You have probably realized by now that I spend the majority of my spare time in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood. Over the years I have had a chance to check out a number of the different hospitality establishments in the Beach, and one of my favourites is Nevada’s Ristorante. Centrally located at the intersection of Queen Street and Kenilworth Avenue, it is an easy walk up from the Boardwalk; its appealing warm décor and the colourful murals inside and on the outside of the building create a unique ambience. But even more important is the food, and I have always enjoyed the culinary offerings at Nevada’s.
So I decided to make the call and find out who is behind this fine establishment. I arranged an interview with Chris Housseas, co-owner of Nevada’s restaurant, and on a chilly Friday evening at 6 pm I had a chance to sit down with Chris for an interview, just before the evening rush was going to start. His mom Dimitra, nicknamed Toula, joined us and pitched in to give me the story of the Housseas family.
Chris grew up in the restaurant business. His father Gus, a Greek immigrant, started his first restaurant in Canada in 1961, long before Chris was born. Even earlier than that, at age 17 he had embarked into restaurant ownership back home in Greece. After his arrival in Canada he moved back and forth between his birth country and Canada several times. During one of these trips back to his home country he met Chris’ mom in 1976, and they fell in love. Shortly thereafter Chris was born, and in 1978 the whole family, including the parents, two sisters and a brother, moved to Canada.
Originally Gus had worked as a dishwasher and server. Once he came to Toronto he owned several fast food outlets, including a Dairy Freeze outlet near St. Clair and Caledonia. Various other fast food establishments followed near Bloor and Christie, and he added a Steak Queen near Rexdale and Martin Grove Avenues to his hospitality portfolio. Both the parents and Chris joined together as a team to buy Nevada’s in 2004. Nevada’s has a long tradition in the Beach, and Chris said that it has been around for about 50 years now.
Chris explained that the cuisine at Nevada’s Ristorante is a mixture of Californian and Italian-style cooking with a dash of Asian influences and several New Orleans style dishes. The signature dishes at this restaurant are the Pollo Gorgonzola which includes chicken, penne and mushrooms in a gorgonzola sauce. The New Orleans inspired Bourbon Street Ribs are in the oven for two and a half hours and get coated in a delicious honey garlic sauce.
The list of mouth-watering delicacies continued. The Pollo Pesto Pasta consists of linguine noodles, chicken, vegetables and leeks in a pesto-cream sauce, sprinkled with pine nuts. Soups are home made, and salads are also very popular, especially the Warm Spinach Salad and the Wild Mushroom Salad. Desserts round out the tasty treats and include, among others, a Bourbon Street Chocolate Cheesecake, a Chocolate Raspberry Tartufo as well as an Ice Cream Crepe and various sorbets.
The regular menu is spiced up by nightly features. In the winter a C$21 prix- fix dinner, including a soup, an appetizer and an entré with three to five choices, entices people to brave the cold and titillate their taste buds. Nevada’s Ristorante is open every day, from Monday to Friday from 11 am to 10 pm, and on weekends the restaurant opens up at 9 am for brunch. Chris explained that brunch is extremely busy, and interestingly the most popular item on the brunch menu is the Big Breakfast, consisting of three eggs, maple smoked bacon, sausage, home fries and fruit. Eggs Benedict (with Canadian pea meal bacon), Eggs Nova (with smoked salmon), and Eggs Florentine (with spinach) are also favourite choices.
Nevada’s is quite a large restaurant: the main dining room downstairs and an equally sizeable dining room upstairs offer 135 seats, while the patio in the summer holds an additional 35 to 40 people. Nevada’s patio is particularly popular with athletes, for example the beach volleyball players that come up from Ashbridges Bay, as well as the tennis players from the Kew Gardens Tennis Club. The restaurant employs 35 to 40 people in the summer, and has 15 regular staff members during the slower winter months. Chris emphasized that they try to hire local residents as much as possible.
In addition to learning about the restaurant I wanted to find out a little more about the owners. Chris was born in Greece, and his parents moved to Toronto when he was 18 months old. He grew up in Etobicoke and in the Victoria Park and Lawrence area. Even as a child he often came down to the Beach; he added that he always liked the area and got very excited when Nevada’s Ristorante became available for sale.
