110 Lombard Street (The Old Firehall/Second City)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on February 5, 2013.

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110 Lombard Street, circa 1970. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 2.

Though no engines have raced out its doors in over 40 years, the origins of 110 Lombard St. are imprinted in a roundel above its main entrance: CENTRAL FIRE HALL 1886. During its long existence, the building has balanced coping with tragedy with making the city laugh.

The building was designed by David Roberts Jr., whose architectural career was tied to the Gooderham family. Beyond working on many structures in the Distillery District, Roberts designed landmarks like the Flatiron Building and the George Gooderham House at Bloor and St. George streets. The firehall, once touted by the Globe as “the finest building of its kind in the Dominion,” was equipped with sleeping space, a gym, and a state-of-the-art telegraph fire-alarm system. Though the hall was scheduled to open in July 1887, service was delayed by the poor condition of Lombard Street.

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The Globe, July 8, 1887.

After the City rejected a proposal to build a larger firehall elsewhere, the site was expanded with a water tower in 1895. Firefighters based at the station would battle some of the city’s greatest disasters; several sustained eye injuries during the Great Fire of 1904.

By the 1960s, plans were underway to replace the station with a new firehall at Front and Princess streets. “It is so old,” the Star said of the building in February 1966. “Firefighters have to beat the rodents off before they can slide down their polls.” Alderman June Marks added the hall to a list of buildings and residences in her ward to which she handed out free rat poison. (The firehall’s supply came gift-wrapped, topped with a red bow.)

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Toronto Star, November 15, 1971.

After the firefighters departed, the City hoped, as one advertisement announced, that “some ingenious entrepreneur will grasp the opportunities in leasing these premises.” The site was converted into a dining and entertainment complex—dubbed The Old Firehall—in 1972, with family-style dining in the basement and the Fire Escape disco on the ground floor. Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole lured customers with promises of “great platters of golden southern fried chicken, prime, juicy roast beef, bowls of succulent gravy, and that special Fire Hall apple pie.”

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Toronto Star, July 6, 1973.

Looking for a cabaret-style attraction, the Old Firehall signed a contract with Second City in January 1974; the improv company needed a new space after their first Toronto home was padlocked by the landlord. Moving into a venue that possessed a liquor licence was a critical factor, as the lack of one doomed their six-month stay at Adelaide and Jarvis in 1973. (Provincial liquor officials felt the neighbourhood was already saturated with drinking spots, and didn’t believe Second City’s rented space was a true theatre.) Old Firehall manager Oscar Berceller, who previously ran celebrity-magnet restaurant Winston’s, saw Second City as part of a planned revamp of the building that would have converted the basement to a “gypsy cellar” with violinists. Berceller’s death soon after appears to have curtailed this idea.

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“Brian James, founder of a new organization which will send used tools to underdeveloped countries, seen with cast members of Second City revue Rosemary Radcliffe, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, John Candy and Joe O’Flaherty.” Photo by Reg Innell, originally published in the Toronto Star, April 17, 1974. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0128758f.

With a company featuring John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Rosemary Radcliffe, and Gilda Radner, the Second City made their Old Firehall debut in March 1974 with Hello, Dali! The Star‘s theatre critic, Urjo Kareda, felt the initial revue showed more bite than previous efforts and worked in Canadian-centric material without being pushy about it. Radner was praised for realizing that “she can be gorgeous and hilarious at the same time, without one distorting the other,” while Levy provided the show’s highlight with a skit about “Ricardo and his trained Amoeba.”

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Globe and Mail, March 14, 1974.

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Toronto Star, March 14, 1974.

In its early days at the Old Firehall, Second City competed with musical acts playing elsewhere in the building. “The only way we could attract an audience was to offer free draft,” producer Andrew Alexander later noted. “I think the audience thought they were there for the beer and rock ‘n’ roll—and the comedy was interstitial.” Among other short-lived 1970s distractions was The World’s Greatest Hamburger, which Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates found “tough and dry.”

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Globe and Mail, August 25, 1975.

When Second City prepared to move to Blue Jays Way in 1997, spirits long-reputed to haunt the Old Firehall didn’t take the news well. The frequency of odd events increased during the troupe’s final month in the building, including a burst pipe that flooded the theatre, flickering lights, and mysterious computer shutdowns. Friendly spirits, however, appeared onstage, as some famed alumni participated in the final shows. After making a surprise appearance at an improv set, Martin Short told the Star that “The Old Firehall is one of those important places for me. We’re always looking back for familiar places, whether it’s granny’s house that still exists, or your mom’s.”

A Second City alum was honoured as the building transitioned into its next incarnation. Following Radner’s death from cancer in 1989, Gilda’s Club was established to provide support and therapy spaces across North America to those living with cancer and their families. The Toronto branch opened in the Old Firehall in October 2001 and remained until it moved to Cecil Street in 2012. It was replaced on Lombard by the College of Makeup Art & Design.

