Good food and good causes come together at a popular Church Street café.
Fabarnak, the café in the Church Wellesley Village’s 519 Community Centre, reaches its first birthday next month, but executive chef Eric Wood says there are no plans yet to mark the milestone. There is plenty worth celebrating, however, as the small, charming space has racked up enthusiastic reviews and become a dining hot spot. Wood says he likes the mix of people—on any given day in Fabarnak you might find a pair of Rosedale housewives who read about it in Toronto Life, and seated nearby might be someone on social assistance who came in for a cup of coffee.
We’ve called Fabarnak “one of the best lunches in the city,” thanks to its signature Square Pegs, a take on Japanese bento boxes, executed beautifully by sous chef Jason Becker. The other dishes on the menu don’t draw as much attention but are worthy in their own right (especially if the Square Pegs sell out—as they often do—after lunch hour). Fabarnak’s upscale take on bistec a lo pobre, a Peruvian dish that translates into “poor man’s steak,” is a steal at $12 for flank steak accompanied by a bright-tasting salsa verde, a fried egg, and a tasty, crispy bean and rice cake that nearly steals the show. A gluten-free mac and cheese made with rice pasta and four cheeses and thickened with cauliflower does the comfort food justice and will reappear on the menu once the weather gets colder.
The majority of food at Fabarnak comes from local and sustainable sources, and Wood says he works with the fruits and vegetables available during the season. You’re unlikely to find pineapple, for example, on the menu, says Wood. The café also serves homemade ketchup sweetened with natural sugars, as no high-fructose corn syrup is allowed at Fabarnak.
One food we didn’t get to try but were teased with was a vegan bacon, made by drying tomatoes and then smoking them—Wood swears his variation tastes like the porcine original. We can’t verify, but if he’s not exaggerating, vegan bacon would be a decisive win for vegetarians and vegans who tire of meat lovers blathering ad nauseam about putting bacon on everything. In addition to the healthier food, Fabarnak brings good to the community: proceeds from the café and its catering service go back to the 519.
Fabarnak also acts as a safe space for youths to work and to learn new skills; it employs four young people to work 364 days in the kitchen and at the front of the house. Apoll came from a job he describes as “terrible” and learned about the café via the TYT (Trans Youth Toronto) program at the 519. He says he loves watching the creation of food at Fabarnak, from butchering to plate service, and considers his biggest accomplishment for the year “being able to come to terms with my gender identity.” Apoll didn’t feel safe being open at his previous job and, having not fully transitioned, felt uncomfortable asking people to refer to him using male pronouns—whereas at Fabarnak, he was delighted when people asked his preference. The freedom of working at Fabarnak allowed Apoll to focus on other parts of life, such as returning to school, which he says he will do after his year at the café is complete. (Four new hires will join the café in the fall.)
Fabarnak’s youth program is part of its drive to change perceptions, which leads us to the odd name. A community consultation to name the new space resulted in “really referential names, like the Rainbow Cafe, The Steps, or the Restaurant at the 519,” says Wood. The suggestions “made us realize there’s a lot of perceptions around what this is going to be,” he explains. “There are also a lot of names and labels and perceptions that are attached to people within our community and our whole program has always really been about redefining barriers and breaking them down.” Thus, a decision was made to create a seemingly “empty and meaningless” name, to allow meanings to be projected onto it, recalls Wood.
Although you won’t find Fabarnak in any dictionary, the name has its roots in an existing French word: tabarnak is the religious term for a box that holds communion wafers, but it doubles as a French-Canadian swear word. Fabarnak, then, is a mildly naughty portmanteau—as Wood describes it, “like tabarnak but fabulous.” The use of religious words as expletives in French-Canadian language began as early as the 1830s and continues today, even after the “Quiet Revolution” of the ’60s when Quebecers started to reject the control of Church, which they found oppressive. Wood draws a similarity between the “rejection of the church” and the café: “We’re rejecting traditional labels that would be put on, especially around the queer community, especially around this neighbourhood, so we’re sort of rejecting that old school Church Street environment.”
In Fabarnak’s second year, Wood sees more growth, especially on the catering side. “We are catering for TEDx, doing their lunch this year. We do weddings, a lot of really fun weddings,” he notes. Wood hopes to use the increased demand for catering to jump-start more food programs at the 519, “getting the community in to learn about canning and pickling, building those community connections, getting seniors and young people together—that’s what this is really all about.”
Photos by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.