Owner Katalin Koltai reveals enduring appeal of Country Style
By Clarrie Feinstein
Despite the recent closing of Honest Ed’s and the constant turnover of Annex storefronts, Country Style has stayed firm in its place at 450 Bloor St. W. for 55 years.
The only adjustment made to the Hungarian restaurant was a two-month renovation last year, which owner Katalin Koltai said was sorely needed.
“The place was looking a bit old and needed a new look. We love it.”
“The cooking reminds me of my mother’s cooking. The tablecloths are like the restaurants in Budapest. Every time I’m back, I feel those memories” — Stephen Lugosi, customer
The new bike lane has also caused some inconvenience for bringing in groceries to the store, but Koltai adjusts to the neighbourhood changes because she must.
In 1971, at a young age, Koltai moved from Hungary to Canada and became a business partner at Country Style in 1980 for four years. The previous owners emigrated from Hungary and had owned the restaurant for almost 30 years at that point. She then worked at a bank for some time, and at another restaurant, Hungarian Rhapsody, before returning to work at Country Style as a server for 12 years. When the business was under threat of being sold in 2002, Koltai bought it and has owned it ever since.
“I could not do the bank job — sitting all day,” Koltai said. “I always wanted my own business and I knew I could do it myself.”
When Koltai began working at the restaurant there was a larger Hungarian community in the Annex that included six other Hungarian establishments along Bloor Street West, where the language was often spoken. Many of the patrons were among the 100,000 refugees who came to Canada in 1956 after the failed revolution against communist rule. The community has long since moved further north and many of its institutions went with it, but Country Style remains as one of the last remnants of the people who used to call the area home.
While the façade has been updated, an essential component has remained the same: the food. The entire menu consists of homemade Hungarian dishes, with customer favourites being the crispy wiener schnitzel and comforting beef broth, gulag soup.
Head cook Tunde prepares all of the food herself, having learned the traditional Hungarian recipes from the cook who used to work at the restaurant. Every morning Tunde starts cooking at 7:30 a.m., just as she has done for 15 years.
“The green pea soup and schnitzel are my absolute favourites!” said Stephen Lugosi, who has been coming to Country Style twice a week for over 40 years. “The cooking reminds me of my mother’s cooking. The tablecloths are like the restaurants in Budapest. Every time I’m back, I feel those memories.”
There are only three Hungarian restaurants in downtown Toronto and Lugosi says Country Style is by far the best one.
“It’s the food that people love and it’s why they come back,” said Koltai. “I mean they love the tablecloths and window front, but the food has never changed, it’s remained the same.”
Country Style’s loyal clientele — 60 per cent of customers are regulars — reflects that continuity.
“We have new customers, a lot come from the university and passers-by see our storefront and want to come in. But, we have customers that have been coming for decades,” explained Koltai. “It’s beautiful to see them grow up from when they were students to now bringing their children and grandchildren.”
While Koltai visits Hungary every year to visit her mother, her home now is Toronto. Once she decides to leave the business her daughter — also named Katalin — will take it over, making her feel assured the restaurant will be in the right hands. Country Style has now become a family business.
“It makes me very happy. My daughter will do a wonderful job — we’ll do it together.”
EDITORIAL: Embrace refugees (December 2015)