Sources: The Great Toronto Fire by Nancy Rawson and Richard Tatton (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1984); the April 7, 1887 edition of the Globe; the March 31, 1973, January 10, 1974, August 25, 1975, and November 15, 1997 editions of the Globe and Mail; the February 2, 1998 edition of Maclean’s; and the September 20, 1895, February 4, 1966, April 23, 1969, November 13, 1971, January 5, 1973, December 11, 1973, March 14, 1974, and November 15, 1997 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Letter to the editor, Toronto Star, March 28, 1895. 

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Lombard firefighters in action, from the July 24, 1895 Globe.

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Photo by Frank Teskey, originally published in the January 22, 1971 Toronto Star.  Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0112378f.

This photo accompanied another image of a prospective renter. From the caption:

To prove that the facilities are still in good operating order, fireman Gord Didier slides down the pole, while firemen Ron Horniblow (left) and Ray Samson watch. On January 31, City Property Commissioner Harry Rogers will open sealed tenders from prospective tenants who want to lease the 86-year-old firehall, now replaced by a new building at Front and Princess St. It might be converted by someone into a restaurant.

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Globe and Mail, December 10, 1972.

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Mary Walpole’s advertorial take on the Fire Hall. Globe and Mail, March 31, 1973.

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Globe and Mail, November 15, 1997.

1 Benvenuto Place

This story was originally published as an online “Ghost City” column by The Grid on May 28, 2013.

Benvenuto, Avenue Road. - [1909?]

Benvenuto, circa 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 328A.

In a sense, Simeon Janes was already king of the hill. Regarded as one of Toronto’s sharpest real estate wheeler-dealers, he built a fortune during the 1880s by subdividing the land that became The Annex. When he decided to build a mansion in 1888, he settled on a property high up on Avenue Road with an expansive view of the growing city below.

Completed in 1891, Benvenuto lived up to English translation of its Italian name—“welcome”—as Janes entertained guests with feasts in its grand dining room and concerts in its conservatory. A contemporary account described the mansion as “a splendid piece of masonry, which puts to shame the flimsy ephemeral edifices, with their stuccoes and veneers, of modern house construction.”

Janes sold Benvenuto to Toronto Railway Company proprietor Sir William Mackenzie in 1897. Reputedly Mackenzie paid for part of the purchase in the pre-TTC streetcar operator’s stock, which was ironic given Janes backed an opposing bid when the city offered the transit contract to private concerns six years earlier. Mackenzie continued Benevenuto’s tradition of entertaining the rich while building a transportation empire which included the Canadian Northern Railway (the company responsible for developing Leaside).

Sir William McKenzie leaving Benvenuto. - [1910?]

Sir William Mackenzie leaving Benvenuto, circa 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1298.

Following Mackenzie’s death in 1923, the mansion fell into disuse. Parcels of the property were sold, resulting in the development of Edmund Avenue and Benvenuto Place. Developers who bought the remaining property in 1927 planned to demolish the mansion to make way for a deluxe apartment building. While the mansion was knocked down in 1932, several elements survived. The retaining wall along Avenue Road stayed put, while ornate gates Mackenzie shipped in from Italy moved west to their current location at 38-44 Burton Road.

Plans for an apartment complex remained in limbo until the early 1950s. Architect Peter Dickinson designed a flat-roofed, balcony-and-window-rich concrete structure which became one of Toronto’s first modernist buildings. Opened in stages between 1953 and 1955, 1 Benvenuto Place operated as a luxurious apartment hotel whose residents saw celebrities like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor pass through its lobby. The hotel service lasted through the late 1970s, after which it continued to offer some of the city’s priciest rental apartments.

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1 Benvenuto Place, 1955. Canadian Architectural Archives.

While there had been an onsite restaurant from the start, it didn’t make culinary waves until it transformed into Scaramouche in late 1980. Rising chefs Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander handled the kitchen during its first two years, then Keith Froggett settled in for a run now heading into its 30th year. During the mid-’80s, pastry chef Joanne Yolles accidentally came up with one of the restaurant’s signature dishes after pondering the most blue-collar dessert she could make for a high-end eatery. The result: coconut cream pie. Soon after, a separate pasta bar offering $6 dishes created nightly lineups.

Talk of converting 1 Benvenuto Place into a condominium began in the mid-1980s, upsetting many residents. This may have been among the factors which led to the building’s addition to the city’s inventory of heritage properties in 1989. The conversion process finally went ahead in 2004, at which time monthly apartment rents ranged from $2,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $5,500 for a three-bedroom. Existing tenants had the option of continuing as renters or buying their apartments. For a time it appeared Scaramouche would be replaced with a single condo unit, but an agreement signed in March 2010 allowed the restaurant to continue serving diners.

Sources: Toronto Old and New by G. Mercer Adam (Toronto: Mail Printing Company, 1891), The Railway King of Canada by R.B. Fleming (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991), the July 2005 edition of Toronto Life, and the January 18, 1927, November 24, 1982, December 30, 1989, November 6, 2004, September 10, 2007, and March 12, 2010 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Drawing room of Benvenuto, early 1890s. Photo by Josiah Bruce. Toronto Public Library, 971-25-7.

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The Globe, January 4, 1897.

