Winston’s—Where Celebrities Meet to Eat

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 6, 2011.

Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Durante, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 9224.

One example of how far Winston’s restaurant went to please their clientele of entertainers and business establishment figures: when comedian/musician Jimmy Durante’s manager contacted the restaurant prior to a visit in 1946, he noted that the entertainer was on a strict diet of unseasoned charcoal-broiled steak. Owner Oscar Berceller had never served a slab of meat cooked via that method, which was all but unknown in Toronto at the time. Many inquiries ensued before a suitable filet was found in Kingston, but the search and shipping costs proved pricier than anticipated. When Durante, pleased with his meal, requested the bill, Berceller indicated there wasn’t one. “Mr. Durante, the steak you just enjoyed cost me a little over $400,” said Berceller. “How could I present you with a bill that big?” The restaurateur told Durante about the province-wide search for a steak worthy of a beloved entertainer. Durante thanked the effort that went into the meal by dedicating the last song of his next performance to Berceller.

For half a century in two downtown locations, Winston’s prided itself on providing superior service and, as Gourmet magazine put it, “the most superb food on the North American continent” to well-heeled patrons. Whether it was the theatrical crowd favoured by Berceller in the 1940s and 1950s or the power elite catered to by John Arena in the 1970s and 1980s, the critical factor in Winston’s success was making its patrons feel comfortable.

The high degree of customer care helped when mistakes were made, such as the time Sarah Churchill, daughter of the restaurant’s British prime ministerial namesake, almost didn’t make it past the front door. Staff knew that Churchill would enjoy a meal while in Toronto to perform in The Philadelphia Story at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in December 1949. Upon arrival at Winston’s, the maître d’ not only failed to recognize her, but tried to turn her away for the sin of wearing slacks on an evening a special guest was expected. When Churchill asked who the dignitary was and discovered it was her, she replied “Really! Well, I happen to be Sarah Churchill.” Berceller stepped in and smoothed the situation. “Miss Churchill couldn’t have been more generous about it,” he recalled. “In fact, she embarrassed me with her humility… it took a really big person to tolerate a misunderstanding of that kind.” On future visits to Winston’s, Churchill arrived in an evening dress.

Illustration of the restaurant’s namesake, Winston Churchill, along with King George VI and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a banner over the entrance of the CNE Press Building, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5683.

Enforcing a dress code was a long way from Winston’s origins as a greasy spoon purchased by Hungarian émigrés Oscar and Cornelia Berceller around 1940. Initially specializing in hamburgers, the diner at 120 King Street West was named after Winston Churchill to appeal to diners who barely trusted anything that wasn’t British. The restaurant quickly attracted customers from the theatrical world passing through the Royal Alex and from next-door neighbour/landlord the Globe and Mail. The newspaper’s publisher, George McCullagh, encouraged the Bercellers to expand their menu and establish a fancier restaurant that would counter raucous, prostitute-riddled nearby bars like the Metropole and Prince George hotels. McCullagh provided funding for renovations, the results of which were described by Globe and Mail columnist Dofy Skaith in 1946:

The light-hearted little restaurant of Oscar and Cornelia Berceller has blossomed into a beautiful, grown-up “glamour job” that would make New York look several times. It has a trim, white, modern facade with a massive, but tempting, door opened by a huge brass knob in the centre. Plump evergreens in tubs march across the front. Inside, what used to be one narrow room warmed into being by Oscar and Cornelia’s hospitality, is now two gracious rooms divided by a half-way up wall—the rest open, supported by stylized pinkish white columns. The walls are a delicious crushed strawberry pink-red you could eat with a spoon.

McCullagh may have inspired one of Berceller’s most successful gimmicks: key access. One possible origin of the keys was McCullagh’s desire to keep the public away from his private parties. Another was a complaint to Berceller after being approached inside Winston’s by a prostitute who had wandered in after the bars closed. Regular customers and celebrities received keys that were technically useless—because Winston’s didn’t qualify as a private club in the city’s eyes, the restaurant couldn’t place a special lock on the door to control access—but had great symbolic value as a gateway to an increasingly exclusive establishment. More than 1,000 keys, some gold-plated, were handed out over a 15-year period. The keys proved handy to doormen who easily turned away undesirable diners who lacked them (prior to the key system, Winston’s showed off its snobbier side by serving punier portions).

Advertisements, (left) the Globe and Mail, April 5, 1955, (right) the Globe and Mail, March 20, 1962.

Serving a theatrical crowd, Berceller couldn’t resist being a showman, to the point of composing a Winston’s theme song. Opinions about his musical abilities were mixed—when he asked composer Moss Hart to evaluate an after-dinner original tune, Hart replied “Oscar, I must tell you that the results are much better with your composed food than with your composed music.” Less humorously, in October 1960 Pierre Berton accused Berceller of trying to buy him off when the Toronto Star columnist received an unmarked envelope containing six $20 bills after Berton criticized a fellow restaurateur on a recent radio broadcast. Berton was disgusted by the possibility of received a payoff and wondered if all the positive press Winston’s had received was spurred by similar envelopes. “To what depths,” Berton wrote in an “open letter” to Berceller, “has the noble calling of journalism sunk when the town’s leading restaurateur blandly assumes that a columnist—any columnist—will cheerfully pocket $120 cash as a result of giving his restaurant a free mention?”

But perhaps Berceller then needed to buy publicity as Winston’s reputation declined in the early 1960s. New theatrical venues elsewhere in the city like the O’Keefe Centre and the Crest Theatre sent patrons and crews to other dining spots. Ed Mirvish bought the Royal Alex and developed his own neighbouring restaurants. Winston’s became shabbier as Berceller, believing change would destroy the room’s charm, resisted renewing the decor and menu. Months after suffering a heart attack in 1962, Berceller sold the restaurant to a consortium of local businessmen. He retained a small interest and stayed at the helm for awhile, but business sank until Winston’s nearly went bankrupt.

John Arena, 1970. Photo by Frank Teskey. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0029616F.

Enter John Arena to launch the next phase of the restaurant’s life. A native of Italy, Arena was supervising the food at the Rosedale Golf Club in 1966 when a Winston’s partner asked if he wanted to purchase the restaurant for two dollars. After Arena bought Winston’s and took on its debts, he quickly reshaped the restaurant from an evening destination for the theatre crowd to the lunch spot for Toronto’s business elite. Renovations brought in an Art Nouveau theme, along with red velvet chairs and Tiffany lamps. The menu leaned toward French-inspired fare heavy on the cholesterol. Cards were sent to patrons of Arena’s previous employers and to secretaries at the Toronto-Dominion Centre across the street. Arena’s hustling resulted in a 350 percent jump in sales during his first year. When the block was slated for redevelopment in 1973, Arena moved Winston’s a short distance north to 104 Adelaide Street West, next to the Concourse Building. In an eerie coincidence, the day the wrecking ball went to work on the old location in January 1974, Oscar Berceller died of a heart attack.

