Expectations run invariably high for Montreal’s top fine dining establishment Toqué!. That’s one of the reasons chef-owner Normand Laprise says he’s put off the restaurant’s return until tomorrow, Friday, October 29. “It’s my first time reopening a restaurant after it’s been closed for over a year and a half,” he says. “But we wanted to be able to give customers the same thing that Toqué! was giving before the pandemic — and for the last 28 years.”
Toqué!’s dining room has been dormant since Quebec first imposed sanitary restrictions, including an eventual takeout- and delivery-only mandate, back in March 2020. In the time since, the province’s restaurants were given some reprieve in the summer of 2020, then forced to shut again in October 2020, and then allowed to reopen in June — so far, it seems, for good, but at limited capacity until November 1.
Laprise concedes that no matter how much he and his team do to prepare, a few missteps are assured, given the circumstances. “Right before we closed because of the pandemic, we were a team that had been working together for a long time. It was all very natural. But now we are opening after a year and a half, are a little rusty, and have a lot of new people.”
Before closing, the Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle restaurant was open five days a week for lunch and dinner, powered by a team of 58. Now, the “brigade,” as Laprise calls it, is roughly half that number, with a large number of employees being new hires. A section of the dining room remains closed, and the restaurant is only serving dinner — at least for the first month. “We’d rather start with less volume, and be able to serve the customer the right way,” he says.
For all the emphasis on preserving the experience that has garnered Toqué! year upon year of accolades, some changes are afoot for the restaurant’s returnees. The government-mandated sanitary measures are the obvious — mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing, for example. (Tables at the restaurant are naturally already roughly 2 meters apart, Laprise explains.) Otherwise, prices at the already spendy restaurant are getting a bump to account for improved wages and the rising cost of certain ingredients.
All things considered, Laprise says he’s relieved to finally be able to revive a space that until now has felt “so sad” he’s been largely avoiding stepping in. “Every year, Toqué closes for an annual vacation during the holidays, and, during that time, I’d come and see if everything was okay. I’d usually feel like the break was doing some good for the restaurant. It gave the walls a chance to breathe,” he says. This was different.
At one point, Laprise says he thought of perhaps just shutting the whole operation down. The pandemic was showing little sign of waning, Old Montreal and downtown (the restaurant finds itself smack dab in the middle of the two) were still languishing, and the city’s ongoing construction projects only made the situation more cumbersome. Deep down, though, he says, he “felt it was important to try and keep going because Toqué! is at the heart of everything else that we do.”
Since opening the fine dining institution in 1993, Laprise and his partner Christine Lamarche have amassed a cluster of spin-off restaurants under the Signé Toqué! banner. At the moment, that includes a brasserie in South Shore retail center Quartier DIX30, a burger stall at Eaton Center food hall Time Out Market Montreal, and très chic Beau Mont in Mile-Ex, with its adjoining épicerie. (Until last summer, there was another brasserie downtown, in the Quartier des Spectacles, but the lease on that came due at the height of the pandemic, so Laprise and Lamarche decided to put a pin in it for a while.)
From a food court burger joint to the finest and fanciest of dining, the restaurants work in concert with each other and local producers, Laprise says. But to “complete the ecosystem,” he says Signé Toqué! still needs a few more spots. With things looking up, the pair are back to planning for a Brasserie T! on the North Shore in 2022, and hopefully bringing the restaurant back to the downtown core. But first up is tomorrow: getting diners through the doors at Toqué!, the linchpin of it all.
Toqué! is reopening for dinner service at 900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle on October 29.