The sale to Sir William Mackenzie appears to have occurred in June 1897. The Star reported that it was rumoured he paid $100,000 for the property. Simeon Janes had paid $40,000 for the land, and $160,000 to build the home. Either Janes got a lot of Toronto Railway Company stock as further compensation, or Mackenzie picked up a bargain. Not until the end of October did the society columns indicate that the Mackenzies entertained guests at their new home.

Women in costume at Benvenuto. - [between 1912 and 1914]

Women in costume at Benvenuto, between 1912 and 1914. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, item 433.

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The Globe, June 18, 1914.

Despite lavish parties such as the one described here, things were turning sour financially for Mackenzie and his business partner Donald Mann. Factors ranging from reduced emigration from Europe to western Canada to market volatility to the outbreak of the First World War drove up the cost of completing their transcontinental Canadian Northern Railway. Though the last spike was driven in January 1915, trial runs wouldn’t begin until later that year. Within two years, the federal government acquired the railway, which would become one of the original components of Canadian National Railways. By 1921, he had divested his hydroelectric and streetcar interests, and left a relatively modest estate when he died in 1923. “His rapid rise to wealth and fame had the appearance of a meteor blazing a bright trail through the skies of the Canadian business world,” the Dictionary of Canadian Biography conlcluded, “but this meteor had burned itself out several years before Mackenzie’s body was committed to the earth near his home town of Kirkfield.”

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Toronto Star, January 18, 1927.

More on the early plans for an apartment “chateau” on the site.  The “Windsor” building mentioned here sounds like it evolved into the Windsor Arms Hotel (which opened later that year). The “Bloor Building” site now houses the Manulife Centre.

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Globe and Mail, January 29, 1954.

In a 1983 interview with the Globe and Mail, structural engineer and Scaramouche owner Morden Yolles described the process of building the apartment complex, which was one of his first major projects:

Meeting Peter (Dickinson) was very important. I wasn’t aware of architecture as such at school. In Toronto in the fifties, there was no contemporary architecture whatsoever. Peter was from England — he was the first to speak in terms of anything that could remotely be considered contemporary. He was a lively guy with a lot of drive. I went around the city with him looking for buildings of any interest. We were seeking new ways of expressing things. We began to break some new ground. There was nothing like Benvenuto around — it was being done in England at the time, and was close to the International Style. The building techniques were conventional, the structure was most unconventional.

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Globe and Mail, September 3, 1955.

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, July 11, 1959.

From the 1974 edition of Toronto Guidebook:

The Benvenuto is located in one of the city’s better residential areas. It’s quiet, dignified and understated, just like its neighbourhood. Most guests are there on a long-term basis, but 25 rooms are available for short stays, most of them equipped with kitchenettes. Air conditioning, free parking, colour TV, and excellent dining room and bar.

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Globe and Mail, January 28, 1981.

Globe and Mail society columnist Zena Cherry’s take on the opening of Scaramouche.

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Globe and Mail, February 21, 1981.

In another review written two years later, Kates observed that some of “the affluent tenants of the blue-rinse set” were upset when the previous restaurant, which served up old school fare like roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, was converted into Scaramouche.

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, June 6, 1981.

starweek 1983-05-21 jim white scaramouche review

Starweek, May 21, 1983.

Sources for additional material: Toronto Guidebook, edited by Alexander Ross (Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974); the March 19, 1983 and March 26, 1983 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the June 14, 1897 edition of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Dining With Monks

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2011.

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Toronto Calendar, March 1979.

Toronto has seen theme restaurants come and go, from tiki bars like Trader Vic’s to anime-centric cafes in Scarborough. One of the oddest had to be The Monks, an eatery tucked away near Yonge and Bloor where the wait staff were decked out in monastic finery. Based on a two-star (out of five) review in Toronto Calendar magazine, the food required divine assistance.

A restaurant dedicated to good honest food at humble prices is an act of Christian charity among today’s inflationary eateries, but management here sometimes leaves discriminating diners praying for more goodness and less humility in the preparing of an imaginative sounding repast, served in the casual comfort of stucco arches and high-backed plus chairs by waiters cutely clad as clerics.

For starters, the fish pate of sole and salmon is a good choice for its light smack of dill—though mushy asparagus spears accompanying it are less enjoyable. The house salad, too, tends to be a woody concoction of iceberg lettuce topped with a salt-and-pepper vinaigrette. However the carrot puree—a daily soup—is smooth, tasty and not overrich. Accompanying wines are on a slightly higher price plane than the food.

For a main course the hungry man may turn to “choice cuts from the carvery of brother Mark,” for a platter of roast suckling pig which, on a recent sampling, was tough. But those with smaller appetites may find the “sturdy nets of brother Peter” more rewarding if they nibble on a seafood kebab of two shrimp, scallops, mushrooms and small pieces of red snapper more or less unseasoned, but moistened by a buttery hollandaise. A smooth end to the meal is mocha mousse, one of the “tantalizing confections of brother Zachary.” Or throw all caution to the wind with Monks coffee or brandy, Benedictine and whipped cream.

The Monks is a popular, affordable and central spot with a festive air. With a little more attention to food, it could be as pleasing to the palate as to the purse.