A golden version of the Winston’s logo used on the cover of Winston’s: The Life and Times of a Great Restaurant by Herbert Whittaker and Arnold Edinborough (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988)

By the early 1980s, Winston’s was the dining place for Peter C. Newman’s fabled “Canadian Establishment” of power brokers. Newman gave a sense of the lunchtime crowd served by waiters whose fingernails were inspected by Arena each morning:

The standard Winston’s two-hour lunch is a daily convention of the Establishment’s illuminati (not a high-tech microchip carver in the bunch) who want to remain within frequent sight and range of those who make the decisions that count—in other words, one another…Nodding their heads sagaciously like wise turtles, they sip their Meursault, aware that for them fame and fortune is not a one-night stand. They have chosen this restaurant as a stage on which to parade themselves and their egos.

To satisfy those egos, regulars were welcomed by Arena’s genial presence and remarkable memory. Advertising executive Jerry Goodis felt Arena made people “feel important, very special, and even very loved. He exudes a real joy that you have come to visit him. When you go to Winston’s, it’s like going home.” According to Conrad Black, “John is very astute and certainly takes good care of his clients if he’s of the view that they have some prominence.” Newman believed Arena was a lay therapist, there for his customers to unload their problems onto. Arena also knew how to arrange diners so that those who required privacy were left alone and those with simmering conflicts were kept far apart.

A sample menu from the John Arena era. Toronto à Table (Montreal: Clare Taylor and Bernard Moscovitz, 1977).

Of Winston’s 23 tables, up to 13 were permanently booked. A select number of patrons, notably politician John Turner, had private phone lines installed at their tables. Next in the pecking order were regulars, then anyone else. Booking a table wasn’t easy, as an average of 50 callers a day were turned away and given recommendations for other high-end eateries. Some patrons were placed in the 45-seat Game Room downstairs, which, despite the high quality farm-raised game birds on Winston’s menu, Newman described as “the Establishment’s gastronomic purgatory, reserved for clubwomen, faceless out-of-towners, and shopping centre developers who wear triple-knits thick enough to stop bullets.”

John Arena and chef Rolf Romberg. Photo by Keith Beaty, originally published in the October 22, 1988 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Toronto Public Library, TSPA_0029619F.

But as time had passed it by once before, Winston’s fortunes declined after Arena sold the restaurant to a hospitality group in 1989. Nothing worked well during the restaurant’s last decade under various owners who struggled with bankruptcy, departing regulars, lower corporate lunch tabs, and the public’s drift away from heavy, artery-clogging cuisine. Reviews of later incarnations criticized inattentive service that a perfectionist like Arena would have never tolerated. Like its first home, the second site of Winston’s was bulldozed, leaving no trace of the restaurant where theatrical and business stars were treated royally.

Sources: The Canadian Establishment Volume 2: The Acquisitors by Peter C. Newman (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981), Winston’s: The Life and Times of a Great Restaurant by Herbert Whittaker and Arnold Edinborough (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988), the October 22, 1946 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the October 8, 1960 and October 25, 1960 editions of the Toronto Star.


Globe and Mail, October 22, 1946.

Globe and Mail, April 26, 1956.

Toronto Star, October 25, 1960.

On the backside of the sample menu published in Toronto à Table, a few late 1970s recipes from Winston’s. 

ts 88-10-22 review and book

Toronto Star, October 22, 1988. Click on image for larger version.

Globe and Mail, November 14, 1998. Click on image for larger version.

One of the final reviews published about Winston’s. It was the second time Joanne Kates covered the restaurant that year – her earlier review, published on January 31, ran under a headline which paid homage to an old cigarette slogan (“Winston’s tastes good, like a restaurant should”). At that time, she concluded that “this is a dazzling restaurant, a one-of-a-kind artwork. Will Toronto understand it? It’s out of style, expensive, and wonderful. We fear for its survival.”

Toronto, The New Great City (According to Fortune Magazine, 1974)

Fortune, September 1974.

Clean subways. Safe streets. Cosmopolitan atmosphere. Good government. Friendly cops. Ethnic restaurants. Boutiques everywhere you look. Downtown revitalized. Suburbs that work. Amazing schools. Neighbourhoods restored. This is the litany you’ll hear over and over again in Toronto, not only in the media, which have a vested interest in civic preening, but from people, especially newcomers…The newcomers tend to be the city’s most vocal enthusiasts and, at the same time, the people who make the city something to get enthused about.

from the introduction to Toronto Guidebook, 1974.

By 1974, for the reasons just outlined and more, Toronto was basking in raves from across North America. In a decade where American cities struggled with declining populations in their cores, suburban sprawl, urban crime, and financial difficulties, the perception of Toronto as a place that had its act together led to many articles focusing on our pros and cons.

Among those pieces was a 12-page feature in the September 1974 edition of Fortune written by Edmund Faltermayer, which opened like this:

The travail of American cities in recent years has given rise to doubts about their long-range future. As old neighbourhoods have turned into blighted and dangerous expanses of abandoned dwellings and boarded-up stores, many Americans have wondered whether the metropolis in its traditional form is not essentially obsolete. True, the old “walking city” lives on in Europe, but isn’t this a consequence of special factors such as a scarcity of land and a totally different way of life? Doesn’t the automobile, coupled with the middle-class push to the suburbs, make the decay of American cities inevitable?

Well, no – just look at Canada. With a way of life much like our own, Canadians have seen their metropolises become better than ever. The most stunning improvement has taken place in Toronto…where a formerly tedious provincial capital has emerged as the world’s newest great city.

Below this introduction was a two-page spread of the city’s waterfront. “The skyline is emboldened by a new radio-television tower,” the photo caption noted. “When completed, it will rise 1,805 feet and be the world’s tallest self-supporting structure. Ontario Place is an unusual new lakeside complex of restaurants, theatres, playgrounds, and marina.”

Faltermayer felt that any great city needed to “stir the enthusiasm of at least three categories of people: businessmen, tourists, and residents.” The first group would be satisfied by an area where a third of Canada’s purchasing power lay within a 100-mile radius, while the rapid post-Second World War population boom made it ideal for anyone looking to set up a factory or office.

Scenes of Mirvish Village (top) and Yorkville (bottom). Fortune, September 1974.

As far as tourism was concerned, “Toronto passes a simple test that most U.S. cities flunk: your wife might beg to accompany you there on a business trip.” Three cities were cited as failures in this regard (“unless, of course, her college roommate happened to live there”): Cleveland (still living down that time the Cuyahoga River caught fire five years earlier), Dallas (which was apparently super-boring during this era), and Detroit (hit hard by the post-1967 riots atmosphere and exodus to the suburbs). By comparison, in Toronto “your spouse could pleasantly kill an entire week without knowing a single local resident or venturing very far from a downtown hotel.” Recommended activities included a stroll through Yorkville (“one of North America’s most agreeable concentrations of boutiques and sidewalk cafes”), trying one of the city’s many ethnic restaurants, and sampling the local theatre scene.

Children’s attractions in Toronto. Fortune, September 1974.

