Vintage Toronto Ads: Try a Little Tenderness

Originally published on Torontoist on April 1, 2007.

Vintage Ad #60 - Winco's Steak N' Burger

Source: Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine, Vol 1 No 17, 1977.

The 1960s and 1970s saw family dining restaurant chains explode across North America. Chains such as Steak n’ Burger took staples of diners and greasy spoons and used cleanliness, low prices and conformity to draw in hungry families.

You have all the components of the old-school low-end steak dinner: a bowl of iceberg lettuce with no fresh-ground pepper or sun-dried tomato vinaigrette in sight, a baked potato with a huge pat of butter; a steak that has never known the words “Angus” or “certified aged”, a toasted supermarket roll that takes up a third of the plate, tomato juice (because a bloody piece of meat deserves a bloody accompaniment) and coffee in a cup a university student’s cupboard or Value Village store would love. Not sure how common strawberry shortcake was at this style of restaurant, but hopefully the sponge cake had some spring left in it.

When this ad appeared, Steak n’ Burger had just been acquired by Cara Operations, who added Harvey’s and Swiss Chalet to its portfolio within a year. The chain gradually faded away, as the market for franchised family dining moved towards bar & grill-style restaurants that didn’t include tomato juice as a side dish.

Can you still find tenderness after a rough rush hour commute at their locations along the subway? Check the current state of these addresses:

173 Bay St – building replaced by the main entrance off Bay to BCE Place. Not quite as historic as the 1885 Bank of Montreal building or other buildings incorporated into the complex.

77 King St E. – address no longer appears to exist. There is a vacant space at 75 which looks large enough to have housed a restaurant, while 79 is home to Uno Spanish Services. (Update 2017: 77 King East houses a beauty salon, while 79 has received heritage designation).

323 Yonge St – building demolished, address looks like it will be buried in the Metropolis development at Dundas St. (Update 2017: after a few name changes, the development is currently known as 10 Dundas East).

772 Yonge St – now the Yonge-Bloor branch of Le Chateau. Do leather jackets count as a connection to this location’s cow by-product past? (Update 2017: site currently under construction for The One tower).

1427 Yonge St – the only one of the subway-accessible locations still serving food, as the Jester Pub. (Update 2017: or, as it’s currently called, the Jester on Yonge).

2287 Yonge St – not a restaurant, but still in the food business as the Yonge-Eglinton branch of Kitchen Stuff Plus. (Update 2017: demolished for condo construction).

240 Bloor St W. – recently demolished to make way for the One Bedford condo tower.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

In some ways, I’m lucky my work doesn’t draw too many comments from the interwebs. With rare exceptions, my articles tend not to stir up too much vitriol, even when dealing with controversial topics. When I do receive comments, they’re often enlightening, adding more details to the story based on readers’ personal experiences with the topic at hand.

Such as this post. Here are some comments left about it over the years.

From Jason Hurlbut, circa 2012:

My dad and his 2 partners founded the Steak n’ Burger and its great to see this old ad. Your facts are mostly correct although there wasn’t a better steak available than what you see in the picture. The beef was actually “aged” although that marketing of same wasn’t needed at the time. Interestingly, Vaunclair Meats which was also owned by Winco Steak n’ Burger was the first purveyor to bring “Certified Black Angus” beef to Canada. The first Steak n’ Burger restaurant (based on the Steak n’ Burger Room in the Brass Rail Tavern in London, Ontario – no not “that” Brass Rail) opened December 1958 and was lined up all the way up Yonge Street and around the corner onto Bloor on opening day. The reason the chain grew to over 50 restaurants was because of the attention to detail for fresh and top quality food while keeping prices low. The dishes you see still exist at our cottage today…. you can’t beat heavy duty functional stuff! Thanks for writing about this and sorry I didn’t see it until my brother found it 5 years later.