Additional material from the June 1979 edition of Toronto Calendar.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

So how many of “Toronto’s most famous restaurants” did Pedro Cabazuelo found? A quick scan of ChefDB shows he was owner or part-owner of at least 10 dining destinations between 1974 and 1981, along with stints as either chef or maitre d’ at several others.

Cue a trip into an archival wormhole leading to a parade of newspaper stories and reviews…

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Toronto Star, October 14, 1972.

Digging through the G&M and Star archives, here’s the earliest article referencing Cabezeulo, which spotlights a paella recipe.

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The headline doesn’t inspire confidence (“ho hum, another old house converted into a French restaurant”). Toronto Star, June 15, 1974.

According to a 1974 Star review, La Bastille (51 St. Nicholas Street) was operated by Cabezuelo and two former waiters who had previously worked together in Niagara Falls. The restaurant’s name was inspired by the partners coming together on July 14 (Bastille Day).

Reviewer Howard MacGregor’s opening sentence did not inspire confidence:

The thing about La Bastille is that you really want the place to work. It’s a small restaurant subdivided into three tinier rooms specializing in simple, French-provincial coooking. Fixed-price lunch and dinner menus in two of the rooms (La Guillotine and La Donjon) should please those who need an estimate of what it’s all going to cost before ordering. An a la carte menu and a kitchen that stays open until 3 am are the extra attractions of Les Oubliettes, the cellar room where buckwheat crepes, a favourite Breton dish, is one of the specialties.

MacGregor observed the main floor La Guillotine room was so compact that “if you’re at all self-consciout about overheard conversations (either yours or theirs), then this room isn’t for you.” As for the food, MacGregor felt that “someone in the kitchen had a low estimate of Torontonians’ taste buds.” On top of everything else, the restaurant lacked a liquor license. Overall, he felt it could quickly improve “by putting a little more zing and spice into its cooking.”

Two years later, Star reviewer Judylaine Fine was much happier with the fare at La Bastille, calling it “a wonderful place to go for a leisurely lunch.” She also noted that “Pedro Cabazuelo might not be a big-money restaurateur in Toronto, but he sure has his fingers into a couple of nice pies. Those pies are not high-priced or ritzy. They are charming restaurants where you can wine and dine in a homey, friendly atmosphere.”

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Globe and Mail, November 15, 1978.

Joanne Kates’s review of The Monks, which was far more positive toward the food than the one I included in the original post.

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Starweek, December 30, 1978.

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Globe and Mail, April 7, 1979.

A few words about The Monks from Mary Walpole’s advertorial column.

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Globe and Mail, November 29, 1978.

The Monks concept soon took up more of his time…

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Globe and Mail, December 6, 1978.

Of all the restaurants mentioned here, the Duke pubs are the sole survivors in 2019.

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Globe and Mail, July 28, 1979.

Next restaurant concept: Winners. By 1981 it was gone, replaced by Fortuna Village, a Chinese restaurant which retained some of its decor.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1979.

One wonders how many parties across the city were enhanced with feasts served by robed “monks.”

A fast-food Monks Kitchen soon opened at the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide, alongside two other Patrick Chan owned eateries (Bamboo Court and a Mr. Submarine franchise).  Various incarnations of The Monks were intended for properties Chan owned around the city.

Note the Uptown Backstage cinema entrance in the background.

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Globe and Mail, December 1, 1979.

Besides the locations teased here, a Monks restaurant also opened in Mississauga. All locations cloistered themselves away for good within a few years.

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“Head Chef at Monks on Front St., Pedro Cabezuelo has worked at 10 major Toronto restaurants in 10 years. A good chef is hard to find and ‘you’ve got to steal staff,’ he says.” Photo by Jeff Goode, originally published in the February 22, 1981 Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0021141f.

By the early 1980s, Cabazuelo faded from the city’s food pages. Apart from an ad promoting cooking demonstrations at Eaton’s in 1985, he reappeared in 1995 at a new restaurant at the old address of La Bastille on St. Nicholas Street. “After 12 years,” an ad proclaimed, “Pedro Cabazuelo has returned to Toronto to open Cypre’s, an inviting oasis on this charming tree-lined street. It’s a forest-green den for intimate affordable dining.” The ad touted the restaurant’s proximity to TIFF and Forever Plaid (then running at the New Yorker Theatre).

Toronto Life gave Cypre’s a one-star (out of four) review:

Some Latino tang — the tiny downstairs in burnt-orange glaze (more serene than it sounds) — though it’s really everyeater-land (Thai noodle chicken, Szechuan beef pasta, venison-veal sauced by red grapes and white raisins). Some overcooking or puzzling blandness. Wines skip about.

Additional sources: the November 21, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail; the September 9, 1995 edition of Starweek; the April 1996 edition of Toronto Life; and the January 31, 1976, and December 24, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: “The Romance of Mexican Food”

Originally published on Torontoist on March 11, 2015.

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Globe and Mail, January 2, 1974.

Writing from Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1938, Winston Norman enlightened Globe and Mail readers with descriptions of a cuisine that Torontonians could only experience via travel. Take his description of tacos and enchiladas:

The first is a sort of mysterious salad rolled up in a tortilla. The second is a kind of meat or chicken hash, also rolled up in a tortilla, and covered with mole sauce. Mole sauce (pronounced mo-lay, with accent on the first syllable) is a mean-looking black sauce made of I don’t know what, but it burns and it’s good.