For residents, Toronto had transformed from a city that was “so dull that a good time was a weekend to Buffalo” to “a new sort of Fun City without angst or affectation – a place where the residents feel wondrously spared from the urban troubles to the south.” One could argue that feeling “wondrously spared” may have led to the feelings of smug superiority that periodically bubble up when it comes to our views of Americans.

Faltermayer felt the city and its suburbs were “remarkably livable” thanks to medium population density that led to “short commuting distances without unpleasant crowding” (pre-pandemic 21st century commuters might debate that one). He also felt that our mix of good housing stock was superior to American cities, allowing people in homes, town houses, or high-rises anywhere from downtown to the top of the DVP. Downtown was hailed as “a successful, heavily used work-and-play environment” compared to American equivalents which had turned into “little more than vertical office parks, standing isolated amid the surrounding freeways and slums and deserted after 5:00 P.M.” The secret to downtown’s success was having a strong middle class who lived in or near the core with plenty of discretionary income that could keep stores, restaurants, and culture afloat.

Sights of mid-1970s Toronto, from the emergence of bicycle commuting to the controversial Yonge Street Mall. Fortune, September 1974.

Toronto was hailed for reversing the typical North American pattern of suburban migration, though this came with its own set of problems that still sound familiar.

Toronto may be the first North American city where citizens wonder whether too many middle-class people are returning. Between the whitepainters offering top dollar for town houses to refurbish and apartment developers seeking to knock down old homes for new projects, many working-class people are being displaced.

Fortune, September 1974.

Neighbourhoods were hailed as one of our strengths.

Any American who grew up in the old neighbourhoods of eastern or midwestern cities would find a stroll through these areas like a time machine journey into his own past. Everything is still there and in good working order, from the commercial arteries with their countless specialty shops and eateries, to the shade side streets with row houses and single homes on narrow lots. Even the streetcars still run; Toronto has hundreds of them, and has put in a big order for replacements.

The provincial government was praised for urban policies that hindered post-war sprawl, such as forbidding suburban septic tanks and only building where sewer connections existed, and establishing the metropolitan system of governance during the 1950s.

The copy I used for this piece cut off two other trendmakers on this page: publisher Jack McClelland (described as “an ardent nationalist”) and novelist Robertson Davies, then serving as master of Massey College and just coming off winning a Governor General’s Award for The Manticore. Fortune, September 1974.

As for transportation…

Toronto has created the best of two worlds. There are a goodly number of expressways, including one 12-lane monster where the prevailing speed outside of rush hour is 75 mph [120 kph]. But these roads all go around the old urban core. Torontonians have seen the havoc wrought by inner-city expressways in the U.S., a land which they regard as an early-warning system against overly hasty change. The region’s compact but uncrowded pattern of development has made possible an elaborate and growing public transit network of the type that would never be feasible in a more diffused metropolitan area. Toronto’s subway system, begun in the early 1950s, proves that neither space-age technology nor award-winning station design is needed to get motorists out of their cars. The trains are immaculate, quiet, and frequent, and the subway stations have well-planned connections with feeder bus and streetcar lines. With fares subsidized at 25 cents and transfers free, the average citizen rides the region’s subways, buses, and streetcars 158 times a year. On a per capita basis, transit use is almost as high as in New York, and is rising faster than population.

The article then summarized the anti-highrise sentiment in the city, and the municipal election of 1972 which gave reformers control of city council. “The whole skyscraper debate has transformed Toronto into a sort of laboratory for research into alternatives to high-rise domination,” with solutions such as conversions of industrial buildings and warehouses into living and working spaces. The delay of the never-to-be-built Metro Centre was mentioned.

Housing along Monteith Street and in St. James Town. Fortune, September 1974.

A major fear about housing seems extremely relevant today.

Horrific inflation of housing prices is the one big blot on life in Toronto. If this goes on for many more years, it could destroy the whole metropolitan area’s social diversity by driving the non-affluent out of the suburbs as well as the inner city.

Out in suburbia, the policy of having an adequate supply of serviced land ran into its own problems.

Time-consuming environmental review procedures have proliferated at various levels of government, and the financially pinched suburbs, caught up in the same new anti-growth mood that is spreading in the U.S. are in no great hurry to provide their share of new community facilities. As a result, serviced single-family building lots that would have cost only $13,000 two years ago have recently sold for $30,000. Belatedly, the Ontario government is offering various financial incentives to induce the suburbs to open up land faster.

Fortune, September 1974.

Faltermayer suggested that the constraints might soon curb Toronto’s boom, encouraging employers to look at other cities. A real estate consultant felt that unless restrictions on high-rises and suburban growth were eased, places like Atlanta or Montreal might steal Toronto’s mojo as North America’s next great city. Keep in mind that, in Montreal’s case, we’re only two years away from the Parti Quebecois’s first provincial election victory, which would escalate the westward exodus along Highway 401.

That prospect seems almost exhilarating to Torontonians who are groggy from growth. For such citizens, the old “cult of moreness,” to use the coinage of local luminary Marshall McLuhan, has been supplanted by a new mood of enoughness. “Enough” means that Toronto may never reach the size of “world cities” such as Paris or New York. But it has nonetheless won a secure place in the big time.

Fortune wasn’t the only magazine spotlighting Toronto with full-colour spreads that year. Gourmet featured the city as a holiday destination in its October issue, while Modern Bride called us “a honeymoon city like no other you’ve visited.” The Metro tourist bureau was flooded with requests for information after profiles in summer editions of Glamour and Redbook. Overall, tourism officials estimated that around 65 travel writers from around the world visited Toronto in 1974 to sing its praises.

Simpsons Ad, 1974

Globe and Mail, October 8, 1974. Click on image for larger versions.

The piece also made its way into advertising. Simpsons referenced it while promoting its “The Room” women’s department, while Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole mentioned the story was “rather thrilling to read” in her profile of Noodles restaurant.

In his conclusion, Faltermayer felt that Toronto showed central cities could, under the right circumstances and leadership, continue to support cores that were attractive to the middle class.

Toronto has accomplished something else. In an era of much doubting, it has proved that the basic form of the inner city still makes sense. With the right government actions, and with sensitive alterations and additions here and there, the urban core can become a place where middle class people will turn up in great numbers to work, enjoy themselves, and even vie for living space. For until something better comes along, the civilized city is still where many of the world’s civilized people prefer to be.

Sources: Toronto Guidebook, edited by Alexander Ross (Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974); the September 1974 edition of Fortune; the September 28, 1974 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the October 10, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star.

A Finger Lickin’ Good Mississauga Colonel

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on December 19, 2015.

Globe and Mail, December 2, 1967.

Mississauga’s Melton Drive resembles an ordinary older, well-to-do suburban street: no sidewalks, long driveways, garages attached to roomy bungalows, a couple of trees on each front yard. Number 1337 fits right into this landscape, giving little hint that, for four months annually during the 1960s and 1970s, it was the residence of an international food icon.

