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“In the first week of every month, I would close on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday to kind of reset and plan some things out. But people kept coming by looking to eat even when I was closed. So I would say, ‘Ok, I’ll cook you something, and I guess just pay what you can’…that division between the customer and the restaurant has always felt contrived…most people presented with this situation, are quite civil. I felt as though there was little to lose by doing it this way.”
There’s nothing contrived about Nathan Isberg, who opened up The Atlantic restaurant at Dundas and Brock (1597 Dundas St. W.) in April 2010 entirely by himself. After working the kitchens of Czehoski, Avalon, and Coca, Nathan decided to open his own place and create something he found more personally engaging: a restaurant experience modelled after an intimate gathering at someone’s home.
“The most consistent reference point I have for the atmosphere here is ‘a dinner party’. Comfortable, intimate dinners,” Nathan says as he makes purchase notes for a 60-person private function he’ll be feeding several days from now.
And that’s exactly how it feels, from the vintage piano rusting along the wall of the entrance to the seats and tables you might find in your grandparent’s basement all the way to his modest kitchen/bar/paperwork desk. Not to mention his DJing methodology…
“I have a record player here, so I like to play an entire album. If I make a playlist, it might depend on the weather, my mood, and I’ll put thought into it. But I try to listen to whole albums as opposed to shuffling.”
And sometimes, they aren’t even albums he bought. Why? Because he accepts barter. That’s right: some of his customers exchange vinyl records for dinner.
Not only records, but he has also accepted future legal consultation from lawyers and medical consultation from physicians alongside a number of other service IOUs. Like we said, it really is pay what you think is fair.
“I see people charging absurd amounts, and they have five people in the kitchen when they don’t need them; it makes for an obstacle to just going out and hanging out with friends. It should be based on whatever people need… if people started paying me $5 for dinner, then I would start thinking, ‘How can I provide $5 meals?’…it can be done.”
So what kind of food does Nathan Isberg provide in exchange for Pink Floyd albums, contract reviews, and the odd blood pressure tip? Well, that depends on just about everything but a menu.
How often does his informal carte du jour get updated?
“About every 20 minutes.”
He’s not joking.
“I keep a structure that’s somewhat consistent so I’m not reinventing the wheel every day…but it depends what I find at the market… or maybe it’ll depend on the weather…during the course of the evening. I’ll make things as I go and take cues from the people eating. Unless I know someone particularly well, then sometimes I’ll change the menu quite a bit to present them with what I know they like, more or less…”
So while dishes are highly seasonal, he usually falls between three and four courses and he almost always starts with a soup to ground the flavours and avoid long wait times, the rest is often a surprise – literally.
His one consistent requirement is that he feels a close connection to where his ingredients come from and how they were prepared. Which is why he also has his own couple of acres from which he uses herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, and a variety of other items he grows himself.
Apparently, there’s a lot this guy takes care of himself. Including restaurant service.
“If I get really busy, I’ll bring someone else in to help with the service. I can do 20 or 24 by myself if it’s timed well, but it can get difficult if it gets more than that.”
It’s almost impossible to not be awestruck by the entire operation.
Nathan offers a “service” in its most pure sense of the word and in a time when so many things are cooked up with only personal gain in mind, an unexpected ideology is just as refreshing as an unexpected entrée.
“Bartering is something I’d like to see more often. Taking steps towards not using money is a step towards making things fairer on everyone’s terms.”
Well, if there’s one restaurant in Toronto that can hang its hat on fare, it’s the Atlantic.