Norman probably enjoyed a shot or two of tequila with his meals, a spirit he described as “a sort of cross between gin and schnapps, 300 proof, with a flavour which suggests that a mule’s hoof has been soaked in it.”

Flash forward to the 1960s, as Mexican cuisine made inroads into the Toronto culinary scene. A 1961 ad for the Park Plaza hotel claimed it was the only place in Canada to offer stuffed jalapenos, as long as they were ordered way in advance. “Jalapenos are tiny red Mexican peppers with quite a bite to them,” the ad claimed. “One wag compared it to chewing on a blast furnace!”

Later in the decade, the Four Seasons Motor Hotel on Jarvis Street offered a Mexican-themed week at its outdoor café, complete with strolling guitarist, replicas of Aztec art, and dishes with fancy names like Pescado Relle no Con Camaron to tickle the taste buds of the after-work set.

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Left: Toronto Star, February 4, 1969. Right: Toronto Star, April 25, 1969.

Toronto’s first Mexican-themed restaurant chain was Pancho Taco, which promoted “the romance of Mexican food.” While it carried staple items like burritos and tacos, the chain tried to satisfy timid customers via dishes like the “Pancho Burger.” The special taco sauce, reputedly blended from 22 ingredients, was, according to the Star, “poured over practically everything the restaurants sold.”

Expansion plans were ambitious. Seven locations, stretching from Burlington to Wexford, opened in early 1969. Ads promised future outlets across the province, including resort areas like Grand Bend. Gimmicks included a fleet of five painted Volkswagens.

But rapid growth quickly outpaced Pancho Taco’s finances. When manager Herbert Sharp filed the paperwork to declare the chain bankrupt in November 1969, he assumed he owned the company after its four shareholders sold him their shares three months earlier. Upon filing, Sharp discovered that his acquisition was never recorded as having been approved by the board of directors. As he was also a creditor, Sharp was allowed to proceed with petitioning for bankruptcy.

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Key to Toronto, February 1982.

Despite Pancho Taco’s brief existence, Mexican food gained popularity in Toronto during the 1970s. Venues like the Royal York offered theme weeks advertised with the stereotypical image of a mustachioed mariachi band. Among the restaurants that debuted was Viva Zapata, which was a North Toronto fixture for years.

The critics weren’t kind when it opened in 1977, faulting it for diluting the cuisine for Toronto taste buds. The Star’s Judylaine Fine found the food competent and filled with quality ingredients, but lacking in spiciness. “They don’t realize that good Mexican food is delicious partly because it leave you breathless,“ Fine observed. Over in the Globe and Mail, Joanne Kates found the menu timid. “Viva Zapata is a good restaurant for people who don’t think they’d like Mexican food,” she concluded. “The flavours are so watered down, Montezuma’s revenge will never enter your mind.”

Anyone preferring to kick up their Mexican food could prepare it at home. By the end of the 1970s, speciality stores in Kensington Market, including those still in business like the House of Spice and Perola’s, stocked the ingredients to make recipes drawn from newspaper food-section features. Readers may have discovered how to make mole sauce as satisfyingly spicy as that Winston Norman enjoyed 40 years earlier.

Additional material from the November 17, 1938, September 21, 1961, and March 3, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the July 16, 1968, February 4, 1969, November 22, 1969, September 10, 1977, and April 12, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Winston Norman’s description of Mexican food, Globe and Mail, November 17, 1938.

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A selection of recipes from the Globe and Mail, November 14, 1968. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto Star, September 10, 1977.

gm 1981-08-22 jay scott on state of mexican food in TO

Ouch. Globe and Mail, August 22, 1981. 

Vintage Toronto Ads: It Started With Noodles

Originally published on Torontoist on May 22, 2012.

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Whatever achievements the Saint restaurant on Ossington may earn, it will go down in history as the last spot Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates reviewed in her 38-year run with the paper. Like her or hate her, tracking her reviews over the years shows the changes in the Toronto dining scene since the mid-1970s.

Her first review for the paper, published on April 22, 1974, spotlighted Noodles, a Bloor Street Italian eatery from the people behind the restaurants at the Windsor Arms Hotel. Much time was spent custom-designing the décor, which included “Gigantic polished steel cylinders running the length of the ceiling [that] bounce back the gaseous glow from 350 feet of hot pink neon.” Kates asked neon sculptor Sam Markle about the excess of neon in Noodles, and he said “I love neon, but it’s not conducive to eating. It’s great in a discotheque where you want to turn people on, but the keynote is appropriateness. It’s not relaxing.” As for the red and pink colour scheme, Markle noted that they irritated the eyes, pointing out that theatres used red lighting to depict anger.

Kates wondered about the role of décor in general—while she thought it “should make you feel as cosy and relaxed as your favourite chair” (a quality the award-winning chairs at Noodles apparently lacked), she noticed that “young people apparently love this elegant hyper-stimulation.”