Harland Sanders had a roller coaster business career. Born in Henryville, Indiana in 1890, his early professions included stints as a country lawyer, ferry operator, insurance agent, and playing the Michelin Man. He found success running a gas station and restaurant along US 25 in Corbin, Kentucky, where his fried chicken recipe attracted hungry travellers. When Interstate 75 bypassed his restaurant in the mid-1950s, Sanders hit the road to sell his Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe to potential franchisees. Driving around with his 11 herbs and spices blend and a pressure cooker, Sanders sold his concept to restaurants (which in the early days usually meant adding his chicken to an existing menu) in exchange for a royalty of five cents per bird. “The business I developed was a personal one,” Sanders wrote in his autobiography. “I knew most all of the franchisees by their first names, and many of them had slept in my beds and eat breakfast at my table. We was just one big family.”

Sanders found a receptive audience of franchisees north of the border. Reading Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole’s description of the Kentucky Fried Chicken and trimmings served at Carter’s Sundial Restaurant in Orillia in 1962, it’s hard to square the tempting meal she depicts with its modern incarnation: “Not to be confused for a moment with ordinary fried chicken for it is served family style with rich chicken gravy…fluffy potatoes…hot rolls and honey…jellied salads…cheese tray and delicacies fore and aft.”

Key to Toronto, May 1960.

That same year, KFC’s franchisee in Toronto followed a new direction. Scott’s Restaurants had offered Sanders’s chicken in its four downtown diners since the late 1950s. When it opened a Scott’s Chicken Villa at Lawrence and Victoria Park, it was strictly takeout. This model offered convenience for suburban families wanting to eat at home without turning the stove on, and higher profits, thanks to its lower overhead. Within five years, Scott’s opened 20 stores and their giant roadside buckets plastered with the Colonel’s face across Metro Toronto, while franchisees elsewhere converted to the takeout format. When Scott’s was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1969, its shares nearly doubled in value over their first month.

KFC’s rapid growth across North America was too much for Sanders to handle by himself. He sold the company to John Y. Brown and Jack Massey in February 1964 for $2 million. Sanders retained Canadian operations, forming a separate company (Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken of Canada, Ltd.) whose profits were funnelled into the Harland Sanders Charitable Foundation of Canada. “I just don’t see no use of anybody dying and leaving an estate of half a million or a million dollars when he knows a big percentage of that is going into taxes,” Sanders observed.

At this point, Sanders purchased the $22,000 bungalow at 1337 Melton Drive for his Canadian residence. “The neighbours were thrilled—especially the kids,” neighbour and KFC executive Ted Gogoff told the Star in 1989. “They’d flock around all the time when he was here. And he was delighted to see them. He loved kids. To them, he was like a year-round Santa Claus.” Aspects of his image also moved north—his trademark white suits were tailored in Toronto. He filmed many commercials for the Canadian market, even attempting to speak French, although the results were mangled (such as pronouncing “du bon poulet” as “doo bawn poolett”). He considered becoming a Canadian citizen, assuming the amount of time he’d spent here building KFC’s presence qualified him, but then discovered he still had to put in five years of permanent residency. He continued to maintain his primary residence in Kentucky, but also continued to live on the road, racking up to 300,000 travel miles per year.

As part of the sale of KFC, Sanders agreed to stay on as the company’s goodwill icon. He promised to reserve criticism of new corporate methodologies to Brown and Massey—“Anything that I suggest to you would merely be a suggestion, and no hard feelings on my part if they are not taken.” Anyone who knew Sanders found this hard to believe, since he could be an opinionated, stubborn, temperamental old cuss, albeit one who believed his lifelong swearing habit would condemn him in the afterlife. Sanders’s hotheadedness manifested itself during visits to franchisees, where he pointed out flaws in the cooking process. He regularly blasted upper management for letting product quality slide, especially gravy which he compared to wallpaper paste. Sanders’s criticisms reached their apex in 1976, when he accompanied the New York Times to a Greenwich Village location. He thought the chicken was overcooked in stale oil and deemed the mashed potatoes and gravy “sludge.” When the manager claimed he was just following orders, Sanders gently replied “It’s not your fault. You’re just working for a company that doesn’t know what it’s doing.” Subsequent criticism of the gravy in Louisville prompted a libel suit from a franchisee, which was tossed out of court.

Toronto Star, August 11, 1970.

When Sanders turned 80 in 1970, a fundraising dinner for the Muscular Dystrophy Association was held in his honour at the Inn on the Park. The event occurred during a tumultuous week. Days earlier, he stepped down as a director of the American parent, with corporate brass citing age and outside business interests as reasons. “I just recognized my own incompetence as a board member and realized that I was some place that I had no place being,” Sanders told the New York Times. The dinner was supposed to be hosted by MDA telethon host Jerry Lewis, but he cancelled due to a commitment to film a guest spot on the TV drama The Bold Ones. Wayne and Shuster were drafted as replacements, entertaining 500 guests who ranged from Toronto Mayor William Dennison to American franchisees. “If there’s an organ handy,” Sanders joked, “bring it in and we’ll have a funeral dirge. Cause I’d like to go now while I’m so happy.” As usual, Sanders took advantage of the occasion to blast KFC’s gravy. Diners didn’t have a chance to agree or disagree, as poached salmon and roast beef were offered instead of fried chicken.

While Sanders tinkered with several failed spinoffs, such as a line of canned chicken and dumplings which never got off the ground, his Canadian franchises continued to grow. Scott’s parlayed its chicken villas into a corporation whose holdings included service centre franchises along Highway 401, the main Canadian branch of Holiday Inn, and Black’s photography. Competitors tried to create their own version of the Colonel; when Cara planned to introduce fried chicken in its Zumburger chain in 1970, it created the character of Lance Corporal Brown, a First World War soldier who was “working his way up to colonel” while “battling through the mud to find the finest, plumpest chickens the French countryside could offer.” Cara and Scott’s had an unusual relationship: Scott’s chairman of the board, George Gardiner (who later established the Gardiner Museum), lived next door to his sister Helen, who was married to Cara head P.J. Phelan. “On early Saturday mornings at the Phelan house,” the Globe and Mail reported in 2003, “the children were treated to a hectic scene in their parents’ bedroom: Helen on one side of the bed advising brother George by telephone on where to put the next KFC outlet. On the other side, P.J. Phelan was making calls on where to plop the next Swiss Chalet.”

Colonel Sanders as a man on the street, interviewed for the March 27, 1968 edition of the Star‘s “The People Say” column. The question: “What’s wrong with Metro Toronto restaurants? Asked at a convention of the Canadian Restaurant Association.”

Sanders kept a gruelling schedule until shortly before his death in 1980. He was a regular on television, expounding his philosophies, promoting fried chicken, and sharing his born-again Christian faith. He popped up in movies, including a cameo shot in Niagara Falls for Love at First Sight, a 1977 indie flick starring Dan Aykroyd as a blind man. In the end, Sanders felt his Canadian franchises had done a better job of maintaining the integrity of his product than those in his homeland. Sanders’ charitable foundation carried on, becoming a major donor to Misssissauga’s Trillium Health Centre and Hamilton’s McMaster Children’s Hospital. The latter donation prompted health writer André Picard to question the appropriateness of fast food money going into a facility to treat childhood obesity and eating disorders (“the irony is palpable, and the resigned acceptance tragic”).

