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Americans try the Pickle Barrel

My SP (Special Person) has relatives from Texas and Florida visiting us. This morning they all went shopping at the Eaton Centre, and lunched at the nearest Pickle Barrel. Despite some adverse comments from Chowhounds, it seems they enjoyed their meals enormously although they weren't specific about why, and wished they had a Pickle Barrel back home. I thought it was an international franchise, but they said they had the Cracker Barrel, but no Pickle Barrel. I'd be interested to know if you've had any experience with other non-Canadians eating there.

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  1. Well ... Americans love their 'Big' portions ... places like the Barrel have that going for it.

    1. Because the PB at the atrium (next to TEC) has perfectly fresh and tasty food. And it is not about the portions. Not everything is great on the menu but show me a family restaurant where that isn't the case. The reviews on here that bash the food have mostly been non-specific as to why and all about a rude waiter they encountered - something I have never experienced at the atrium. And when I have challenged people to tell me what is wrong with their half bbq chicken for example, or their ribs or feta burger, or most of their salads, cole slaw and sandwiches, nobody every responds. PB is no longer a good example of a jewish style deli - so get over it! Pehaps the atrium is better than promenade or yng/eglinton, but there are some dishes that cannot be beat. The prices are also very fair.

      1. The PB isn't a BAD restaurant. Indeed, for a "something for everyone" resto, it's pretty good in many ways. But there are many things wrong that, in total, make it not a Chowhound kind of place.

        I think it's typical of many Jewish oriented places that expanded enormously and, in the process, ditched the clientele that made them successful. Most large American cities have places like this and some of these are much better than the PB (Junior's in Brooklyn, which did not abandon its original clientele, comes to mind). I suspect that the Texas/Florida people didn't come from somewhere like Boca or North Miami Beach.

        I'm guessing that they come from places where the Jewish population isn't very big. They see the PB as a "family restaurant" and don't know about its origins. Pickle Barrel on Leslie, in the seventies, was one of Toronto's better Jewish delis. The deli meats weren't made in house, but the food was good overall. I still remember the loaf of fresh dark rye bread that came with their meals. For those of us who care about this kind of thing, its current failings as a deli are a bummer.

        At the other end of the spectrum, their reach far exceeds their grasp. They advertise fancy dishes developed by Rose Reisman that sound tempting, but they can't cook most of them most of the time. The US equivalent might be the Tyler Florence dishes being promoted by Applebee's.

        But the PB can deliver enough pleasing items that most adults and kids can find SOMETHING acceptable to eat - so long as they don't expect the taste and feel of good Jewish deli or the "gourmet" food Rose Reisman taught them to make in one of her cooking classes or catered to their simcha.

        Whether anything is cooked well, or served well, is a crapshoot. I don't know what they're like to work for, but staff training isn't their strongest suit. Cooking is always a question mark. Service can be good, but more often isn't - and nobody seems to care very much.

        11 Replies
        1. re: embee

          Many of the waiters at the Atrium have been there for years. I agree to stay away from the asian or seafood items - as I would at most 'all things" restaurants - especially in Toronto.

          FYI embee - I am more than familiar with PB origins as I ate regularly at the very first location in the middle of the plaza...

          1. re: deelicious

            I was just making an observation about PB and don't have an emotional attachment to its current incarnation (for better or for worse). I'm not a family restaurant kind of guy.

            It's obvious I'm a fanatic about deli. The original, a good, though not great, deli, I miss. I miss the old Switzer's and Shopsy's, and the newer (very flawed) Reuben S, even more.

            I don't eat at PB often, but I'm at a few of them often enough to comment about the service. Given the kind of place PB is, my service expectations aren't unreasonably high. I've had the occasional great server. But I've had experiences at Atrium, Eglinton, Yorkdale, and Leslie that boggle the mind. This is a very big operation, and they have an awful lot of people who don't seem to care.

          2. re: embee

            Eeesh! "A Chowhound kind of place"??? I'd say what I think "A Chowhound kind of place" actually is, but I'd bet it would be deleted due to my use of coarse language.

            The Pickle Barrel re-did their entire menu over the past few years, along with complete decor renovations to all their restaurants. Yes, they do have "something for everyone", but that is less the case than it was a couple of years ago. The new menu is quite streamlined, with a combination of both old favourites, Rose Reisman's healthier versions of old favourites and some of her super-healthy menu items.

