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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

UPDATE

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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.

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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.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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.

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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.

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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.

UPDATE

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

UPDATE

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Globe and Mail, April 20, 1963.

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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.

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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.

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.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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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.

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.

Goin’ Down the Davenport Road

Originally published on Torontoist on July 8, 2011.

 

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Unveiling the Davenport Road plaques are (left to right) executive director of Heritage Toronto Karen Carter; heritage advocate Jane Beecroft; Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam; Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation Chief representative Carolyn King; Greater Yorkville Residents’ Association president Gee Chung; and heritage advocate Shirley Morriss. Photo by Jamie Bradburn, July 2011.

Waves from a glacial lake once lapped along it. When the water receded, the winding path at the bottom of the escarpment left behind proved an ideal path for local aboriginal peoples to travel between the Toronto Carrying Place along the Humber River and the Don River to the east. After Europeans arrived, the trail became a route for farmers to bring their goods to the city and a vital link for growing villages like Yorkville and Carlton. While the rest of downtown adopted a straight grid pattern, the old route kept its curves, though numerous widening and paving projects allowed for vehicles, from streetcars to bicycles.

The long history of Davenport Road is now commemorated in Frank Stollery Parkette at the road’s eastern terminus, through a trio of pillars prepared by Heritage Toronto.

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Davenport, the house of Colonel Joseph Wells, east of Bathurst Street and north of Davenport Road, Toronto, circa 1900. Archives of Ontario, Item F 4436.

The road derived its name from Davenport, a home built in 1797 by military officer John McGill, who reputedly named it after a major stationed at Fort York. Located in the vicinity of the northeast corner of Bathurst and Davenport, the home was said to possess an amazing view of the town of York. When the property was bought by Joseph Wells in 1821, the original house was demolished and replaced with the structure shown above. Wells, a former military officer, also served as a legislator, a bank director, and, until forced to resign due to financial improprieties, the treasurer of Upper Canada College. His eldest son, George Dupont Wells, inspired the names of several nearby roads, including Dupont Street and Wells Hill Avenue.

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Canadian Pacific Railway crossing Davenport Road from north, 25 yards distant, circa 1895. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 1A, Item 3.

During the 19th century, the old trail slowly took on the characteristics of a modern road. To finance improvements, a series of toll booths were set up along Davenport, one of which survives as a museum at the northwest corner of Bathurst and Davenport. By the end of the century, railways and streetcar tracks crossed the road.

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Gate to Ardwold, Davenport Road, circa 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3138.

Mansions that sat along or above Davenport, such as Casa Loma, had their own access points to the road. This picture shows a gate for Ardwold, the home of Eaton’s department store president Sir John Craig Eaton. Built in 1909, Ardwold remained in the family until it was demolished in 1936. The name lingers on through the residential street built on the property, Ardwold Gate.

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Car on muddy Davenport Road east of Bathurst Street, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 42B.

As automobiles took over city streets in the early 20th century, the muddy nature of roads like Davenport posed problems, especially when snow thawed. Given the deep ruts, we wonder if the vehicle’s occupants eventually required a tow.

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Hillcrest Park, Bathurst Street and Davenport Road, circa 1911-1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8213.

For a short time around the First World War, horse racing fans congregated at the southwest corner of Bathurst and Davenport to place their bets at Hillcrest Park. The notes for this photo from the City of Toronto Archives debate whether the crowd has gathered for the opening of the track in 1912 or the ribbon-cutting for the newly graded section of Bathurst Street to the north.

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Davenport Garage under construction, looking northwest, July 6, 1925. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3888.

The horses were soon replaced with transit mechanics. Soon after its formation in 1921, the TTC (then known as the Toronto Transportation Commission) purchased the site and transformed it into the main repair complex for its streetcar fleet. A garage for buses was built along the Davenport side of the property in 1925.

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Dominion Bank branch at the corner of Dovercourt and Davenport Road, circa 1947. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 3, Item 1430.

Though its use has changed over time, the front of this former branch of the Dominion Bank still bears the name of the intersection.

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Traffic jam at intersection of Davenport Road and Dupont Street, June 20, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2434, Item 34560x-4.

By the 1950s, traffic volume caused rush-hour backups at the intersection of Davenport and Dupont that required the assistance of Toronto’s finest. On the left is the Sign of the Steer restaurant, a European-style steakhouse that hosted banquets and receptions for Toronto’s well-to-do.

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Sign of the Steer restaurant, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 504.

Owner Hans Fread hosted the CBC’s first cooking show, Hans in the Kitchen, from 1953 to 1954. The former lawyer was a bitter man when he closed the 600-seat restaurant in June 1960, placing the blame on Ontario’s “stupid liquor laws.” He especially blamed Premier Leslie Frost’s wife for persuading her husband not to relax regulations that prevented Fread from serving drinks after 11:30 p.m. on Saturday and all day Sunday. (Mrs. Frost claimed to have no influence on the premier in such matters, and noted that Fread’s claims were “one for my scrapbook.”) Fread soon moved to Winnipeg, where he found far better eats than were served in the Toronto restaurants that catered to “Lady Plushbottoms.” As Fread told the Star: “Torontonians like cubbyhole restaurants. They think a candle on the table makes good atmosphere…Instead of service, we offer our guests a short course in sobriety.”