As for the food, Kates found the menu “palate-tingling,” with only a few misses. Especially praise-worthy was the pasta cooked in a $10,000 cauldron—“You won’t find a fresher noodle in Canada today. Or tomorrow, probably.” Summing Noodles up, she wrote “Flawed it may be, but credit Noodles for venturing tastefully where few dare to tread.”

Vintage Toronto Ads: Dining at Village by the Grange

Sorry, Wong Number

Originally published on Torontoist on November 2, 2010.

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Toronto Star, March 30, 1979.

Never underestimate the ability of a business to exploit the punny potential of its moniker.

Deriving its name from a New Jersey restaurant that offered the same mix of cuisines, Ginsberg and Wong made it easy for groups of diners torn between Chinese treats and a deli sandwich fix. Weeks before its opening in April 1979, an advertorial in the Toronto Star promised that the new restaurant, whose full name was the Ginsberg and Wong Food and Beverage Emporium, would prove popular with lunch and pre-theatre groups who fancied a different style of menu. Among the promised items were “all types of hearty fare such as plump, overstuffed cabbage rolls and tempting dishes from the wok as well as all kinds of deli delights.”

Toronto Star reviewer Winston Collins had mixed feelings about the fare and lively atmosphere:

The food isn’t altogether terrible at this new Village by the Grange restaurant, which seems to have sprung to life out of a computer. But, be warned, the big, brash, noisy establishment assaults the senses and nervous system. Along with the kishke and fried won-ton appetizers, an offering of Valium should be included…It’s the perfect place to take a bunch of rowdy youngsters out to eat…The food? Some of it is better than you might expect. Of the appetizers, the gross egg roll ($1.75) is an appetite depressant but the fried chicken wings ($1.95) are meaty and flavourful. The Chinese hot-and-spicy chicken ($3.95) is a pretty good entree; the deli corned-beef sandwich, with shoestring French fries and a taste of cucumber salad ($4.50), is just OK.

The crowds came: by the middle of May, the Star reported that one Saturday saw over a thousand patrons follow the arrows along the self-serve counters to choose their meal. Diners continued to flow through its doors for two decades before the contents of Ginsberg and Wong were unceremoniously auctioned off along with the remnants of three other defunct mall eateries in 1998. We don’t know how many people left that sale with the wong item.

Additional material from the March 20, 1979, May 6, 1979, and May 18, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.

Expect the Unexpected at Village by the Grange Restaurants

Originally published on Torontoist on November 9, 2010.

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Bravo, November-December 1982.

Hungry? Here are a few dining options at Village by the Grange that could have been among your choices for a celebration as the 1982 holiday season kicked into high gear. We covered Ginsberg and Wong last week; here’s the scoop on its fellow foodie tenants.

Ristorante La Gamba was one of the original eateries in the Village by the Grange complex when it opened in 1979. It was run by John La Gamba, whose family had a lengthy resume operating restaurants and catering firms. Most of the information we’ve dug up about La Gamba comes from Mary Walpole, who never said a bad word about any restaurant during the decades her advertorial column ran in the Globe and Mail. Mary dripped with hyperbolic praise for La Gamba when it opened, so take her advice with a grain of salt (or a spoonful of parmesan cheese):

It was a night to remember! A glorious feast gastronomique!…Success blew in the door with the superlative six-course dinner—a triumph for chefs Salvatore & Mario. Applause soared for their culinary dexterity and delightful dance to soft accordion music before the cake-cutting ceremonies!…This new ristorante in the unique Village by the Grange is multi-levelled, cleverly combining sophistication and rustic simplicity. Beautifully bright tiles imported from Italy; real silver-birch trees reflected in shining mirrors. Look for their amusing logo on the walls “Italian with a Twist”!—for go you must—tomorrow or sooner!—to be welcomed by Shaun; to choose from a consummate menu ranging from Rome’s Fettucine alla Carbonara to stunning Frittatae co-ordinated by the knowledgeable Julio Polanari. Not “just another Italian restaurant”—this is a celebration of creative cuisine!

One of the restaurant’s attractions was an eight-course Roman feast, complete with harpist, offered on weekend evenings and overseen by La Gamba, clad in a white toga and sandals. According to Globe and Mail society columnist Zena Cherry, when La Gamba once made a last-minute ingredient dash to another store in the complex, a boy asked him if he was God. He looked at the kid and responded, “Only Fridays and Saturdays.”

John La Gamba also briefly ran Saks, which was located in a cursed corner of the complex. When the mall opened, a retired Peter Witt TTC streetcar and a similar vehicle from Ottawa were placed in the middle of the McCaul streetcar loop to serve as a dining spot. First came The Trolley, which, joked Star food writer Jim White, “went off the tracks.” Next was Hot Jam, which proved to be “a sticky wicket.” Saks arrived in 1982 and, as today’s ad demonstrates, struck pun gold when it came to advertising group bookings—how could diners resist a dose of “group Saks” for a large gathering? They did: La Gamba closed Saks in 1983 and redeveloped the space as a T.J. Applebee’s Food Conglomeration, an eatery inspired by popular American casual chains like TGI Fridays.

