Toronto's Antler Kitchen & Bar has been at the center of controversy, but man, do they make a bloody good brunch
I was sort of hoping to get yelled at during brunch, but the moment passed like any other Sunday, and I ate my pork belly in peace. I was enjoying this house-smoked roast pork belly and a tequila-spiked bloody caesar (Canada's unofficial but also sort of official national cocktail) in the front window of a restaurant in Toronto, and any time the front door opened, I half-expected to have my plate hurled to the ground by a vegan protester opposed to my life—and death—choices.
I have no beef with vegans, and in fact I have tremendous respect for people who fully commit to their core ethical and moral principles in defense of the often undefended. But man, have some of them been messing with Toronto’s Antler Kitchen & Bar in a way that irked me. The current kerfuffle started at the end of last year when a staff member wrote the slogan "Venison is the new kale." on the restaurant's sidewalk chalkboard in a ongoing friendly feud with The Federal restaurant down the street. The message raised the ire of local vegan activist and animal lover Marni Ugar, who organized a small protest out front, with participants carrying signs with slogans like, "Animals are not ours to use," "Killing and eating animals is horrifying, please stop," and "speciesism = discrimination = injustice” as well as a massive black banner with the word "MURDER" in bright pink letters—a word that the server at my brunch says was hissed at patrons and staff as they entered or exited the restaurant.
That's all fine and good. I believe that if a person decides to eat meat, they need to comprehend and take responsibility for the fact that it came from an animal. And that's where it slightly baffles me that the protesters centered in on Antler. Michael Hunter, the restaurant's chef and owner, wears his ethos on his sleeve—not to mention his menu. He is, fittingly enough, a hunter and a forager, and while due to Canadian law he cannot serve the meat he personally hunts to his customers (he feeds it to his family), the food at the restaurant embodies the principle of nose-to-tail eating. Hunter buys ethically-raised whole animals and uses every part that he can, especially in the form of charcuterie.
If a restaurant is going to serve meat at all, that's the most responsible way to do it. As the server told me, a nearby restaurateur came in absolutely baffled by the protest, noting that his place was purchasing large amounts of meat cuts from a commercial supplier, and no one made a peep in front of their place of business. Ugar told The Globe and Mail that this was in fact the point of her targeting Antler—to debunk the notion that any kind of meat eating is ethical at all, and to specifically highlight the inclusion of ingredients like foie gras on the menu.
The protests continued for several weeks, amplifying each time. Hunter tried to placate Ugar and her cohorts by advertising several vegan menu additions and attempting to speak with the crowds outside. Foot traffic was down, the shouting grew louder, and customers were upset. Eventually, Hunter got fed up. One day, he grabbed a deer leg, butchered it in the front window of the restaurant in full view of the crowd, then returned 30 minutes later to sit down and eat a grilled slice of it. Police were called to the scene twice for peacekeeping purposes, but no arrests were made.
Ungar offered an olive branch the next morning, telling Hunter that the frequency of the protests would reduce to once a month if he was willing to place a sign in the window reading: “Animals’ lives are their right. In their desire to live and capacity to suffer, a dog, is a pig, is a chicken, is a human. Reject speciesism.” Hunter countered with an offer to feed the protesters a vegan meal and take them on a foraging trip. An attempt by the group to project that message on nearby storefronts was shut down by police, but the group stood outside with screens displaying footage of animals being slaughtered and skinned. Hunter appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience on April 17, and reservations are up. In response to a suggestion Hunter made on the show, Ugar's protesters are now focusing efforts on a butcher shop down the street. The two are reportedly in communication
When I walked into the restaurant last Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t any sort of commotion outside—just passersby occasionally taking a seat on the bench facing the window. A friend who dined there later that night saw no activity either, and he and his companion enjoyed a boar, bison, and venison burger and a prime cut of venison. I tucked into my pork belly, poached eggs, and smoked salmon undisturbed, but felt a palpable flinch in the room's energy whenever the door opened. The server spoke as diplomatically and respectfully about the situation as he could, but admitted it had taken a toll on the staff.
I'm not sure quite what I was expecting, but I knew what I hoped: If someone came in screaming at me, casting aspersions on my meal choices, I would sit quietly and let them say their piece. Then I'd ask them to join me, there or elsewhere, over a cup of coffee (not a bloody ceasar on account of the Clamato, which is not vegan). Maybe we could find some common ground if we talked it all out like human beings.