            I ate at Pickle Barrel recently *with* Rose Reisman and she's very proud of her affiliation with PB, and of how well they prepare her dishes. Everyone recognized that they had to move from the old Jewish deli model to encompass a wider range of customers, and to address the health and nutrition concerns that people have these days.

            I eat at the Pickle Barrel when I'm in the Eaton Centre area, and quite frankly, I think it's good food, reasonably priced. It may not be a "Chowhound kind of place", but don't for one second assume that's necessarily something to aspire to.

            1. re: SherylKirby

              I did say that, didn't I? Sorry :-(

              But, on the whole, you can't really call us a family restaurant kind of group. I don't write like Jim Leff, but the PB and its ilk aren't the kinds of restaurants that most of this board is about.

              I didn't slam the Pickle Barrel and I don't know Rose Reisman personally. But I am familiar with her food. She would NOT have been proud of an interesting sounding dish I recently tried that was associated with her name.

              Neither growth nor pleasing "everyone" are essential aspirations for success. PB chose to grow, and that's fine for them. But there are also advantages to staying small, serving a niche, and doing it well. As Stan Pancer said, more or less, a very long time ago: "We're a deli, not an 'and restaurant'" and "I am 7 meats".

              As I said earlier, PB isn't a bad restaurant and their prices are very fair. But I wouldn't seek out a "family restaurant" when traveling if interesting alternatives exist. Having read many of your other posts, I'll bet you wouldn't either.

              1. re: embee

                I used to work in Concord, and would make the trek down to Bathurst and Steeles just to have lunch at Pancer's. Just got back from Montreal where we tried Schwartz's (not very impressed) and Dunn's (very impressed); where can I get smoked meat like that in Toronto?

                1. re: KevinB

                  I believe the general consensus on smoked meat is the Center Street Deli.

                  1. re: KevinB

                    You can't. Toronto has no great deli.

                    There is no source of real, dry cured smoked meat in Toronto. The Dunn's here is not the same as the one in Montreal (which I have never tried in its current incarnation), and is not good. Mel's Montreal Deli is disgusting.

                    Centre St Deli in Thornhill serves Lester's old fashioned, cut correctly. It is the best around.

                    Regular Lester's (not spicy) cut by machine is available at Corned Beef House downtown, Jody's on Kingston Rd, and a few other places around Toronto. Zoulpys on King East makes a huge sandwich of passable, machine cut smoked meat.

                    For pastrami, a begrudging toss-up between Pancer's (ordered hand sliced with extra spice) and Katz's (ordered with extra "pastrami sauce").

                  2. re: embee

                    Hey embee,

                    Sorry, I'm on a bit of an anti-food-snob rampage lately, and that comment really struck a nerve.

                    I did an interview with Reisman that included a tasting at PB, so yes, it's reasonable to expect that the kitchen was on their best behaviour.

                    I think PB does serve a particular niche, and they have definitely tightened up their menu and gotten with the times. The new decor is quite striking and modern.

                    And yeah, if given the opportunity to eat at either a high-end place or an ethnic hole in the wall where the food was fantastic, you're right, PB would not be my first choice. But dining in Toronto can be overwhelming to a lot of people, and some of the family dining places offer up great food that many of us Chowhound types ignore because it's neither fancy enough or grotty enough. :)

                    1. re: SherylKirby

                      By the sounds of embee's description of the seating I don't think he has been to the Atrium since it was renovated. When was the last time you are the PB Atrium embee? That may be part of disconnect.

                      Go order a half BBQ chicken and tell me how it was. I will paypal you the money if you hated it! ; )

                      1. re: deelicious

                        I have not been there since it was renovated.

                        1. re: embee

                          dinners on me - they still use the same shmear as they always did.

              2. As a yank, I don't equate Pickle Barrel with "Jewish deli". However, if you stick to the stuff you typically think of when you think of deli, then you won't be disappointed unless you have unreasonably high expectations. While I'm sure some places could screw up a corned beef sandwich on rye, most places usually get it right although Druxys version is skimpy on the meat. However, I'd stay away from the thai spicy noodles and grilled shrimp fettucine or anything that you don't normally find in a delicatessen.

                1. I forgot to mention that besides the American relatives, there was another one from Scotland in the group. She says she especially enjoyed the Pickle Barrel because of the attentive, polite service they received from the staff. She added that generally, servers in North America tend to give more attention than Scottish ones.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Bob Catt

                    PB Atrium has excellent staff, food freshness and management. I cannot speak to the other locations.

