce, or paella, or fresh-made fettuccini.

I returned to Marché last week for the first time in nearly 15 years. As I perused the stations, the giddiness returned. I was flooded with nostalgia. And then, things went downhill. My friends and I split up, and within three minutes, my order – rösti, a well-oiled cake of grated, fried potatoes – was ready. By then, one friend was waiting for a burger and another remained undecided, discouraged after discovering that the wood-burning brick pizza oven is neither brick nor wood-burning. “When I was 11, this was the best place in the world,” he said. “But now I see that it’s really just a very fancy cafeteria.”

He’s right, and to be sure, Marché’s hot spot status is far behind us. However, as Torontonians’ tastes have evolved, mid-range dining options in the financial district have not kept pace. Marché is wisely positioned somewhere between Subway and Reds, a gastronomically destitute space otherwise occupied by the likes of the Loose Moose. Marché has a salad bar, manageable prices (though the 12 per cent built-in gratuity stings) and in some rare cases, “market fresh” actually means seasonal and local produce.

Still, there remains the irksome issue of timing. On that lunch date with friends, I ate alone. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed that rösti. Would I wait in line for it? Not a chance.

Image courtesy of lmnop88a.

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