From Pat Skinner, circa 2012:

I was the bartender in the Colonel’s Lounge, a separate bar area in the Steak n Burger at 77 King St. E. for 2 years starting in 1975. Clientele consisted of around 20 or so regulars. Every lunch and after work until closing at 10 or 11 p.m. Wally, Karl, Tom, Rodney, Mike, George, Claire, the Whaley brothers, Tex, Carmen, Hugh, Art… would come in and make the place their own. When the door from the street opened all eyes would check out who was entering-strangers could expect stares and silence. This was their club. They were all characters. One of the Whaley brothers would stand at the bar and converse with me, and unbeknownst to me, all the while his pants were on the floor around his ankles. I worked the bar with Melanie and on our birthdays and Christmas we would be taken out for dinner and receive gifts from all the regulars. After closing a bunch of the restaurant staff, bar staff and regulars would head over to Brandy’s for a drink. One Christmas, staff and bar customers pitched in and rented a room at the King Eddy for a Xmas party. In the 2 years I worked there the only newcomer the regulars ever accepted was a guy in his late 20’s, I think his name was Donald. He gave his story as being an orphan and working as a bartender to put himself through school. He rented an apartment or room above the rug store that was next door to the Steak n Burger. He told everyone he was going into the hospital to have a deviated septum fixed. When we next saw him in the bar, he looked tired and had black circles under his eyes. We assumed it was from his nose operation. When we commented on his looks he said the operation had been cancelled as his surgeon was in a car accident. We were embarrassed as we had told him he looked like sh… I left for a 2 week vacation. Upon my return my manager Shelley met me at the door. Donald had been arrested for murder! Turns out he looked like sh.. ’cause that weekend he had picked up some guy in a park, took him home (next door to the Steak n Burger) and supposedly the guy came on to Donald and would not take no for an answer so Donald stabbed him numerous times and stuffed him in his closet. For the next several days people had seen him taking bags of ice up stairs to his room. Turns out Donald kept the guy on ice in his tub, then rented a car, dismembered the body and dumped it across the city in various places. According to Shelley, Donald had confessed to a waitress and one of our bar customers but they did not call police. An old boyfriend that Donald confessed to turned him in to police. Well, we never did cotton to another stranger again. I left to work at an upscale bar with younger clientele after 2 years and continued to bar tend for another 20 years. I NEVER dated a customer. I have shared this cautionary tale with many young restaurant staff that think they look prettier at closing time. I often wonder what happened to Nino, Shelley, Melanie, and all the regulars. It was a great place to work.

From dylanesq, circa 2013:

I was one of the shipper/receivers at the Vaunclair plant on Upjohn Rd in the mid 1970’s. I don’t recall any ‘aging’ going on in the plant but most of the top quality beef came in, probably pre-aged, from Iowa Beef (in the USA) by ‘reefer’ tractor trailer loads. They were packed in boxes with 2×7 bone ribs in each. A crew of mostly Greek Canadians (including one Macedonian refugee called ‘Jimmy’ who sang the most heart wrenching songs from his homeland as he worked around the plant) broke down into roasts for our Rib of Beef restaurants and steaks and burgers (from the trim) for Steak and Burger restaurants. A Newfy, Lindy, was the burger shop foreman and a German Canuck, Eric, ran the plant.

I learned how to throw together the best peasant style lunch from those Greeks. It comprised a can of sardines, several lemon wedges, a ripped off chunk of white bread ( to dunk in the sardine juices), a handful of olives, feta cheese and wedges of tomato !! dessert was always an orange trimmed and peeled with a small pocket knife.

The whole plant system ran like clockwork with deliveries made by our own van and truck. Compared to other drivers, when I went out on runs, I was so fast making deliveries I used to catch a couple of hours at home on Mount Pleasant before getting back.

The last job we did before the end of the day was to load all the boxes of meat into the deep freeze where the fan blown temperature was positively ‘arctic’ … and we had to dress appropriately, i.e. like proverbial Eskimos ! We were highly skilled at tossing 10lb boxes up 25 feet where they stopped in mid air and were taken and stacked on the top pallets. I’ve never been so fit !

Only problem was that, in the summer, when it was in the mid 80’s F, you’d exit the -45 F freezers and climb onto the steamy Don Mills bus and, due to that c 135 degree difference, fall fast asleep !!

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