Of the restaurants in the ad, Young Lok had the longest history. Opened on Spadina Avenue in 1970, Young Lok developed a reputation for cheap, well-prepared Chinese cuisine. It moved over to fancier digs in Village by the Grange in 1982. Among the fans worried that the upgraded space might ruin the food (which the hard-to-read text in the ad describes as “Sizzling Szechuan, pungent Peking, and the mysteries of the Mongolian Grill,” the latter a new draw after the move) was the Globe and Mail‘s Joanne Kates:

In the good old days the place was kind of drafty. They’d give you a stubby old pencil to write down your order and you knew you never had to dress up to go there. It was comfortably tacky. But now the pencils are monogrammed and the pad of paper for writing your order is custom-printed. The floor is ceramic tile, the plants are real, and there are enough mink coats to make you think you’ve fallen asleep and woken up on Bloor Street. So long, linoleum. Bye-bye Formica Schlock. This is the path of upward mobility, and Young Lok, formerly the gastronomic doyen of Spadina’s saintly scruffiness, has taken that path.

Kates was pleased to discover that while the surroundings had changed, the quality of the food hadn’t. She delighted in dishes like Mandarin crispy duck, a meal for “unrepentant grease lovers, with its fat layer of duck fat cushioning the crunchiest of skins, with the whole sinful affair elevated to the nadir of decadence by a chilli and hoisin sauce.” The restaurant remained in the complex until 1995, while a North York branch survived a few more years.

Additional material from The Joanne Kates Restaurant Guide by Joanne Kates (Toronto: Methuen, 1984) and the following newspapers: the April 21, 1979 and August 26, 1980 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 18, 1979, February 24, 1982, and July 20, 1983 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Dressing Up for Danakas

Originally published on Torontoist on May 18, 2010.

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CFL Illustrated, October 11, 1976.

The man on the left was not a happy fellow. If given a choice, he would have worn his comfortable corduroy sports jacket and checked trousers to the business dinner, but the boss insisted he had to wear a tuxedo as very important clients were attending and the firm had to put on its classiest face. He shuffled off to his neighbourhood Tuxedo Junction at the last possible minute and discovered all that was left was the Prince Edward ensemble. He put on the outfit, stared in the mirror and sighed. Not only did he feel uncomfortable in so formal an outfit, but he thought he looked like a fifth-rate celebrity guest starring on a game show. No, it was even worse than that. This was the same tux his cousin Murray was married in, the cousin who told so many embarrassing, cringe-inducing stories at the altar that half the wedding party fled before the ceremony was over.

While waiting for his dinner ride, our sullen friend picked up a book a friend gave him featuring local restaurants and their prized recipes. He flipped through the pages of The Flavour of Toronto until he reached the section on his destination this night, Danakas Palace.

Mirrored ceilings, wood-panelled walls, richly upholstered furniture, a brightly glowing grill pit: all combine to create a palatial background to an elegant meal. Specializing in steaks and seafood, the Palace has named its delicious seafood platter in honour of Canada’s prime minister…Many theatrical and athletic stars have followed his example. Good wines are a specialty and service is attentive.

He gazed at the recipe for the Prime Minister’s Seafood Platter. How to eat like Trudeau…two lobster tails, six scampis, six prawns, six shrimps, eight crab legs, eight oysters, eight scallops, two ounces of breadcrumbs, a teaspoon of finely chopped garlic, an ounce of dry white wine, three ounces of butter, three teaspoons of lemon juice, and a pint of vegetable oil. The crab and lobster were baked, the smaller crustaceans sautéed in garlic and wine, and the remaining seafood fried until golden. Arrange the lot on a silver platter, douse with cognac and set aflame. The dish had possibilities. Maybe, he thought, he would buy a rose from a street vendor, place it in his label like PET, then enjoy the delights of the sea.

His ride wasn’t due for another fifteen minutes, so he pulled out the box of restaurant review clippings he filed away as potential date destinations. Buried near the bottom was Joanne Kates’ opinion in the Globe and Mail from a year earlier. His heart sunk when the headline read unfulfilled promises.” Danakas Palace got off to a bad start with Kates for producing ads touting its “famous” charcoal broil — she felt it was “strange that a restaurant should be famous in time to make that claim when it opens.” Meant to be the first in a chain of restaurants, she felt that “it’s fitting that a chain begin with a nod to progress. All guests are treated to garlic bread wrapped in that modern wonder, aluminum foil.” The food didn’t impress her, as out of the highly-touted eleven fresh vegetables, only two appeared on her plate (of which one, creamed cauliflower, was mushy and lacked cream). Bouillabaisse featured stringy, tough fish; trout was over-fried; black forest cake was leaden. She sighed that the chain would probably do well, as “it has the ingredients that seem to sell nowadays: underground parking, décor that at first glance looks first class, a la carte dinner for two with wine and tip for about $40, and above all, mediocrity.”

As his ride arrived, all he could hope was that it wasn’t going to be a long night in a stiff tux with middling food. The deal-making possibilities of the evening had better be worth the potential misery.

