"Have you eaten here before? You should get the calamari-it's fabulous."
I have just arrived at Insomnia Restaurant Bar Lounge and am led to the bar before being seated. John, a headhunter, is a regular who "comes here every Friday after shiatsu", always gets the calamari and just can't wait to tell me how much he loves it here.
"Other bartenders come here to hang out after work. The chef comes and hangs out on his day off," the John-Turturro-lookalike tells me in a loud, boisterous voice.
"You should get the calamari," he implores again.
I am seated at a table and it's a good thing because within the half hour, the place is almost full (and it's only 6:30 pm). Groups of friends congregate over dinner and drinks, women commiserate over wine and nibblies, and it seems like date nights are in full swing, as well. A stunning woman, who looks like she could be a Bond girl, is waiting for a date at the bar. She swings her waist-length hair every few minutes as she looks anxiously towards the door. Next to me, a daughter dines with her encouraging parents over talk of travel and future plans.
Pale brick walls, simple wood chairs and tables are paired with affordable pricing amidst an extremely unintimidating air. This place is so comfortable that you feel like you can really relax and be open to talk about anything - which I think is rare. The casual vibe translates to never feeling rushed or having to feel obligated to speak in hushed tones. Just come and have a good time, the place seems to say. How many restaurants can you honestly say that about?
About 12 years ago, owner Michel Quintas opened Insomnia along with his brother, Daniel, who is also the chef. It didn't take long before the restaurant asserted itself in the Annex as the favorite go-to spot for local residents, like John, the calamari-loving, headhunter.
"It's one of the most happening places in the Annex," Michel says,"People who know what's going on, know about Insomnia."
Because it is both a restaurant and lounge, it makes for an easy night out. Come for a nice dinner and then stay for the great music that goes until the wee hours of the morning. And to keep you groovin', they have over 50 martinis, over 21 bottles of scotch, and many high-end tequilas to choose from. In addition, there are drink specials every night, except for Fridays and Saturdays. On Thursday nights, for example, martinis are $5.50, a price practically unheard of these days.
"There is a different DJ every night of the week," Michel says; they play everything from funk and soul, on Sunday nights, to dance inducing beats and then some. As Michel says, "There is always a good vibe."
I was surprised to see the generous portions. No doubt many leave with another meal under their arm, as I do. My waitress, Melanie, assures me that most people can't finish their plates.
I have the Grilled Calamari ($10) that John recommended. (There is also a fried version for $9.) It comes as one tender piece sliced like a slinky and wound into a crisp, warm pappadom bowl. It rests in very spicy chipotle vinaigrette that is packed with heat. It's rare to encounter this hotness outside of a Mexican restaurant and I appreciate it, but I know it would be way too risqué for some. The Vegetarian Spring Rolls ($8), however, are mild, as is the plum dipping sauce. Crisp, golden phyllo envelops finely chopped vegetables, like carrots, cabbage, peppers, and celery that are cooked just right - tender not mushy.
For mains, I opt for pasta and pizza, though it's hard to choose which ones - they all sound good. I go with Chicken Linguine ($15) - chicken breast, Parmesan, and basil-infused tomatoes in a white wine pesto cream sauce. The pizzas are all named for Toronto neighbourhoods and I order the College St. Pizza ($14) which comes with tomato sauce, Italian sausage, kalamata olives, oven-roasted tomatoes, Vidalia onions and mozzarella.
The pasta portion is humongous. So ridiculously big, in fact, that I have it for dinner the next 2 nights. And there is as much moist chicken as there is pasta. The linguine is topped with a silky, delicate pesto, which is fantastic, and you can actually taste the wine, which showcases great cooking skills.
The pizza comes to the table with six big slices. I have one and take the rest home. Generous handfuls of thick discs of sausage, smashed olives and onions with lovely charred ends sit atop a crust - not too thin or thick - topped with a zesty sauce.
Melanie asks if I want dessert, but I couldn't possibly - the portions are just too big. But I will stick around and have a drink and catch the DJ of the night.
After all, the night has just begun here at InsomniaÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.