Toronto Star October 11, 1969.

According to a survey commissioned by Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2010, around 40 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds knew that corporate icon Colonel Sanders had been a living, breathing human being. “In the 30 years since the Colonel’s death,” Josh Ozersky observed in his book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, “it had run headlong from his cooking methods, put an apron on him, taken it off, and even made him into a cartoon that sold Pokemon toys and did hip-hop dances.”

Such treatment would have provoked Sanders into a cussing fit. Perhaps he would have approved of a Canadian like Norm Macdonald portraying him in commercials.

Sources: Colonel Sanders and the American Dream by Josh Ozersky (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012); Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good by Harland Sanders (Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, 1974); the July 28, 1962, September 17, 1965, August 11, 1970, August 26, 1970, October 11, 2003, and November 13, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 8, 1970 and September 9, 1976 editions of the New York Times; and the August 11, 1970, September 28, 1989, September 10, 1990, and March 19, 2011 editions of the Toronto Star.


Scott’s Restaurant at 7 King Street East, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 14.

Mary Walpole’s advertorial review of The Sun Dial, Globe and Mail, July 28, 1962.

Toronto Star, September 10, 1990.

This location was still open as of June 2019 (see Google Maps), but has since closed.

Globe and Mail, January 18, 1975.

Toronto Sun, September 14, 1977.

Canadian Champion, December 23, 1980.

Photo of Harland Sanders by Fred Ross, originally published in the May 9, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0078547f.

The original caption for this photo: “Colonel Harland Sanders, the chicken king, says he and his wife vowed to tithe 10 per cent of their income in return for good health, but adds ‘Ah know that Ah couldn’t buy my way into heaven.'” It accompanied an article on Sanders’s religious beliefs, which had grown stronger in recent years, partly as a way to self-control his swearing habit.

696 Yonge Street (Diamond Building, Brothers Restaurant, Some Organization I’d Prefer Not to Mention in the Title)

Originally published as a “Ghost City” column for The Grid on January 29, 2013.


Toronto Star, September 12, 1957.

The Church of Scientology’s Toronto headquarters are in the midst of an “Ideal Org” makeover—signalled, last month, by boards nailed to the Yonge Street high-rise. While it remains to be seen whether the move will fracture the controversial faith’s local followers as similar, costly refurbishings have in other cities, the plans are less than modest, indicating a colourful new façade will be placed on the almost-60-year-old office building, along with a new bookstore, café, theatre, and “testing centre” inside.

Built around 1955 in the International style of architecture, 696 Yonge’s initial tenant roster included recognizable brands like Avon cosmetics and Robin Hood flour. They were joined by an array of accounting firms, coal and mining companies, and the Belgian consulate, along with a number of construction and property management companies run by Samuel Diamond, whose name later graced the building.

By the 1970s, The Diamond companies were among the few original tenants remaining. Movie studio MGM settled in for a long stay, while the Ontario Humane Society teetered on the verge of financial ruin during its tenancy. There was a temporary office for a federal committee on sealing, which released a 1972 report recommending a temporary moratorium on seal hunting while solutions were sought to halt a population decline. The building even enjoyed a brief taste of religious controversies to come when the Unification Church—a.k.a. the “Moonies”—briefly opened an office, prompting questions about indoctrinated converts, growing wealth, and cult-like practices mirroring those later asked about the Church of Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s religion, meanwhile, had shuffled around various sites in the city since the late 1950s, from meetings on Jarvis Street to a townhouse on Prince Arthur Avenue. The church’s reputation for defending itself grew as quickly as its membership—by the 1970s, official church statements were guaranteed to appear in the letters section within days of any faintly critical newspaper article. The Church of Scientology bought 696 Yonge in 1979.


Toronto Star, March 3, 1983.

Around 2:30 p.m. on March 2, 1983, three chartered buses pulled up to the office tower. More than one hundred OPP officers, equipped with recording equipment, axes, sledgehammers, and a battering ram, rushed into Scientology’s offices. Acting on the findings of a secret two-year tax-fraud investigation of the church, they removed 900 boxes of material, among them illegally obtained confidential documents from government, medical, and police agencies. The church initially claimed the raid was spurred by attacks from the psychiatric community and believed it was entitled to Charter of Rights protection.

Hiring Clayton Ruby as its lawyer, Scientology pursued a decade-long fight against the raid and the charges that resulted from it. Some of its efforts were comical: in July 1988, the church offered to donate considerable sums to agencies working with drug addicts, the elderly, and the poor so long as theft charges were dropped. Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott rejected the offer, saying that “there’s no immunity that permits a church or anyone else to commit crimes in the country.” Ruby argued that the legal prosecution of a small religion like Scientology threatened the freedom of all faiths, and that while individual members may be guilty of offences, the whole church should not be held at fault.

The legal battle appeared over by 1992. When the seized boxes were returned that January, church members celebrated on Yonge Street. While a banner declaring “Scientology Wins after 9-year Battle” was draped across the building, a human chain passed the boxes back inside from a rented truck. Jubilation was short-lived: though acquitted of theft charges, the church and three of its members were found guilty of breach of trust. Related cases lingered for a few more years, including a libel case that earned crown attorney Casey Hill a then-record $1.6 million award from the church and one of its lawyers.


Now, September 2, 1999. The main article on cheap eats featured on this page was for New York Subway on Queen Street.

Even in the midst of its legal battles, the church gradually expanded its presence in 696 Yonge, filling space as other tenants departed. One of the last to go was the Brothers Restaurant and Tavern, which filled a streetfront space with vinyl booths and formica from 1979 to 2000. Operated by two brothers whose last names differed because of the phonetic spelling a government official wrote for one when they moved to Canada, Angelo Sfyndilis and Peter Sfendeles catered to a diverse clientele who appreciated their generous portions of comfort food. As Toronto Life noted in its obituary, “wherever you come from, wherever you’re going, Brothers has been a second home, a sheltering piece of smalltown Canadiana on a big, harsh anonymous street, in the middle of a big, harsh, anonymous city.” The Star praised Brothers’ “honest chicken sandwich,” while Now included it in its student survival guides for meals like the Little Brother Platter, which contained “eight thick slices of pastrami, eight of roast beef, four slabs of Canadian cheddar, a mound of potato salad, a mess of oil-and vinegar-drowned iceberg lettuce, a quartered dill pickle, and rings of pickled peppers.” When the lease was not renewed in 2000, deli items were replaced with copies of Dianetics.

Sources: the January 25, 1972 edition of the Globe and Mail, the September 2, 1999 edition of Now, the May 2000 edition of Toronto Life, and the January 10, 1982, March 3, 1983, December 20, 1984, July 27, 1988, August 29, 1988, September 20, 1990, January 28, 1992, June 26, 1992, July 13, 2008, and January 24, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.



696 Yonge, July 28, 2020. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

As of July 2020 the building is rotting away, as various makeover plans by the Scientologists have not materialized. Over the years, the organization has battled the city over tax bills.


