CONVENTIONAL WISDOM says that Erin Tomczyk, the principal owner of Toast Wine Bar and Cafe in the Warehouse District, should be wary of the restaurant industry. Her husband, Scott Davis, spent eight years at Auriga, which closed in January despite years of rave reviews. Tomczyk knows it’s a hard-knock life, but she doesn’t care. “You either love the restaurant business or you don’t,” she says. “We do. I feel like we’re putting on a show every night.”
Toast is a show that almost didn’t happen. The space—in the garden level of a building on First Street formerly occupied by Vanderbloom florists—required Tomczyk and Davis to rethink their entire concept. Every potential restaurant location has its logistical challenges. In the case of Toast, which opened in December, building codes would have required the owners to run vents from the ground floor of the building all the way up to the roof to construct a conventional kitchen—a considerable expense. But Tomczyk and Davis loved the neighborhood, so they decided to alter their course. Working with only a pizza oven, a convection oven, and a sandwich press, they opened a modest wine bar—one with fine dining ambitions.
The pair took their inspiration from the small, funky cafes of New York City’s West Village, which often conjure one tasty morsel after another in kitchens big enough for just one cook. The Toast staff compensates for the kitchen’s technical limitations by using local, seasonal ingredients that are of such high quality that even the simplest dishes can be transcendent. As a result, the cracker-crust pizzas—with such toppings as butternut squash and Serrano ham, or mushrooms, leeks, provolone, and white truffle oil—are deceptively simple. One moment you’re just digging into one, the next moment it’s gone.
Photo by Eric Moore
Whereas the menu is limited, Toast’s wine list ranges far and wide. We tried some wonderful high-end sakes—bone dry and with a hint of anise—and a rose cava (Spanish sparkling wine) that we hope stays on the list for a long time.
Toast may be just the sort of gathering spot the North Loop area needs. The neighborhood has been growing rapidly, but lacks cohesion: Tomczyk tells of two people who started chatting at the bar only to learn they were next-door neighbors. One night I met a couple of writers who were cooking up a story about dating for a local paper; they told tales of condo living: thin walls, loud parties, and such dorm-room antics as people tossing water balloons off the roof. A neighborhood bar—a communal hangout—can bring all these people together.
Toast is still a work in progress, as evidenced by a few disappointing small bites. The white bean with duck confit we tried was a bit off, and the charcuterie plate, generous with sausage, was light on bread and olives. But the staff seems to be paying attention to the details, and you get the sense they are striving for perfection. That sort of effort deserves a toast.
Toast Wine Bar and Cafe
415 N. First St.