WHERE THE PEOPLE WANT TO BE
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘My friend – you’re an exquisite anachronism,’ I propose to Thomas Aldridge – or ‘Big Daddy T’, as he’s had me address him over the years. I raise the flute of champagne he’s just poured me, and continue: ‘A veritable throw-back to figures who once inhabited some fabulous romantic age. Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Hemingway. Or,’ I add, ‘Morrissey.’ We’re standing by the bar at Manhattans – Thomas’ pizza bistro and music club in Guelph’s Midtown district. It’s early afternoon, and the restaurant won’t open for another couple hours. Yet Thomas – ever the vigilant host – is making sure that I’m being taken care of.
Which is nothing new for this elegant, eloquent man. Indeed, Thomas is more than a natural at making people feel at home at Manhattans – in some ways the Royal City’s best kept secret. Indeed, the restaurant, located in a strip mall along Gordon Street somewhere between the heavily-promoted downtown core and the heavily-populated South End, is perhaps Guelph’s most underappreciated culinary and entertainment destination. Despite its (relatively) obscure location, this beautifully appointed establishment is the ideal destination for anyone looking for a great place to eat. The perfect place for anyone who loves to listen to live jazz (on Thomas’ one hundred-year-old Steinway, to boot). An uncommon retreat for anyone who enjoys the diversion of stand-up comedy. Indeed, there’s live entertainment almost every night at Manhattans.
And it’s become a destination not only for its devoted patrons but also for such featured shows as CBC’s Laugh Out Loud, the Guelph Jazz Festival, various Musagetes events, vinyl nights (with Manhattans own Edwin Hammond), and more.
‘Are you hungry,’ Thomas asks. ‘I can have the kitchen whip something up. A pizza, perhaps? Pasta? Salad? How about a pizza with some pasta and salad?’ Just then TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis sweeps through the front door. ‘Well,’ Thomas remarks, ‘now that it’s a party, we have to eat.’ So he pours a flute for Cai and encourages Claire Mussar – his partner in life and business and the glue that binds us all – to put an order in. And so begins a somewhat familiar – and altogether satisfying – ritual.
Of ‘Big Daddy T’ hosting. And entertaining. And, for the next couple hours, while Thomas might better be spending his time getting the restaurant ready to open for the inevitable dinner rush, he envelopes Cai and me in a most glorious afternoon.
First up: steak tartare with gherkins, shallots, garlic aioli, tomato jam and quail egg served with crostinis – fantastic – and Ontario burrata with roasted grape chutney, pistachios and house pickles with grilled baguette. ‘Fresh burrata is so seductive,’ remarks Thomas as I plunge my knife deep into the fresh cheese. Stracciatella and cream pour out from the mozzarella shell. I load my fork with pistachios, a house pickle, some chutney, and loads of burrata, and take a bite. ‘This is phenomenal,’ I exclaim. Like out of this world. ‘It’s straight off our new menu,’ Thomas says with pride, ‘created by our new Chef – the fabulous Kyle Smith. We’re switching things up around here – moving away from being so pizza-centric to a more varied, elevated menu.’ I’ll say, I think to myself, and dive back into the burrata.
I finish the dish, and Cai manages to polish off the tartare. And our mains arrive. Seared pickerel with cauliflower, brussels sprouts and pancetta with caper brown butter for me.
Ricotta dumplings with squash puree, oyster mushroom, black truffle and shaved pecorino for Cai. And, for good measure, a Manhattans pizza – the Sonny Rollins, topped with tomato sauce, spicy sausage, ricotta, chilies, mozzarella and honey.
As I dig into my pickerel, I ask Thomas what Manhattans means to him right now. Afterall, he started the restaurant back in 1994, managed to rebuild and re-open the place after a fire destroyed much of it, and continues to refine the model with no apparent end in sight. He looks down at the floor. And then towards the bar. And fixes his eyes on the piano – centrally located on the restaurant’s low stage. And, after a long draw of champagne and with a twinkle in his eye, he answers – slowly: ‘I’ve been at this game for a long time now. And I’ve seen trends come and go. Restaurants come and go. And I’ve reached a point in my career as a business owner where I’m ready to spoil myself – with this place, and its food, and everything else it has to offer.’ He pauses, and then continues: ‘For me, Manhattans is where I want to be. Which is also, I hope, where other people want to be, too.’
I glance at my watch and am startled to discover that it’s less than an hour until the place will open its doors for dinner. And yet Thomas remains ever present. After all, he’s doing what he does best – making people feel at home.
Perhaps not so much an exquisite anachronism, after all, as a man for all time.
951 Gordon St, Guelph