696 Yonge, July 28, 2020. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

You can trace the saga of 696 Yonge over recent years by checking out this thread on Urban Toronto.


I moved to Toronto around the time of the Now excerpt posted above. Always a fan of decent cheap eats, I checked out The Brothers. The paper wasn’t kidding when it said the portions were huge, providing plenty of fuel for long downtown strolls.

(Memory tells me it was frequently mentioned in Now, and may have run a few ads, but the current search function for their online archives is next-to-useless).

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National Post, January 15, 2000.

The Star published the Brothers’ rice pudding recipe twice: in 2000 after it closed, then in 2006 thanks to reader demand. “The food was bettered only by their dear personalities and quintessential charm,” one reader recalled. Food writer Amy Pataki noted that staff called the dish rizogalo, and that cook Tony Polyzotis called its preparation “easy.”

If this inspires you to make this recipe from the July 26, 2006 Star, send it pictures and I’ll add them to this post.

Brothers Rice Pudding
Tempering the beaten egg with hot liquid prevents it from coagulating.

4 cups or more whole or 2 per cent milk
1 cup converted white rice, rinsed, drained
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp raisins (optional)
Ground cinnamon

In medium, heavy-bottomed pot, bring 4 cups milk to simmer over medium heat. Add rice and sugar. Cook, uncovered, at gentle boil, stirring frequently, until rice is almost cooked through but still a little chewy, about 30 minutes. (Rice will continue to soften as it cools.)

In heatproof cup, whisk egg with vanilla. Add 2 tablespoons hot cooking liquid. Whisk until smooth and pale yellow. Stir into rice mixture.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add raisins (if desired).

Cool pudding uncovered, stirring occasionally to break up skin as it forms on surface. (Pudding will thicken on standing; thin with more milk as desired.) Sprinkle generously with cinnamon before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Late Nights at People’s Foods

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on June 5, 2012. 

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Toronto Star, October 18, 1987. Click on image for larger version.

Patrons intending to dine at People’s Foods on Dupont Street were greeted last week with a notice on the door stating that the half-century old diner was closing due to its lease expiring. Though one report suggests that the owners hope to find a new location, for now, regulars will have to look elsewhere for greasy-spoon staples and jukebox selectors at their booths.

A quarter of a century ago, People’s was among the “denziens of the dark hours” that the Toronto Star spotlighted in an article on life in the city between midnight and dawn. A 24-hour eatery at the time, People’s saw an early-morning procession of shift workers, police, and frat boys grazing on homemade burgers and onion rings. “The dazzling fluorescent lights are always on,” the Star noted, “and at 2:45 a.m. Thomas Rygopoulos is hefting a huge piece of solid white fat—easily measuring a cubic foot—from a blue plastic bag into the deep fryer. The customers want more French fries.” Rygopoulos had worked at People’s for five years when the Star visited. “People eat the same as in the daytime,” he noted. “You know how 1 o’clock is lunch time? It’s the same at night: 1 to 3 o’clock is lunch time at night.”

Among the diners were two University of Toronto students discussing a major crisis: An acquaintance about to be married had his bride-to-be back out 36 hours before the ceremony. Amid silent pauses over numerous refills of coffee, they contemplated how to rebound from such a situation. At least one of the students seemed to have problems of his own, as he told his friend, “the only thing that keeps me going is the fact that at least one person in this world feels worse than I do.” Both men noted they were regulars at People’s—one described it as “a landmark for romantic, bohemian fantasies … It’s the restaurant of the people.”

People’s wasn’t the only food-related stop on the Star’s late-night tour. On Danforth Avenue near Pape, Phil Cho sold produce at the Greenview Fruit Market. When asked who bought oranges at three in the morning, he replied, “taxi drivers. There are a few health nuts, so every night they need their oranges.” He also found that drunks would eat just about anything that caught their eye, even if it meant a smashed watermelon or two. Restaurant and shift workers tended to cause less chaos, as their purchases tended to head home.

There might have been items bought at Greenview among the debris that “Tokyo Rose” took care of nightly. The TTC’s subway-cleaning car derived its name not from the World War II axis propaganda agent but from the city it was manufactured in and a mocking reference to the sweet smell of garbage. Cleaner Elio Romano referred to the subway tracks as a “hobo’s paradise” due to the longer-than-average cigarette butts he tossed into his garbage bag.

The article ended with a glimpse of dawn at People’s, where Rygopoulos prepared breakfast for early birds. The creatures of the night had moved on to give way to those facing a new day, much as the restaurant’s home since 1963 may now face a new morning.

Sources: the October 18, 1987 edition of the Toronto StarThe site was soon occupied by Rose and Sons restaurant.

Tip-Toeing Around Tipping

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on August 14, 2012.

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Toronto Star, July 11, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

“Tipping is a questionable practice,” began a July 1979 Star editorial, “but as long as it remains a factor in determining the wages of restaurant employees in Ontario, everything should be done to ensure they receive the tips they’re entitled to.” Issues surrounding tipping—including surveys regarding the public’s bill-topping habits and concerns among servers about proper tip distribution—were highlighted by the paper that month, though many of the issues discussed remain contentious. The spring of 1979 saw several labour grievances launched by angry servers at downtown bars and restaurants. Arbitration ended the El Mocambo’s policy of requiring bartenders to pay back one per cent of total booze sales during their shift to their managers; less successful were waiters at Noodles restaurant at Bloor and Bay and the Courtyard Café in the Windsor Arms Hotel. The sister eateries employed a percentage-of-sales tip distribution system where waiters paid two-and-a-half per cent of the night’s sales to the maître d’, up to two per cent to busboys, and five dollars a week to the bartender. Servers filed a grievance through the Canadian Food and Associated Services Union, objecting to the maître d’s cut, which often wound up being 20 per cent of the tips they would have received. Management countered that the front-of-house staff were essential to good service by setting the tone, greeting guests, and providing general assistance. According to Windsor Arms food and beverage manager Frank Falgaux, “when you tip you feel you are paying the waiter. But if everything was good then all those people contributed. A tip is really for the team that makes the whole dining room.” The arbitrator agreed with management.

gm 79-05-15 tipping 2

Globe and Mail, May 15, 1979.

Servers at some establishments also found themselves saddled with the responsibility for paying credit-card transaction fees that their bosses wouldn’t absorb on their own. Management at Sherlock’s on Sheppard Street explained that the practice allowed the server to pay their part of “the expenses involved in collecting for the charge account” rather than passing the fee directly onto customers. Combined with other cuts, Sherlock’s waitress Sybil Walker estimated that, out of a weekly gross of up to $300 she earned in tips, up to $120 was passed on to others—a significant loss given that minimum wage for servers back then was $2.50 per hour.

