Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

Originally published on The Grid on September 12, 2012.  This was my first piece under the “Ghost City” banner, which the publication had used periodically for similar pieces. “Ghost City” lasted as a weekly column through June 2013, though the title was occasionally brought out of mothballs by other writers. 

When the Gold Diamond restaurant opened this summer, it inherited a building teeming with ghosts: Paranormal spirits are reputed to have inspired the lion statues out front and once required the services of an exorcist. Symbolic ghosts have also left their mark through the legacies of a Jewish-community landmark and a series of Chinese eateries.

Dress-making strike, crowd at Labor Lyceum, 346 Spadina Avenue, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 23262.

Originally occupied by residences, the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrews Street was purchased by the Toronto Labor Lyceum during the 1920s. Founded in 1913, the organization promoted trade unionism among the city’s growing Jewish community, and offered a home for garment-industry organizations like the Internatonal Ladies Garment Workers Union. As longtime union activist and politician J.B. Salsberg observed, “no single institution and no single building on Spadina—the main street of Jewish Toronto—was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew than was the Labor Lyceum.” Beyond union meetings, the building met the community’s cultural and social needs by providing a venue for concerts, a beer parlour, dances, lectures, and hanging out.

tely 40-05-14 goldman obit

Obituary for Emma Goldman, the Telegram, May 14, 1940.

Anarchist Emma Goldman spoke many times at the Labor Lyceum while intermittently residing in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Her talks ranged from lecturing about drama to raising money for the defence fund of condemned American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. While Goldman respected the city’s appreciation for the arts, her criticisms of the influence of the Anglican and Catholic churches did not make her a fan of the “Toronto the Good” mentality. When she died in May 1940, her friends told the Star that the funeral service would “not be a religious one but will be rather just a gathering of friends.” While her body lay in state at the Labor Lyceum, she was remembered “as a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”

cjn 71-12-24 lyceum to become chinese restaurant

Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

When scaffolding went up after the building was sold in 1971, locals figured the wrecking ball would follow to the increasingly shabby-looking site. Instead, new owner Yen Pin Chen, a Taiwanese restaurateur, spent $1 million over the next four years refurbishing the building into a restaurant complex he hoped would become the focus of the new Chinatown emerging along Spadina. Décor included walls filled with handcrafted detailing and a ceramic reproduction of Beijing’s Nine-Dragon Wall that had been in Chen’s family for two decades. Outside, observed the Globe and Mail, “two bronze-coloured lions crouch and stare imperiously from the front door into the window of the Jewish hard-goods jobber across the avenue. The façade glows with the colour of sunrise over Shanghai, that imperial shade of yellow once reserved for emperors.”

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace Source: Globe and Mail, August 2, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

Despite being the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, Yen Pin Place was an expensive bust. The luxurious décor was offset by bland food that the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates figured “would be perfect for a convention of 1,000 dentists from Des Moines.” After it closed in 1978, Yen Pin Place was succeeded by a string of eateries that Kates described as “each more outrageously pretentious and gastronomically mediocre than the last, and all of them doomed to failure.” The flops included Genghis Khan (a Mongolian BBQ), Paul’s Palace Deep Sea Shantung (once the city’s premier Szechuan restaurant, it had served better food elsewhere), and the President.

ts 86-01-24 hsin kunag review

Source: Toronto Star, January 24, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

In 1985, the building was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hsin Kuang restaurant chain, whose name still graces its facade. The Star enjoyed the warm towels that bookended every meal and the dim-sum offerings, but found the flavours of the rest of the menu lacked character. Hsin Kuang gave way to Bright Pearl in 1997, which carried on serving dim sum until a landlord dispute led to its closing in 2010.

That Bright Pearl lasted for 13 years supports the superstitions and accounts of ghost sightings associated with 346 Spadina. The presence of the paranormal has been blamed on everything from an onsite mortuary to the billboards forming a “V” pointing at the entrance that channelled evil spirits. Ghosts are said to haunt the washrooms, even after an exorcist was sent in. Feng-shui masters have been consulted in design elements such as the placement of the “foo dog” lions to provide a healthier aura.

