August 10, 2016
Dale Carruthers

Justin Wolfe carries out a plate of oysters covered in a glass dome that holds a swirling cloud of smoke.

He removes the glass lid and the hickory-scented vapour billows into the muggy evening air.

The smoke has hardly disappeared before the two women dig into the oysters — one douses them in lemon, while the other squeezes hot sauce from an eye dropper onto hers — as a man at a nearby table watches with envy.

Welcome to the Wolfe of Wortley, the newest collaboration from Justin Wolfe, 34, and brother Gregg, 37, the owners of the popular Early Bird restaurant.

Since opening their downtown eatery in 2012, the London siblings have been busy travelling the globe to meet with restaurant owners, chefs and food suppliers, bringing back a bundle of big-city food and drink ideas to their hometown.

The result? A restaurant unlike anything London has ever seen.

“We wanted to create a place that we’d search for in a big city,” said Justin, the executive chef at the new Wortley Road restaurant.

The Wolfe, as it’s affectionately called, serves up family-style dishes that encourage customers to make sharable meals from a selection of proteins, produce and pastas. From beef cheek and grits to bucatini pasta with clams, the menu offers up mouth-watering pairings that may sound unfamiliar to most diners.

For starters, there’s oysters — raw, cold-smoked and grilled — and charcuterie boards featuring cheeses and in-house cured meats.

The cocktail menu is the brainchild of Gregg, whose bar resembles a chemistry lab, with an array of homemade simple syrups and bitters like lemon grass with ginger, coffee-pepper and walnut and cumin.

“I started making them four or five months before we opened,” said Gregg, a bourbon aficionado, whose signature drink is a smoked Manhattan.

But don’t let the exotic fare fool you into thinking the Wolfe is a snobby restaurant, say the brothers, who blast jazz and blues from the speakers.

The siblings grew up in London and attended South Collegiate Institute. After graduating, Justin toured the world as the vocalist in a metal band, Thine Eyes Bleed, for years before becoming a chef. Gregg moved to Toronto to manage and book bands at a Queen Street bar.

The brothers teamed up to open the Nite Owl, a rock club on Talbot Street, in 2009. Three years later, they launched the Early Bird in the neighbouring space, serving up diner-style comfort food like perogie poutine and peanut butter sandwiches topped with bacon and banana.

The restaurant, an instant hit with everyone from downtown office workers looking for lunch to the hungry post-bar crowd, was featured on the Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here. The brothers eventually shuttered the Nite Owl, replacing it with Rock Au Taco, a taco and tequila joint.

Seeking a greater culinary challenge, the pair began looking for their next venture. Opportunity knocked earlier this year when a friend approached them about buying a tiny two-level building in the heart of Old South’s Wortley Village.

The space was small — less than 400-square-feet on each level — but the brothers jumped at the chance to set up shop in the neighbourhood they call “their old stomping ground.”

They put a kitchen in the lower level and a 24-person dining room upstairs, adding another 14 seats with an outdoor patio.

“It’s got New York City spacing,” Gregg said, adding every inch of the building is used.

Justin adds: “And it also keeps our menu as fresh as possible.”

The restaurant features many ingredients sourced from local farmers. The menu changes roughly every two weeks, largely based on what’s seasonably available.

London has already shown an appetite for what the Wolfe’s are serving up. The restaurant has been nearly booked solid since opening on July 2, but three tables and the bar area are always kept open for walk-in customers.

Sometimes, guests make their next reservation on their way out, the brothers say.

“It’s all word-of-mouth (advertising) so far,” Gregg said. “And that’s the best way for us, because it’s honest.”

Running their restaurants is a family affair for the Wolfe brothers, whose wives both work at their businesses.

Both Justin and Gregg strive to maintain a good work-life balance — a feat that’s notoriously difficult in the restaurant industry.

In the future, they plan to keep building on the success their trio of restaurants has enjoyed. There’s plans to bring in guest chefs from around the globe to do stints at the Wolfe.

Showing their confidence in the new venture, the brothers started curing meats that they plan to serve in two years.

“We plan to be around for awhile.” Gregg said.

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Justin Wolfe

Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: Instagram
Cat/dog: hairless cats
Beer/Wine/liquor: whisky
BlackBerry/iPhone/Android: iPhone
Pen/Pencil: Sharpie
Bottled/tap water: whatever’s cold
Coffee/tea: strong black coffee
Summer/winter/spring/fall: fall
Gregg Wolfe
Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: Instagram
Cat/dog: dog
Beer/Wine/liquor: liquor
BlackBerry/iPhone/Android: iPhone
Pen/Pencil: pen
Bottled/tap water: tap water
Coffee/tea: coffee
Summer/winter/spring/fall: summer

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Justin Wolfe
Age: 34
Family: Wife Jenn is five months pregnant
Previous jobs: sous chef at Garlic’s
Gregg Wolfe
Age: 37
Family: Wife Olivia, two sons, 22 months and five weeks
Previous jobs: bar manager in Toronto

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"We wanted to create a place that we’d search for in a big city.”
Justin Wolfe

484 Waterloo Street
London, Ontario