Clarke Café makes the deli sandwich iconic again

This breakfast & lunch spot in the Point is a spin-off of a beloved Mile End institution.

When it comes to great food, there are some things that I think we all agree are good. As you read this, you are already likely imagining one of these dishes: maybe it’s a perfectly pointed slice of pizza, the peaked tip of a swirly cone of soft-serve or perfectly crispy fries. Call them comfort food or junk food, call them whatever you like, but fundamentally these dishes and dishes like these are iconic because they’re objectively delicious.

Maybe one of the most iconic and most important dishes in the category is the deli sandwich. You know the one — it’s usually some sort of Italian cold cut sliced thin and tucked between two beautiful slices of bread, dressed up a bit with a bit of veg. You may think that burgers or pizza are our greatest guilty pleasure as North Americans, but it’s the deli sandwich. However, after being co-opted by chains like Subway — making Subway the biggest fast-food chain in the world, surpassing McDonald’s — the deli sandwich has been relegated to the category of fast-food, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find a great classic hoagie.

There used to be a great place in Mile End and if you lived in the area within the three-and-a-half decades it was around for, you already know what I’m talking about. Boulangerie Clarke was a bakery that made fresh bread, pastries and famously good, big, inexpensive sandwiches. Like many of the best spots in the neighbourhood, the boulangerie was forced to close in 2015 by real-estate developers Shiller-Lavy, who seem hell-bent on evicting any decent business left in Mile End. The closing of Boulangerie Clarke was a loss not only for the neighbourhood but for the whole city. That is until June 2018, when the son of the Boulangerie’s owner, Frank Servedio, decided to reclaim his family’s business by opening Clarke Café on Centre Street in Pointe St-Charles. The café is a modern update to the Servedio’s family business; he’s decided to stop the bakery production of the business and to focus on a coffee program, hence the name Clarke Café.

The look of the updated Clake is warm and charming, with white wood-panelled walls, a wooden bar, and accents of forest green. There’s a feeling that the place was designed by someone with a true admiration for the classic Italian caffé. The feeling is less of a reconstruction or imitation of a motif, and more a researched homage to something that is being lost in time. The vibe strikes a perfect balance between the Clarke of days gone by and a Café Olimpico aesthetic. 

The menu at Clarke Café is all about the sandwiches, and fans on the old spot won’t be disappointed. The crispy oval-shaped loaves of bread are sliced in half and topped with the works, just the way they’ve always been. As for the meat of the sandwich (by which I mean the star ingredient, meat or otherwise), there is an abundance of choice. Fan favourites include the breaded chicken cutlet (essentially a chicken schnitzel), the Italian sausage and of course the capicollo. I myself opted for one of my favourite deli-meats, mortadella, which was sliced to order. Each sandwich comes with an option for two additional toppings including marinated eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes or black olives. I opted for the eggplant and dill pickles. The bakery still produces a number of fine pastries, like croissants and cannolis, and if you’re in the mood for something savoury other than a sandwich, there are fine-looking arancini as well as some Roman-style pizza, which, to be honest, looked a little lacklustre.

Overall, Clarke’s sandwiches are excellent, not because they are evolved or complex but because they are classic. Without trying to wax-poetic too much, the sandwiches at Clarke are like sentences written by Ernest Hemingway: they’re straightforward, stripped of frill and pomp and they’re all about honesty and clarity. It’s the simplicity and the quality of the composition that makes both the writing and the sandwich great. I’m not sure if a sandwich has ever been compared to Hemingway, but my point is that it’s a great sandwich.

What’s going on at Clarke is a dying craft. The sandwich divide is split into two camps: the ultra artisanal or mass-manufactured in the style of Subway, but for the classic true-to-form hoagie, we’re lucky Clarke Café is still carrying the torch. As I said, there are some things, even the lowly sandwich, that we can all agree are simply delicious and are worth doing right. ■

Clarke Café

2483 Centre, 514-932-5554