Additional material from Spadina Avenue by Rosemary Donegan (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); the December 24, 1971 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; the August 2, 1975, November 15, 1976, and April 4, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 14, 1940, May 15, 1940, February 19, 1983, January 24, 1986, and August 31, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Vintage Toronto Ads – A Place for Food, Spirits, and Movements

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

Mid-1970s diners expected a certain level of ostentation when eating at finer Chinese cuisine establishments. Decor was touted as much, if not more, than what went into one’s mouth. The atmosphere diners were promised at today’s featured restaurant hints at a feast for the senses.

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

The history of 346 Spadina Avenue reflects the neighbourhood’s ethnic shifts. During the mid-20th century it was home to the Labour Lyceum, a centre for Jewish labour movement activity. After her death in May 1940, anarchist/activist Emma Goldman was placed in state in the building until the go-ahead was given by the United States government to bury her in Chicago. The lyceum later moved east to Cecil Street.

The site has long been regarded as haunted, which may explain the presence of the foo dogs guarding the building. One set of restaurant owners called in an exorcist, who noted that the billboards across street pointed like an arrow, directing bad spirits into the building. Apparitions favoured the washrooms, catching patrons at the weakest moment of their meal.


As of 2017, the main restaurant space sits vacant. In 2013, Heritage Toronto installed a plaque commemorating the Labor Lyceum.


Vintage Toronto Ads: The Little Tramp Likes Spaghetti

Originally published on Torontoist on October 2, 2007.


Source: Toronto Life, September 1972.

If you were a child passing through Toronto since the early 1970s, there’s a good chance you may have eaten at The Old Spaghetti Factory. Kitschy antique decor, the pots of whipped garlic butter that arrived with the loaf of bread and a family-friendly atmosphere have kept the crowds coming for nearly four decades.

The Old Spaghetti Factory opened its first location in Portland, Oregon in 1969, a period when themed sit-down restaurant chains like Shakey’s (pizza and Dixieland jazz) began to pop up across the continent. Expansion came quickly, with the first Canadian location opening a year later in Vancouver. Toronto’s branch set up shop in August 1971, behind the recently-opened St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. At this time, nostalgia seems to have been the drawing card, even if Charlie Chaplin is more representative of the then-current 1920s revival than the Victorian era.

Another growing fad was the salad bar, though it’s debatable whether it led to healthier eating habits, a wider variety of toppings beyond the traditional bowl of iceberg or flat out gluttony. One wonders what qualified as “seasonal fresh makings” back then.

As for Chaplin, 1972 saw his return to the United States for the first time since being denied re-entry to the country twenty years earlier due to McCarthyist fears about his leftist political leanings. Chaplin visited Los Angeles in April to receive a honorary Oscar, resulting in the longest ovation in Academy Awards history. In his scrapbook My Life in Pictures, Chaplin noted that “I was touched by the gesture—but there was a certain irony about it somehow.”


Chaplin’s acceptance of his honorary Oscar remains one of the most powerful moments in the history of the Academy Awards. One person who wasn’t happy to see him back in town was former friend and United Artists business partner (and Toronto native) Mary Pickford. According to the Star, Pickford called Chaplin a “stinker” and refused to let him anywhere near her home at Pickfair.

From the book Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1997):

Pickford sulked. While the rest of the industry engaged in mass repentance, Mary’s streak of compassion had run dry. “He wasn’t grateful for his career,” she complained to a reporter. “It’s disgraceful that he never became a citizen.” Sinking lower: “I think they should ask his wives what they think of him.” (Chaplin married four times; of course, Pickford married almost as often.)

star 1971-09-18 old spaghetti factory review 1 star 1971-09-18 old spaghetti factory review 2

Review of The Old Spaghetti Factory, Star Week, September 18, 1971. 

A stop at The Old Spaghetti Factory on childhood trips to Toronto was a given. It was the perfect place to take kids: familiar food, the novelty of pots of garlic butter, and all the cool decor. Once in awhile, I’ll eat there out of nostalgia – the food isn’t the best Italian-American you can grab in the city (though old school red sauce cuisine isn’t one of Toronto’s culinary strengths), but it makes no bones about what it is and evokes plenty of happy memories.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Welcome to the Hotel Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on June 26, 2007.
Source: Toronto Life, November 1975.