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Davenport Road, looking west from Howland Avenue, July 1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 100, Item 284.

Long before a bike lane was first installed on Davenport in the mid-1990s, cyclists enjoyed its non-grid meanderings. Modern cyclists can take a rest in front of the new plaques and contemplate the past, the lives lived on the route they just followed.

Sources: Spadina: A Story of Old Toronto by Austin Seton Thompson (Toronto: Pagurian Press, 1975), Toronto Street Names by Leonard Wise and Allan Gould (Willowdale: Firefly Books, 2000), and the June 29, 1960, and October 17, 1960 editions 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…

star 1972-10-14 pedro cabezuelo paella recipe

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.

star 1974-06-15 la bastille review 1

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: Come Be Pampered at Tanaka of Tokyo (plus The House of Fuji-Matsu)

Originally published on Torontoist on November 25, 2008.

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Canadian Football League Illustrated, September 1972. Note proofreading fail.

In the days before sushi joints lined seemingly every block in the city, Japanese cuisine was treated as an exotic experience by Toronto diners. Many Japanese eateries that operated in the city before the 1980s specialized in teppanyaki-style table cooking, where the chef’s entertaining skills were as important (or more, depending on the venue) as the food and allowed businessmen to impress their clients. Venues like Tanaka of Tokyo provided a comforting atmosphere that allowed local palates to ease their way from familiar dishes like steak and sukiyaki into then-alien fare like maki rolls.

Toronto’s first Japanese restaurant was House of Fuji-Matsu, which began a three-year run at 17 Elm Street (now home to the Fraternal Order of Eagles) in December 1955. The Star covered opening night and enjoyed “12 Japanese hostesses who will teach customers how to handle chopsticks, will cook a traditional sukiyaki Japanese shrimp or beef-base dish right on the foot-high tables and will act as ‘baby-sitters’ while parents enjoy the cuisine.” Curious diners dropped by, but the hospitality and child-watching service was not enough to keep the restaurant afloat. Among the reasons owner Richard Tanaka later blamed for its demise were blocked attempts to secure a liquor license, possibly due to a YWCA located across the street. “One day I called my accountant,” he noted in a 1972 interview, “and asked if we were still losing money. When the answer was yes, I said only two words: ‘Close it.’”

Tanaka waited just over a decade before trying again. “Like a bulldog, I hate to quit—to admit becoming a loser.” Nine months of planning and nearly $450,000 went into Tanaka of Tokyo before it welcomed its first guests at 1180 Bay Street (slightly south of Bloor) in December 1971. Eight master chefs were brought in from Japan to cook at the teppanyaki tables and add entertainment value to the first class atmosphere Tanaka conveyed through the slogan “Come Be Pampered.”

The kindest reviews tended to be in advertorials—in their 1976 survey of the city restaurant scene Dining Out in Toronto, Jeremy Brown and Sid Adilman gave Tanaka of Tokyo half a star out of five:

Popular with tourists on expense accounts, Tanaka of Tokyo is a swanky affair, the most expensive Japanese restaurant in the city. Once that is said, the next question is, what about the food? Teppanyaki tables bring out the theatrical in chefs, and the quiet sushi bar has its virtues. But overall, Tanaka is for people who want Japanese food without too much of the original taste.

The restaurant provided steak rituals for another decade-and-a-half.

Additional material from the December 19, 1955 and January 29, 1972 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

star 1955-12-19 house of fuji matsu may mori

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Toronto Star, December 19, 1955.

The headline above these photos read “ONLY ONE OF ITS KIND IN CANADA, FUJI-MATSU CATERS TO BEGINNER AND GOURMET OF FAR EAST FOOD.”

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Globe and Mail, January 26, 1956.

In December 1956, MGM used the House of Fuji-Matsu to promote The Teahouse of the August Moon (which featured Marlon Brando in yellowface as a Japanese interpreter). Globe and Mail entertainment columnist Alex Barris attended the presser, which featured four Japan Air Lines hostesses. He was most impressed by Seiko Fukasawa’s musical talents: “She plays the koto, an ancient Japanese stringed instrument which consists of a six-foot length of wood, on legs, with 13 strings drawn across its top,” Barris observed. “It sounds more like a harp than anything else, and sounds quite beautiful when Miss Fukasawa plays it.”

star 1956-03-21 house of fuji-matsu ad

Toronto Star, March 21, 1956.

star 1957-11-28 how to use chopsticks house of fuji-matsu

Toronto Star, November 28, 1957.

star 1958-12-12 pierre berton on house of fuji-matsu

Toronto Star, December 12, 1958.

Pierre Berton’s review of the House of Fuji-Matsu. Given Ontario’s repressive liquor laws of the era (cocktail lounges had only been legal for a decade), it’s not surprising the restaurant had trouble earning a license.