Chris’ personal background is actually not in the hospitality industry: he studied computer science and worked for several years for Sony Canada. Three years ago he decided to team up with his parents to get into the restaurant business himself. He indicated that one family member is on the premises at all times, and they enjoy a great working relationship and have lots of fun together. He does not have much spare time these days, but is gearing up towards a big change in his own life: Chris and his wife are expecting their first baby this March!
Dimitra, Chris’ mom, was born in Greece in Kalamata, located on the large Southern Greek peninsula called the Peloponnese. She graduated from high school in 1973 and by that time her older sister and brother had already immigrated to Toronto. Her mother was here too, and in 1974 Dimitra herself came to Canada. From 1976 to 1978 she moved back to Greece, where she worked together with her husband. Since then the couple moved back to Canada, where they now have strong roots. Altogether 16 of Dimitra’s nephews and nieces were born in Canada and all the uncles, aunts and cousins have a tight family relationship and enjoy spending time together.
Gus and Dimitra only live ten minutes away from the restaurant, and Dimitra often comes here to cover the mid-day shift, while Gus or Chris cover the evening shift. Gus also handles the purchasing and buys the fruits and vegetables at the Ontario Food Terminal. Chris added that they have made a commitment to healthy eating, so they now use vegetable oil instead of shortening in the deep fryer. 95% of the sauces are now home-made, and they have minimized the use of preservatives or MSG.
Chris enjoys making people happy. He said when people come out to a restaurant they want to have a good time. Many of the regulars have become like family to Chris, and they are drawn back time and time again by the cozy atmosphere, the friendly service and the excellent food.
There are also a few new initiatives on the horizon for Nevada’s Ristorante: in the next few weeks the restaurant will be closing down for two to three weeks for some renovations. Chris is planning to relocate the bar to the back of the main dining room, so tables can be set up in the front which will allow for a beautiful view of the action on Queen Street. He has also been thinking about integrating live music and theme nights into his entertainment offering. This could include a Greek night with some belly dancing, or an Italian or Mexican themed night with ethnic music and food.
Another new initiative will include freshly baked bread that can be purchased on a walk-in basis. This will include olive bread and foccaccia. Cooking classes are another idea that has been floating through Chris’ mind; he is planning to set up the dining room upstairs for free cooking classes which he is planning to hold three to four times a year. Chris is envisioning many things to get the neighbourhood more involved in the hospitality experience.
Creative entrepreneurship also manifests itself in the form of a collaboration with the recently opened Bizzy Bee Playcentre, a safe and fun indoor playground complete with slides and ball pits, pretend play areas, sand table, paints and crafts, construction play, and an infant zone. Along with a number of other local businesses, Nevada’s Ristorante participates in a Shop + Dine program, where patrons receive two hours of free child care at the Bizzy Bee Playcentre if they spend $25 or more per child. A practical idea for a local romantic dinner getaway…
After this detailed explanation and a tour of the facilities, I went upstairs to get ready for my own dinner. My friend Leslie and I sat down at a cozy second floor table overlooking busy Queen Street. We both commented that we really enjoyed the décor, and one table in particular, a small table at the north-west corner with a private window, is ideally made for a romantic tête-à-tête dinner. With Valentine’s Day coming up we figured that this table would have no trouble getting sold out.
All this dinner talk had got us nice and ready for our own culinary experience. I started my meal off with a tasty Potato Leek Soup, accompanied by a piece of foccaccia bread with subtle Mediterranean flavours. I am a huge fan of appetizers, and it was hard to choose just one from a wide selection of appealing choices. I did settle on a Walnut Crusted Brie while Leslie had the Indochine Spring Rolls. I then moved on to a Shrimp – Asparagus Risotto while my friend had the Pollo Maximus, consisting of a breast of chicken with wild mushrooms, leeks, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic in a sweet basil chardonnay reduction. After an amazingly filling and scrumptious dinner neither she nor I had any further space in our bellies to try some of the amazing desserts. I would have loved to have a bite of some of Nevada’s sweet treats, but I was not even able to finish my main course and had to bring half my dinner home in a doggie bag.
Chris and his staff came by several times to check up on us and see if we needed anything else. The service was discreet yet attentive. Leslie and I had a wonderful time catching up, two busy women who had not seen each other for quite some time, and our evening at Nevada’s Ristorante was the perfect opportunity to reconnect.