Additional material from The Flavours of Toronto: A Gourmet’s guide to restaurants and recipes, edited by Kenneth Mitchell (Toronto: Four Corners, 1977) and the October 27, 1975 edition of the Globe and Mail.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

danakas

And now, for your eager eyes, the seafood platter at Danakas Palace that Pierre Trudeau  liked so much the owners renamed it in honour of his position. Whether the story is true or not, it’s not surprising a seafood platter would receive such an honour, as restaurants in the vicinity of Danakas Palace loved showing off their ensembles of lobster, shrimp and other sea creatures in full-colour ads targeted to business executives and tourists—a show of hands from anyone who’s ever actually eaten the “award winning” seafood platter showcased in every Toronto visitors guide by Fisherman’s Wharf since the dawn of man?

It often seems like a seafood platter is designed to look attractive and draw as much money out of a customer as possible. I won’t deny having succumbed to the allure of a broad sampling of delights from the deep. During my university days at Guelph, there was a restaurant in the upper reaches of Stone Road Mall called Legends that accepted school meal plans. At the time, it was one of the few off-campus spots that took meal cards, so it often wound up being the destination for special events among my residence-mates at Arts House. It became a running joke that I’d always order the most expensive thing on the menu, which was the seafood food. A further running joke was that the platter was never the same twice—a good night might bring heartly samplings of crab, grilled swordfish and tuna, a lousy one saw a meagre serving of shrimp and a puny crab appendage arrive at the table.

Come to think of it, Legends was often unpredictable with its fare, such as the time four of us ordered blue lagoons and each arrived with a different colour. Who knew purple lagoons existed?

Here’s how you can make a meal worthy of the occupant of 24 Sussex Drive, though you can choose to eat it as a salute to the current PM or your all-time favourite leader.

2 lobster tails
6 scampis
6 prawns
6 shrimps
8 crab legs
8 oysters
8 scallops
2 oz (50 g)breadcrumbs
1 tsp garlic, finely chopped
1 oz (25 mL) dry white wine
3 oz (75 g) butter
3 tsp lemon juice
1 pint (500 mL) vegetable oil

To prepare: cut the lobster tails and bend back in butterfly style; shell and de-vein the scampis, prawns and shrimps; extract the meat from the crab claws; remove the oysters and scallops from the shell and coat with breadcrumbs. Finally, wash the lobster, scampi, prawns and shrimps under cold running water and dry thoroughly.

Proceed with the following cooking methods simultaneously: (a) Place the crabmeat in a small ovenproof dish, add 1/3 tsp garlic, 1 tsp lemon juice and half the white wine and bake in a moderate oven for 10-15 minutes.; (b) Place the lobster tails in an oven pan, add 1 oz (25 g) butter and 1 tsp lemon juice and bake in a moderate oven for 8-10 minutes; (c) Melt 1 oz (25 g) butter in a frying pan, add 1/3 tsp garlic and the remaining wine and sauté the scampi, prawns and shrimps for 2 minutes, stirring continuously; (d) Heat the oil and fry the scallops until golden, then transfer to a small overproof dish, add the remaining butter, garlic and lemon juice and place in a broiler for 5 minutes; (e) Re-heat the oil and deep fry the oysters until golden.

To serve: arrange attractively on a silver platter, pour over the Cognac and flame. Serves 2.

Recipe taken from The Flavour of Toronto, edited by Kenneth Miller, photographed by René Delbuguet (Toronto: Four Corners, 1977). 

Vintage Toronto Ads: Where Else Would You Eat?

Originally published on Torontoist on September 22, 2009.

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Bravo, November/December 1982.

Yes, your friends were happy that the iambic pentameter flowing out of your mouth finally sounded naturalistic and not an exercise in word fumbling. For that, you deserved a night on the town!

Your friends also had deep pockets, as a meal at Chiaro’s (pronounced key-arro) wasn’t in the typical actor’s price range, especially if they treated you to the exclusive wine room. Two people who were denied the latter were Globe and Mail restaurant critic Joanne Kates and her dining companion:

We mere mortals, and two females to boot, are not invited into the wine room. We are not even offered a wine list. We are offered a table by the door and, having reserved earlier, we begin to wonder: Would the waiter chide a male customer for asking to see the label on a bottle of house wine before it was poured?

Chiaro’s was part of the multi-million-dollar renovation of the King Edward Hotel in the early 1980s. Kates compared the décor to both ends of the hospitality spectrum owned by new operators Trusthouse Forte: the Plaza Athénée in Paris and your average roadside Travelodge. “The lobby is splendid and subtle,” she noted, “an Edwardian triumph of massive marble columns and Oriental rugs lit from above by a glass roof. But in the women’s room the soap is that horrible green stuff (what, no Pears?) and Muzak plays.“

Kates felt the pasta dishes were worth the money while most of the mains were boring. Her summary of the Chiaro’s experience expressed disappointment:

Neither the $20,000 peacock mirrors nor the grey walls and ceiling are glorious. The food is good, but it is attention to detail that makes a restaurant great: Salada tea and banal desserts give Chiaro’s a mass-produced air; waiters who seat and serve diners according to their Dun and Bradstreet rating do not belong. A restaurant that charges $105 for dinner had better treat everyone like a queen.

Additional material from The Joanne Kates Toronto Restaurant Guide (Toronto: Methuen, 1984).