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Tale Of Two Traditions: T.O. Deli Reborn With Caplansky's And The Good Old Monarch

If the adage “nothing good lasts forever,” is true in life, in the deli business it’s all but gospel.

Which is why it’s a reality Zane Caplansky now knows well, though in his case it’s more a change than an ending that waits around the bend.

Just off College Street’s sorely beaten “Little Italy” strip, where faux-trendy bistros and 905er nightclubs crop up like weeds, is a bastion of neighbourhood history. Some of it’s even in the making.

The Monarch Tavern, tucked onto the corner of Clinton and Henderson, has been serving the area for decades. Lots of decades. It’s seen generations of Italian and Portuguese men with fathers and grandfathers who called the place their first Canadian watering hole. Its televisions and radios have hosted almost as many Toronto Maple Leafs games as Maple Leaf Gardens.

And in the last six months it’s become the home of Caplansky’s Delicatessen, a throw-back Jewish smoked meatery with an appreciation of history that’s all but consumed knish lovers in the downtown core.

So the tradition has grown and mutated, all from within itself.

“Thirty years ago my father used to bring me next door to San Francesco for their panzerottos and veal sandwiches and then about 20 years ago I started coming up here and watching hockey games and football games and having a beer with my sandwich,” the excitable proprietor says of his introduction to the seemingly unspectacular room that now houses his booming business.

“I’ve always liked this room, it’s always had a Toronto downtown feel.”

But there’s a lurking irony. The very tradition – bring your own food, buy a beer from us – that drew a younger Caplansky to the site is the same one that led him to create one of the city’s hottest menus right from its tiny, long-darkened kitchen.

And it all started with a “heroin-like craving” for “a decent friggin’ smoked meat sandwich.”

“I’d asked some friends who were going to Montreal to bring me back some Schwartz’s sandwiches, there were actually four or five friends over a period of a few months and I said to them all, ‘bring me back a sandwich.'”

None of them did.

“So this fellow who worked for me went and I asked him too. It’s like one in the morning and I’m waiting for him to bring the food and he doesn’t show … I had a bit of a freak out.”

Like it so often – perhaps always – is, necessity proved to be the mother of invention.

“This is f****d!” I screamed,” Caplansky now laughingly recalls. “Why can’t I get good smoked meat in Toronto? I can do this myself. I’ll get a smoker, I’ll figure this out. I’ll do a deli … I was absolutely ranting.”

Maybe, but do a deli he did. The results have been nothing short of phenomenal.

Despite a kitchen so small it can’t hold more than six people and leaves little space for supplies, Caplansky’s mini-menu (knish, sandwiches, soup, poutine, pie and a couple more standards) has become a smash hit in a city that, like its owner, was starved for a decent deli.

So much so that on at least two occasions he’s had to close after literally running out of food.

Eddie Melo is as regular as a regular gets.

He’s been coming to The Monarch for decades, eating sandwiches from San Francesco and Bitondo’s and drowning his Maple Leaf sorrows in draft beers much as he says his father did before him. He’s old friends with the owners and occupies a bar stool next to them on more days than not.

Melo proudly, humorously refers to himself as one of the “bombastic Sopranos-esque boozehounds,” Toronto Life advised would-be Caplansky’s pilgrims to “ignore” in its review of the deli.

But he was there long before them and he knows he’ll be there after.

“We all love him, he’s done so great, pays his rent,” Melo acknowledges of the newest comer one Thursday afternoon.

“We’ve all tried the food, it’s great but he needs a bigger place, he could be making a killing.”

Caplansky knows. He’s already looking.

The cultural symmetry inherent in an old-fashioned Jewish deli housed within an Italian-style neighbourhood haunt would warm the heart of any Lower East Sider, but one look at the bags of potatoes stacked next to the big screen tells you it’s not destined to last.

“My little kitchen is just inadequate for the volume that we’re doing,” Caplansky admits, surveying the room that changed his life.

“On Saturday and Sunday we have five or six people working in there and we’re doing 150-200 meals.”

The kitchen was never meant to produce such volume.

Various cooking couples and elderly neighbourhood types have operated it for stints throughout the years – Melo recalls one woman who made “the best veal, I’m telling you,” but they all faded with time, either unable or unwilling to battle the sandwich spots downstairs and across the street that were so central to The Monarch’s ‘take-in’ tradition in the first place.

The only reason Caplansky opened there at all is because it was cheap and really, he never expected to be a factor.

“It’s this little second-storey dive bar on a side street, who’s ever gonna find me there?” he remembers asking a friend when considering the site for his start-up.

“I’ll make a couple of sandwiches a day, I’ll make a decent living. I was gonna join a sailing club for the summer because I figured things would be so slow. I didn’t think I’d have to hire anybody until September.”

When he opened on June 10th he didn’t even have enough food to get him to the end of the day.

On the strength of word of mouth and his uniquely flavoured smoked meat (he calls it a combination of deli and southern barbecue) it’s been big business pretty much ever since. Expansion appears to be an inevitability.

Caplansky’s currently looking at spots in the neighbourhood, but would ultimately like to set up shop in Kensington Market.

“My great grandfather was one of the very first kosher butchers in the city,” he says with pride. “His butcher shop was on Nassau Street, my father also grew up on that street.”

Much like Caplansky, Melo loves sandwiches. Loves them.

The mention of a good one brings a glimmer to the eyes of both, but each man’s presence at The Monarch is for very different reasons.

“Listen, this is a big Leaf bar,” Melo reiterates. “People have been coming here to drink and watch hockey since, since forever. Say they (the Leafs) get in the playoffs (a knowing smile breaks across his face), what’s going to happen? It’s Saturday night and there are regulars that can’t get a seat, I would hate to see that.”

So would Caplansky. And the fact that his deli doesn’t serve booze and that some of those who come specifically for his food don’t drink isn’t lost on anyone.

“I’m not making any money from the bar, I have a couple of soft drinks that I offer but there’s an opportunity there,” he acknowledges.

Caplansky says he’d also like to add a breakfast menu and expand the reach of his rapidly growing brand.

“Toronto hasn’t seen authentic smoked meat like I do for generations,” he boasts.

“You kind of have to strike while the iron is hot and right now the iron is very hot.”

And so tradition appears set to beget more. But the man whose passion and good timing have made him the fresh new face of Toronto deli can’t forget where it all began.

“I’ve always liked this room,” he says, running a hand across a table top. “The hardwood, the blue the marble … a Toronto institution.”

The Monarch is that, and quite richly so.

“Oh, it’s all about tradition,” Melo agrees with a nod. “That’s what this place is.”

Now Caplansky wants his own. And the Monarch folks want him to have it.

He’s well on his way in more ways than one but surely knows his business will always bear the indomitable and infectious marks of family and neighbourhood left from its original home wherever it goes.

“The second week I was open a guy rushes in here and says, ‘I need two smoked meat sandwiches as fast as you can make them,'” Caplansky relates.

“His friend had just had a baby and when his kid was born, he held his own baby ­- I get goose bumps just telling the story – he wanted to have my sandwich in one hand and his little boy in his other hand.”

Now that’s tradition. And even when the deli leaves its nest – so it will grow.

As for The Monarch, it’s already legendary. Caplansky hopes someday his food will achieve similar status.

aaron.miller@citynews.ca