While many diners automatically paid the standard 15 to 20 per cent tip during the summer of 1979, Bardi’s Steak House owner and Canadian Restaurant Association president Alex Manikas suggested they should be more discerning. “A waiter who greets you cheerfully and is genuinely attentive warrants a bigger gratuity than the cold, proper automaton in white gloves,” he told the Star. But that philosophy didn’t occur to difficult customers. In an incident at the Peter Pan on Queen Street West, a customer who occupied a prime table during peak dining hours with his girlfriend to enjoy a bottle of wine and carrot cake left the change he received from server Hillary Kelly for his $9.98 bill—two pennies. When she asked why he was “so tight,” he responded, “because I’m a socialist. I don’t believe in tipping.” Kelly told him that she was a worker and he had insulted her efforts. She threw the tip back at him and the rest of the restaurant cheered as he departed in a huff.

ts 79-08-23 slicing tips

Toronto Star, August 23, 1979. Click on image for larger version.

As for the secret of receiving generous tips, Fran’s waitress supervisor Jessie Logan suggested “catering to the whims of a regular customer, no matter how eccentric they may seem.” She recalled a diner at the chain’s St. Clair location, “a quiet, well-dressed man in his 30s,” who dropped by nightly to order a meal current health authorities would pounce on in a second: a raw hamburger accompanied by a glass of milk with a whole egg (including the shell) placed in it. “The bill would come to less than two bucks. You know what he would tip me? No less than $5 and up to $35 per night. They don’t make great, loony tippers like that anymore.”

There had been an effort to form a waiters association to replace tipping with a flat 15 per cent service charge a la several European countries, but it fizzled when employers balked. Not that all restaurant owners were opposed—La Cantinetta owner Luigi Orgera, who had servers at his King Street restaurant place their tips in a pool, felt a service charge would allow waiters to receive higher pay and equalize generous and miserly tippers. He believed that “the pay would be better so we could attract a better staff.”

But tipping—and the controversies surrounding it—remain with us, as demonstrated by a recent private member’s bill from Beaches-East York MPP Michael Prue to forbid management from taking a share of tips.

Sources: the May 15, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 11, 1979 and July 16, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.


The practice of management taking a share of tips given to servers was banned in Ontario in 2015.


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Editorial, Toronto Star, July 16, 1979.

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Toronto Star, July 17, 1979.

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Toronto Star, July 26, 1979.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen

Originally published on Torontoist on February 6, 2015.


Toronto Star, February 27, 1963.

According to her corporate website, Aunt Jemima stands for “warmth, nourishment and trust—qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families.” Yet no amount of facelifts, bandana removal, or cultural diversity pitches can erase past depictions of its pancake-making pitchwoman as the ultimate stereotypical southern mammy.

Aunt Jemima’s image has long been problematic. Created in 1889 to promote an early pre-mixed baking mix, the brand was reputedly inspired by a minstrel show where a white performer sang as “Old Aunt Jemima” in blackface and drag. In 1893 Nancy Green, a former slave, was hired to portray her for cooking demonstrations at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Marketers developed a back story steeped in the mythology of the old South, including a benevolent plantation owner named Colonel Higbee and the large black woman working in the kitchen to please her white employers and aid the Confederacy.

Green’s successful appearance in Chicago led to tours where she or other women donned what was effectively slave garb. Toronto was among the stops. For a week of cooking demonstrations at Simpson’s department store in March 1902, ad writers felt the best way to illustrate Aunt Jemima’s place in society was to translate her pitches into pidgin English:

Aunt Jemima has fried pancakes all over the United States. Her record is 9,000 cakes a day. She is “demonstrating” the high and mighty art of turning pancakes in our grocery department this week, and, judging by the crowds, her ideas is regard to pancakes are of great and exceeding value.

“No buttah. No la’ad. Jus’ a bit o’ salt powk tied up in a piece o’ clean cheesecloth bought fo’ dat puhpus.” That is one of Aunt Jemima’s principles, which at first blush might seem a trifle revolutionary.

“One pint watah, one pint milk, one teacup o’ de flour makes cakes for six puhsons.”


Don Mills Mirror, May 6, 1964.

In 1955, Aunt Jemima owner Quaker Oats opened a southern-themed family restaurant at Disneyland. By 1962, after serving over 1.6 million customers at the theme park, Quaker expanded the concept into a North American pancake house chain. Metro Torontonians downed their first Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen flapjack on February 27, 1963, when a location opened at Lawrence Avenue East and Bellamy Road in Scarborough. Opening day ads reinforced the mythology of the genteel, relaxed southern plantation the restaurant hoped to evoke, and promised a personal appearance from Aunt Jemima herself.

Quaker’s choice of Scarborough to debut the concept complemented other food franchisers who saw the suburb as an ideal testing ground. “The area has a very high ratio of cars to population, a good standard of living, and is having growing pains,” observed Harold Schner, a franchiser for Mister Donut and Red Barn. “Since there are few good restaurants in Scarborough, a community with young families dependent on automobiles for transportation to a great extent, it is a good area.”

In her Globe and Mail advertorial dining column, Mary Walpole played along with the cringe-inducing stereotypes. “The décor is beautifully done, warm and friendly as a southern plantation,” Walpole gushed, “and not without reason for the Aunt Jemima name is a carefully guarded thing and all must be perfect before they hang out the sign of her smiling dark face.” Walpole also played upon old fashioned notions of patriarchy, noting that when ordering the Family Platter, it was the father’s duty to serve the scrambled eggs and meat.

While Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen added a second location at Bayview Village in 1964, both brand and chain faced increasing criticism as the civil rights movement aimed at what the smiling cook represented. Black consumers had rarely been consulted for their thoughts about Aunt Jemima; when they were, the feedback was negative. The NAACP called for a boycott. Delegates at an August 1966 American Federation of Teachers convention in Chicago adopted a resolution condemning a nearby Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen for demeaning employees by making a black woman wear an Aunt Jemima costume. A boycott was launched until management allowed the employee to wear contemporary hostess clothing. Quaker Oats promised costumed Aunt Jemimas would be phased out from their five Chicago locations, a pledge fulfilled across the chain when the last one was pulled off the road in 1967.


Globe Magazine, March 25, 1967.

The chain soon declined. Its flagship Disneyland location closed in 1970. Toronto was abandoned two years earlier—toward the end, the Bayview Village location decreased its selection of fancy pancakes from 37 to 23.

While efforts were made to modernize the brand—most significantly the removal of her headwear in 1989—the baggage remains. In his book Slave in a Box, M.M. Manring draws the following conclusion as to why Aunt Jemima endures:

Aunt Jemima lives on because white Americans like having a mammy. Quaker Oats can move her off her plantation, take off her bandanna, and tint her hair; it makes little difference. If times change, they might even be bold enough to put the bandanna back on her head. Aunt Jemima and mammy are tools used to interpret our legacy of racism, sexism, and slavery, either approvingly or disapprovingly. Keeping her around, spinning superficial explanations for her continued presence on that box, doesn’t help us overcome that legacy.

Sources: Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima by M.M. Manring (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998); the April 20, 1963, May 18, 1963, and May 31, 1963 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 26, 1966 edition of the New York Times; and the March 25, 1902 edition of the Toronto Star.


