1580 Argyle Street
Tue-Fri 12-3pm & 5:30-10pm
Sat 11:30am-3pm & 5:30-11pm
East of Grafton probably wishes it was anywhere else, thanks to the nonsensical oversaturation of construction that has basically made Argyle Street the shittiest place to spend time on the peninsula. (“Hold my beer.” —The Waterfront.)
We have all heard how difficult Trade Centre construction has made it for downtown businesses and effectively shutting down the city’s biggest strip of patios for the entirety of the summer season feels like exactly the wrong way to move forward from that mess. Where once there were patios, now there is essentially a constant scream of wind in the glassy tunnel made by the Trade Centre, coldly blowing through gravel and dust like the angry ghost of patio seasons past. There is a literal gravel pit outside of East of Grafton. It is not great.
When I go to East of Grafton for dinner, there are only two other people in the restaurant for the near 90-minute meal. When the other couple remarks on the emptiness of the restaurant, their server says that it was busy every night but, gesturing to the emptiness of the room with a shrug, he says, “Now it’s...this.” And “this” is the situation until October.
East of Grafton is owned by RCR Hospitality Group—which also ran Q Smokehouse and Onyx, and owns restaurants like Shuck, CUT and Waterfront Warehouse. RCR’s holdings can tend toward humdrum, but sometimes they nail it. Bistro le Coq, for example, is a gem of a place.
The Argyle space has been beautifully flipped from its days as Onyx, the smooth edges remaining, but appealingly worn down. The sultry black banquette still recalls a Victorian-era drawing room, but there are industrial, shabby-chic elements—the worn patina of the tin ceiling, mixes of wire and tassels in lamp shades, shelves of knick-knacks and glassy curio cabinets—that give it a Little Edie twist of fun, dotty glamour.
Onyx always felt like it was grasping for something it could never quite reach; East of Grafton seems to have a handle on itself.
The beverage program has a lovely cocktail list, so I start with a champagne cocktail ($12): Benjamin Bridge’s non-vintage sparkling with a dash of bitters and a muddle of tangy raspberries, served in a huge saucer.
My server, Alex, is sweet and cheerful, attentive and even fun without becoming obsequious due to the quiet. He points out it is happy hour and all appetizers are half-price, so I start with patatas bravas ($9, $4.50 during happy hour). The potatoes are fried crisp on the outside with fluffy insides, tinged red from a toss in hot sauce. The bowl is flecked with green onion and drizzled with garlicky aioli. It’s a generous serving, a bar snack truly built for sharing and a goddamned bargain.
It’s the poké bowl, a Hawaiian-inspired raw fish salad ($20), that will keep me coming back, though. This menu at East of Grafton, designed by chef Matt Kelly, I think best melds outward-looking creativity with RCR’s general attempts at approachability.
The rice is just slightly undercooked, but the dish easily overcomes that flaw. The tuna is silky, with a nutty, earthy marinade that accents the raw sweetness of the fish. Crumbles of macadamia nut offer a great crunch along with a sprinkling of black sesame. Fresh, thin slices of fresh, crisp jalapeno bring just the slightest touch of heat and the citrus tang of the creamy ponzu mayo brings the whole dish together into a refreshing, restorative summer dinner.
I finish my meal with Giggle Water ($12), a tart and sweet watermelon-based tequila cocktail that practically begs for a patio. As I drink it, I think that this is a restaurant that probably deserves more attention than it currently gets, but wonder how it can compete for attention with a jackhammer.
It definitely feels like a tough sell to get someone to spend their time on Argyle Street right now. But East of Grafton makes me want to buy in.