                    1. re: deelicious

                      I don't want to create a long thread about this, but it seemed I should mention a couple of examples:

                      Atrium: It was a Reuben, or something similar, fries, and a beer. It was about 3:00 pm. It was not mobbed, though perhaps a bit busier than they would have expected. I was in the section toward the west end. There were a couple of occupied tables. It was a bit busier at the Yonge St end. Time of arrival to time of departure: about an hour. Most of it was spent waiting: for order to be taken; for beer, and then food, to be delivered (it arrived cold, so likely not the kitchen's fault); for getting, and then paying, the bill. Time spent eating: perhaps 10 minutes.

                      Eglinton: Going to movie in the building. Had half an hour in which to eat. Place nearly empty. Bunch of servers and kitchen crew all chatting. Guy who looked like a manager (though might not have been) sitting at table with what appeared to be a friend. One other occupied table in resto. Quite late and nowhere else to go within the mall. Got up to request service. Mentioned movie deadline. Told no problem, someone would arrive imminently. Was not nasty. We waited 20 minutes. Too late to eat. Got up to leave. Guy gets up from table and accuses us of trying to skip out on cheque. What cheque? Nobody even took an order. Had popcorn for dinner.

                      Two examples of many. There has often been better - sometimes much better, but there has also been much worse.

                      No complaints about food quality for price, but overcooked food and cold food (and cold overcooked food) have not been uncommon.

                      1. re: deelicious

                        I, too prefer the Atrium location. Do not like Yorkdale one bit, but that is because I always think I'm in someone's basement and noise reverberates something fierce at that location. I was at the PB at Centrepoint earlier in the summer but was in a private room...there were 25 of us there and we all ordered individually..they handled the group really well so kudos to them! Generally speaking I find the food more than passable but it would never be outstanding in any of the locations.....it's a 'corporate' mentality and that too is okay...I'm not expecting haute cuisine when I go to the PB.

                        1. re: pearlD

                          I think that sums up my feelings as well. It IS a good restaurant of its type, but it isn't my favourite type of restaurant.

                          I should add that I have had some good experiences with PB catering: nothing special, but always fresh and ontime.

                          1. re: embee

                            I beg to differ on the always fresh point.

                            I have been to the Atrium location a few times since I work in the area. The sandwiches are usually ok, as are the burgers. However, last time I went I had one of these Rose Reisman signature dishes.

                            It was a spinach salad with grilled chicken, pecans, cranberries and brie, sounds pretty good eh? It was AWFUL. I have a fairly high tolerance for crappy food but this was almost inedible.

                            The chicken looked and tasted like it had been microwaved, it was definately not grilled and had no seasoning on it whatsoever. The brie was cut up into very small pieces and was very very dried out. The dressing was sparse and the spinach was quite wilted and there were a few slimey pieces.

                            My dining companion had the chicken luau salad, microwaved chicken here as well and we think they forgot to put the dressing on altogether.

                            We would have complained had the waitress actually come back to check on us and since we were on lunch we had limited time so we couldnt' send anything back.

                            I won't be back.

                            1. re: paper_bag_princess

                              I had a similar experience at the Sherway gardens location. Other than the bad service, the sandwich that I ordered was STALE. You know that awful taste, and not just slightly stale. Fresh is not what I think off when I think of that particular PB location.

                              1. re: Aardvark

                                I've been to both the Atrium and Yonge/ Eglinton locations, each time I've stuck to one dish, the Rose Reisman Hoisin Beef with Baby Bok Choy. I've had great success with the dish at both locations, it's been delicious. My friends and I never experienced any problems with wait staff or wait times, in fact on two distinct occasions when it was quieter, the waiter took time to joke with us and chat and everyone was left with a great impression. I believe my friends also tried the chicken souvlaki plate, the steak, the traditional deli sandwiches...no complaints. So we've been lucky.

                              2. re: paper_bag_princess

                                My comment related specifically to stuff delivered from PB Catering. This has never included any hot food or anything "fancy". As to the food served at PB locations, we do not disagree. Clearly, others on this board have fared better.

                      2. Okay...
                        American here, native Chicagoan as a matter of fact. My partner and I have been driving up to Toronto twice a year for the last two years. We stay at the Marriott Eaton Centre on Bay.

                        Anyway, last Summer we had a late breakfast at a friends house and then went walking about (is that aboot? lol) We walked for about five hours or so, had a blast, window shopped and just got to spend some much needed time together (conflicting schedules, the bane of modern relationships!).