In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the Aunt Jemima branding would be dropped.


globe 1902-03-28 simpsons aunt jemima ad

The Globe, March 28, 1902.

Another ad from Nancy Green’s stint at Simpson’s in 1902.

brantford expositor circa 1906 pancake booth

It’s probably a relief that the low quality of this scan of a pamphlet for a 1906 fundraising fair for Brantford’s John H. Stratford Hospital blots out the chef’s features (likely the “real pickaninny”), especially if he was wearing stereotypical blackface makeup of the era. The facility was renamed Brantford General Hospital in 1910.

canadian grocer 1909-09-17 aunt jemima premiums ad 640

Canadian Grocer, Septemeber 17, 1909.

A series of Aunt Jemima rag doll premiums available to grocers perpetuated racist stereotypes and passed them on to children. The local Toronto agent for the mix was MacLaren Imperial Cheese, whose name lives on in a cold pack cheese spread that’s still available on Canadian grocery shelves as of 2020.

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Canadian Grocer, October 10, 1913.

I’m afraid to know what the “dandy advertising campaign” involved.

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Canadian Grocer, November 20, 1914.

chicago tribune 1923-09-04 nancy green obit

Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1923.

Nancy Green’s obituary. Even in death, her words were translated into pidgin. At least there’s no backstory of glorious plantations here, though one wonders how similar wealthy Chicago families were.

dawn of tommorow 1923-09-15 nancy green obit small

Dawn of Tomorrow, September 15, 1923.

A more dignified obit for Green was presented in the Black press – this clipping is from the London, Ontario based Dawn of Tomorrow.

globe 1923-10-23 aunt jemima ad

The Globe, October 23, 1923.

How Aunt Jemima was advertised by the 1920s. Usually the mammy image was included…

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The Globe, December 26, 1923.

…sometimes not (though the pidgin-English slogan remained).

gm 1963-04-20 mary walpole

Globe and Mail, April 20, 1963.

gm 1963-05-18 mary walpole

Globe and Mail, May 18, 1963.

A pair of Mary Walpole’s advertorials about Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen. I’m imagining a steady soundtrack of Stephen Foster songs.

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Globe and Mail, May 31, 1963.

An article on how Scarborough was seen as an ideal place to test franchising concepts during the 1960s.

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.


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.

globe 1887-07-08 keys handed over

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.”

ts 73-07-06 firehall ad conkie

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.


“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.”

gm 74-03-14 whittaker on sc

Globe and Mail, March 14, 1974.

ts 74-03-14 kareda review

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.


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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.


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.

471 Bloor West (Hungarian Castle/BMV)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published online on September 18, 2012.

Bye Bye Black Hole of Bloor (1)

The Hungarian Castle undergoing renovations to transform into BMV, May 4, 2006. Click on image for larger version.

When it opened in 2006, the Bloor Street branch of BMV represented more than just a giant bookstore. Its bright blue exterior and large street-level windows removed an eyesore known to nearby businesses and residents as the “black hole of the Annex.” After nearly two decades of rot, any new owner or tenant occupying the former Hungarian Castle restaurant would have been greeted with open arms.

Why 471 Bloor St. W. appeared abandoned for so long is subject to rumours and urban legends. Elusive landlord Annie Racz didn’t provide answers during her lifetime. When she died in 2004, she left an estate consisting of millions of dollars worth of real estate centered around Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, some of which remains empty under the stewardship of her heir. Despite high interest from potential buyers, Racz threw up barriers that months of negotiation couldn’t breach. Theories on why she hung onto these properties without maintaining them included attempts to prevent higher tax assessments, an inability to trust anyone, and sentimental reminders of her late husband.

True Patriotism

Toronto Star, January 14, 1915. W.J. Parks’ grocery at 473 Bloor West eventually became part of the Hungarian Castle/BMV building.

When Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan profiled Racz in 2003, he found that, after six weeks of trying to track her down, he didn’t feel any wiser than at the beginning of his investigation. He heard rumours that had her living anywhere from above By the Way Cafe to Richmond Hill, that she resembled a bag lady, and that her legs had been amputated. Annex Residents Association chair Eric Domville was so frustrated by Racz’s refusal to do anything with 471 Bloor that he began to wonder if she was “a figment of somebody’s imagination. Does she live in a cave, or in a secret hideaway like Lex Luthor?”

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1973.

Racz hadn’t always been so shadowy or seemingly neglectful. Before she and her husband Leslie purchased the building, the site housed a variety of tenants. During the first half of the 20th century, it was occupied by several grocers, a drug company, and residents who enjoyed five-bedroom flats. After a succession of furniture stores operated there during the 1950s and 1960s, the Raczs spent two years transforming it into the medieval-styled Hungarian Castle. When the restaurant opened in 1972, it joined the large number of Hungarian eateries along the Bloor strip owned and patronized by fellow refugees who fled Hungary after the Soviet Union crushed the revolution in 1956. To make their eatery stand out, the Raczs hired Oscar Berceller, former proprietor of legendary King Street celebrity hangout Winston’s, as an advisor.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1973.

During the years it operated, the Hungarian Castle was known for its kitschy decor and windows covered in wrought-iron crests and gates. A basement bakery drew praise from customers for its goodies and scorn from health officials for its filth. The upper floors housed a series of bars ranging from the Spanish-themed El Flamenco to student watering hole Annie’s Place.

Following her husband’s death during the 1980s, Racz closed the Hungarian Castle. Those interested in the space received calls from Racz in the middle of the night to meet her at doughnut shops. Book City owner Hans Donker’s enthusiasm to move his store a few blocks east dimmed after such encounters, along with Racz’s insistence that he retain the restaurant’s furnishings. When he toured the space with Racz circa 1990, he noticed that display cases were filled with rotting pastry.

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Toronto Star, June 11, 1978.

BMV owner Patrick Hempelmann was equally frustrated by his dealings with Racz. “We’d set up a meeting, come to a verbal agreement, and then she’d find some reason to pull out,” he told the Globe and Mail. When he purchased the building from her estate in September 2005, he found its interior resembled a horror-movie set. Liquor bottles still lined the bar and tables were set for dining. Pots were left on the stove and dishwashers were filled with plates. Grand pianos and raccoon corpses had rotted. The bakery was buried in four feet of water. It took three months, a crew of workers wearing ventilation masks, and 40 large dumpsters to clean the place out. Despite the decay, Hempelmann was relieved when the building was found to be structurally sound. A year after he bought it, book browsers filed in to spend hours looking for finds.

In some respects, the long decay of the Hungarian Castle mirrored the demise of the Hungarian community along Bloor West. Where it was once, as writer John Lorinc once termed it, “a veritable Budapest of eateries,” only the Country Style in the heart of the strip and the Coffee Mill in Yorkville survive. Perhaps the medieval warriors who graced the building’s exterior were fighting as best they could until they had to give in to the changing landscape.

Additional material from the February 27, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the August 28, 2004 and December 10, 2005 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 30, 1972 and June 11, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star. Since this article was originally published, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.


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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, November 25, 1972.




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.


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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.