FOOD & DINING
Whitby’s 12welve Bistro & Tapwerks sets its own standard
Story by Erin Elliott | Photos by Kirsten McGoey, Jason Liebregts/Metroland and Ryan Pfeiffer/Metroland
If nearby eateries were a little nervous when 12welve Bistro & Tapwerks made its debut, it would be understandable. A number of popular casual upscale gastropubs are vying for the hip crowd with offerings of craft beers, wings and burgers alongside tacos, butter chicken and even oysters. John Allen, owner and general manager of the bistro, which celebrated a soft opening in April within the brand new Brock Street Brewing building, assures us that: “we aren’t a threat to the local pubs. We are on a totally different path here.” Despite residing in the Brock Street Building, 12welve Bistro is an entity unto itself.
Now, four years after the project was announced, this historic-inspired, three-storey building at the corner of Brock and Dunlop has opened its doors to a triple whammy: the new location of the Brock Street Brewery itself, its associated bottle room, and now a street-level restaurant 12welve Bistro and Tapwerks. There is also a second floor event space. The vision for the third floor includes the Founders Lounge, a future rooftop patio, and lounge open until 2 a.m. ‘This is not an old boy’s club,” says Allen. “I like to think of it as a Speakeasy on steroids.”
So, isn’t this just another foodie pub stealing parking and patrons from the growing Four Corners dinner scene? Not according to Allen’s vision, which is far more ambitious and cosmopolitan than anything else around. “Think of us as more of a gastropub that turns into something a little more fine dining and trendy, such as you could find in downtown Manhattan,” Allen says. “We are really trying to give Durham something different.”
Are Durham diners ready for something new? Early indications point to yes. During the soft opening, Allen contended with lineups, longer wait times than he likes and customers confused about what to expect inside. Still, he credits his kitchen with 20-minute chit times, “unheard of for an opening.” Once at a table, he reports that diners explored the full range of their diverse menu, which featured four types of fries: garlic truffle, duck fat, beer brined and sweet potato planks. The menu ran from cauliflower pakora to charred shishito pepper planks, and from a Korean fried chicken sandwich with kimchi and cucumber to spicy bison sausage rigatoni. These (and more) were offered in addition to executive chef Shriny Raj’s takes on more classic pub fare such as house-smoked wings, steak frites and burgers, including the coveted beyond burger, a vegan knock out. This is a serious kitchen and Allen says they are ready to meet any and all dietary needs.
Allen is keyed into the latest trends in upscale dining. The food is all fresh, scratch-made and local when possible, with future visions of exotics such as kangaroo, alligator, wagyu beef and pheasant. The solid-copper bar features an accessible spot as well.
Allen’s background is in business operations and sales, and his foray into food began when he opened Pickering’s Bollocks Pub and Kitchen in 2012, which expanded to a Whitby location in 2016. His wife Carrie has a 25-year career in hospitality and is 12welve’s operations manager. Together they have assembled a team John gushes over with pride. “It’s all about the team,” he says. “I’m just so proud of them.”
He describes executive chef Shriny Raj as a “hidden gem,” whom he promoted from corporate chef at Bollocks. “He makes it hard for my wife and me to eat anywhere else,” he says, praising Shriny’s devotion to quality and attention to dining trends. When asked how the kitchen culture is evolving at 12welve, John says “there is a really good vibe.” Of Shriny he says, “he is not a Gordon Ramsey. He is a quiet guy who leads by example. He is not afraid to teach. He will step in and do what needs to be done. When asked how to keep the kitchen positive, he says, “You keep it fun. They play music to maintain some fun during the stressful periods. Ifyou can’t have fun at your job, you are not going to be happy.
The team plans for 12welve to have a base menu for lunch and dinner through the week, but from Thursday through Saturday the mood flips at 5pm. This is where Allen’s upscale vision really comes into focus. The room will become 19+ and present a new menu featuring 12 appetizers, 12 mains, 12 wines of the world and 12 featured beers. “We also have 12 bar stools and we have 21 draft taps, the inverse of 12,” says Allen. The number pays homage to Highway 12, the official name of Whitby’s Brock Street.
Currently, the menu features starters such as Edamame with Togarashi sea salt and Shucked Oysters with Red Wine Mignonette, followed up with sumptuous mains like Spicy Bison Sausage Rigatoni with woodland mushrooms and Duck Confit Carbonara with sweet peas and pancetta.
The move to 19+ age minimum at prime times has raised some eyebrows, but Allen says this isn’t a move against kids. “I have four kids. I’m not trying to turn away families or kids.” The restaurant includes a kids menu, high chairs and change tables. “I’m trying to create a place where we can all escape and go for date night, meet the neighbours, just the girls, just the guys… where we don’t have to look over our shoulder if we are having adult conversations.” Allen wants his customers to have the chance for a special night out.
“One of the things that I don’t think we do enough of here in Canada is superior customer service,” says Allen. He plans to get to know his customers, how often they come, which dishes they lean toward, and what allergies they have. “We want you to know you are part of our family. If you usually order a favourite wine, maybe we will have it waiting for you at your table. If we know you are peanut-free, we will mention those specials to you first. We want everyone to get the VIP treatment at 12welve. We want everyone to walk away feeling special.”
John Allen’s 12welve Bistro & Tapwerks is making their own rules and setting their own standard for the ultimate dining experience. Reservations are highly recommended.