Downtown Toronto experienced a hotel boom during the first half of the 1970s as modern skyscrapers and buildings like the new City Hall changed the face of the core. Among those that made their debut: the Sheraton Centre (1972), the Holiday Inn on Chestnut (1972), the Chelsea (1975), the Harbour Castle (1975) and, opening its doors 32-years ago this week, the Hotel Toronto.

Western International Hotels traced its roots to the early 1930s, when two hoteliers in Washington state joined together to form Western Hotels (the “International” portion was added in 1954 after its first Canadian location opened). United Airlines ran the company from 1970 to 1987, changing the name to Westin in 1980. This ad promises the usual amenities for weary 1970s travelers, such as colour TV and temperature control.

As for dining options, Trader Vic’s first claim to fame was its invention of the mai tai in Oakland, California during World War II. Its restaurants helped popularize tiki drinks and “Polynesian” food, though the vogue for both was sliding downhill by the time the hotel opened. Note the stern-looking chef, who may have seen one pineapple-based dish too many. The chain still exists, though most of its current locations are outside of North America.

In 1987, the hotel swapped corporate banners with the Hilton Harbour Castle and remains in business as the Toronto Hilton.


ts 75-06-15 trader vics preview

Source: Toronto Star, June 15, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

When the Blue Jays began play in 1977, the Hotel Toronto hosted the visiting teams, except for the New York Yankees, who preferred the Westbury on Yonge Street. In a 1979 guide to meeting guys around the city, the Star’s Lynda Hurst provided tips on how ladies could catch a glimpse (or more) of baseball hunks:

ts 79-04-07 trader vics where boys are

Source: Toronto Star, April 7, 1979.

ktt 1976-08 trader vicsSource: Key to Toronto, August 1976.

As a tourist draw, Trader Vic’s was included in Mary Walpole’s regular advertorial roundup of Toronto restaurants in the Globe and Mail. For decades, Walpole wore out the dot symbol on the presses, employing a style that seems odd today. You’re tempted to wonder if this was done for aesthetic purposes, or if Walpole actually spoke/wrote like an excited telegram. We’re going to encounter a lot more of her advertorials (as well as writers in other papers, like Brett Halliday of the Sun, who employed a similar style) as we revisit these stories. I was often tempted to write a Historicist column about these writers, who carved out a corner in the dailies for decades but, because they were writing hyperbolic ad copy, may not have received much respect.

gm 76-02-24 mary walpole trader vics

Source: Globe and Mail, February 24, 1976.

More legitimate reviews viewed Trader Vic’s with mixed feelings. Categorizing it under “Tourist Trade,” a capsule comment in the Globe and Mail in 1978 observed that:

gm 78-03-08 trader vic review

Source: Globe and Mail, March 8, 1978.

On dreary winter nights, when the scent of sunny islands is the only promise of springtime, this Polynesian hideaway is the ideal refuge. Those whose spirits aren’t raised by bamboo alone can relax in the arms of a giant rattan chair, and let the soft lights and silky Hawaiian music wash over them while sipping the fragrant—and fresh—fruit concoctions for which Trader’s is justifiably famous throughout the world. (A word of warning—the velvet hand of the bartenders with pineapple, mango, coconut and lime gentles liquor to a lethal whisper, but it packs more punch than navy grog.) – Toronto Calendar, in its 3/5 star rating of Trader Vic’s, December 1978.

Trader Vic’s proximity to Simpsons made it easy to participate in promotions such as cooking classes.

ts 76-02-09 simpsons trader vics pA11

Source: Toronto Star, February 9, 1976.

Finally, a drink suggestion if you’re in a giggly mood during a romantic evening. You don’t have to wait for Valentine’s Day!

ts 82-02-07 tv rum giggle for two

Source: Toronto Star, February 7, 1982.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Try a Little Tenderness

Originally published on Torontoist on April 1, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

From Jason Hurlbut, circa 2012:

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

From Pat Skinner, circa 2012:

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

From dylanesq, circa 2013:

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

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

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

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

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