                        So, the game plan was to go back to the hotel, check Chowhound and grab dinner. The tummies, were afterall, rumblling.

                        Of course, the beautiful day turned nasty. It started to rain. Not bad, just a drizzle, so we quikened our pace. Just before we reached the hotel it poured. Hard. We were at the Atrium, waiting it out. No luck.... in fact, it seemed to rain harder.

                        I joked about the "Red Lobster".... "You know, babe, I've never been to a Red Lobster"

                        He, growing up in a suburb laughed.

                        The rain eventually made us duck inside and that's when we saw Pickle Barrel.

                        To be honest, I don't remember what we had. (Trust me, if it was horrid, I would have remembered) I do remember we both enjoyed it. It reminded us both of The Cheesecake Factory (Not that that is a good or bad thing, but more from a design standpoint). We had a booth that would have comfortably sat six and the service was quite attentive.

                        Not sure if under other circumstances we would have ever eaten there. Particularly after reading some of the reviews of it on CH, but for what it was worth, I've had worse meals at places people rave about.

                        I'd go back.

                        1. I haven't lived in Toronto for many, many years, however, I occasionally dropped in at the Pickle Barrel on my way home from NYG. I always found the food quite tasty and the service more than acceptable, albeit I never thought of it in terms of a real Jewish Delicatessen. I did, however, meet a fellow named Bobby Weber at the Leslie Street location and I thought he said that he was married to the owner's daughter. I think he said her last name was Firestone - and that's nowhere near the name Reisman. Does anyone know who actually owns the PB? Thanks

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: DrBehavior

                            Rose Reisman does not own the pickle barrel -- she was hired by the restaurant to develop special, healthier menu items for them. I don't know the name of the family that owns the restaurants.

                          2. My experiences as "picky diner" have always been positive at PB - I can go with a large group of varied tastes (younger brother -pizza-types all the way to older-mother-salds, and everything in between) and I know that everyone will find something palatable on the menu. And as a healthy eater, I appreciate the overt health consciousness of some of the dishes.
                            - doubleL

                            1. The Pickel Barrel on Leslie was definitely the best years ago. The Promenade and Yorkdale are generally the worst. I have enjoyed the odd salad there (just had a take-out chicken luau salad on the weekend on the way to visit someone in the hospital and it was surprisingly fresh). I noticed a distinct downgrade in service in the last couple years. It is my understanding that the entire operation changed management in that time.
                              It fits the family restaurant bill most of the time, especially when serving a distinct clientele (many of whom are in my extended family) because they can accomodate a table of 12 ranging in ages from < 1 to 90, where everyone at the table alters something about their order from the menu. They service may falter sometimes, but the people who serve those tables without complaint deserve medals IMHO.

                              1. how apropos . . . today, I am actually sitting around thinking about PB because after going to the trouble to find some potentially yummy eats at Yonge/Steeles, the post-viewing group actually WANTED to go to PB. Okaaaaaay . . . . off to Centrepoint Mall we go.

                                I had the Pastrami Sandwich with mashed potatoes, coleslaw and pickle. Loved the pickle and coleslaw, the rest meh, didn't kill me, but was a waste of calories. However, others at the table loooooved the Pastrami Sandwiches, the Tuna Wrap, the Meatloaf and some beef stirfry dish (!)

                                The service was good -- waitress seemed quite accustomed to dealing with picky eaters. I admired her handling of the two uber-picky ladies next to us.

                                Would I voluntarily eat there again? no
                                Was it gross? no

                                Like Cheesecake Factory, it's lowest common denominator food i.e. food you end up eating with groups of people.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: orangewasabi

                                  The coleslaw is one of the few things on their menu that I enjoy. And I'm not generally big on coleslaw.

                                  1. re: pescatarian

                                    Yes the cole slaw is excellent. So is the half BBQ chicken.

                                    The Firestones were the original owners and sold the whole chain probably 10 - 12 years ago if I had to guess. It was the go-to deli back in '77 - t'was a very special place.

                                2. I have to say that the Texas Steak Sandwich is to die for at the Pickle Barrel. When the Sherway location first openned, the sandwich sold for $9.99. I went back maybe a month later to see that the price went up and the portion size went down.
                                  Does anyone know of a hidden gem for great steak sandwiches in Toronto ?

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: dale_

                                    Hollinger's on Coxwell near O'Connor.