Vintage Toronto Ads: Dining With Monks

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2011.

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Toronto Calendar, March 1979.

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

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

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

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

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

Additional material from the June 1979 edition of Toronto Calendar.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

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

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Toronto Star, October 14, 1972.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Globe and Mail, November 15, 1978.

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

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Starweek, December 30, 1978.

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Globe and Mail, April 7, 1979.

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

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Globe and Mail, November 29, 1978.

The Monks concept soon took up more of his time…

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Globe and Mail, December 6, 1978.

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

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Globe and Mail, July 28, 1979.

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

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1979.

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

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

Note the Uptown Backstage cinema entrance in the background.

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Globe and Mail, December 1, 1979.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Toronto Ads: 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

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star 1955-12-19 house of fuji matsu photos

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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.”

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Toronto Star, March 21, 1956.

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Toronto Star, November 28, 1957.

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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.

Bonus Features: Peace Day, 1919 (Post #500!)

Before diving into this post, read my article for TVO about the celebrations and controversies surrounding Peace Day in July 1919. This also marks the 500th post on Tales of Toronto (though this entry isn’t strictly a Toronto story…).

The Treaty of Versailles

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Souvenir, signing of peace, Versailles, 1919. Canada. Dept. of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment. Toronto Public Library.

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Hamilton Herald, June 28, 1919. Click on image for larger version.

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Eaton’s ad inspired by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Toronto Times, June 28, 1919.

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 The Globe, June 30, 1919. Click on image for larger version.

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The Globe, June 30, 1919.

To Celebrate Peace Day or Not?

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Front page editorial, Peterborough Evening Examiner, July 17, 1919.

In several communities across the province, the question was whether to devote their full efforts towards peace celebrations planned for the August civic holiday weekend, or quickly come up with festivities to placate veterans groups and die-hard imperialists.

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Editorial, Peterborough Evening Examiner, July 18, 1919.

In Peterborough, the front page of the July 18, 1919 Evening Examiner was filled with notices from retailers who would close. The decision to honour the holiday didn’t come until a meeting of local merchants wrapped up late that afternoon. “The only exception,” the paper reported, “will be the butchers who will close at noon owing to the hot weather and the necessity of supplying the public with a fresh supply of meat.” Peterborough’s factories also agreed to close on Peace Day.

As merchant Dickson Hall put it, “it is a scandal to remain open, contrary to the wishes of the King and the people.”

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Peterborough Evening Examiner, July 18, 1919.

Peace Day preparations were a mess in Windsor and the surrounding “Border Cities” (which included Ford City, Riverside, Sandwich, and Walkerville). “The attitude adopted by the Great War Veterans to have a parade and celebration has somewhat upset the calculations of those who expected to see the day pass quietly and unobserved,” the Border Cities Star reported on July 18. “The fact that organized labour also has decided to ‘take a holiday’ has added to the general confusion.” The Star believed that talk of punishing merchants who stayed open would “simmer out.” Merchants decided to take a half-holiday, shutting their doors at 1 p.m.

In the end, Windsorites preferred a quiet day. Many relaxed along the Detroit River or headed to Bob-Lo Island amusement park. Anyone who wanted to party could have travelled to large celebrations in Leamington and Tilbury. A veterans parade fizzled out, prompting at least one GWVA member to warn that Windsor’s lukewarm embrace of the GWVA’s vision of Peace Day would cause the Border Cities to lose out on future veteran conventions.

Meanwhile, In Hamilton…

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Hamilton Herald, July 17, 1919.

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A rebuttal to the Herald‘s claims from the front page of the July 18, 1919 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

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Hamilton Spectator, July 18, 1919.

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Hamilton Herald, July 21, 1919.

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If the festivities planned for Hamilton weren’t enticing, one could have taken advantage of Toronto’s celebrations, as shown in this July 17, 1919 ad from the Spectator.

Peace Day along The Danforth

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Evening Telegram, July 21, 1919. Click on image for larger version.

In Toronto’s east end, the main Peace Day celebrations took place along Danforth Avenue. A parade was held between Broadview Avenue and Withrow Park, where around 70,000 people enjoyed the festivities.

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Toronto Star, July 21, 1919.

Members of the Todmorden lodge of the Sons of England volunteered to provide refreshments in the park. Numbers published in the Toronto World indicated that the lodge sold over 7,200 soft drinks and 250 gallons of ice cream, bringing in over $1,000.

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Toronto World, July 21, 1919.

Peace Day in Earlscourt

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Evening Telegram, July 21, 1919. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto World, July 21, 1919.

For more on events in Earlscourt, check out this post on McRoberts Avenue.

Peace Day in Queen’s Park

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Toronto World, July 21, 1919.

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Evening Telegram, July 21, 1919.

During the singalong, Mayor Church announced that there would be no speeches. “The reports in the Toronto papers of Toronto’s peace celebration all agree that it was an unqualified success,” observed the editorial page of the July 21 edition of the Hamilton Herald, “but anything where there are no speeches is a reporter’s idea of an unqualified success.”

Not-So-Peaceful Actions

Piecing together the accounts of the rowdyism and violence which occurred in Toronto was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with each paper having its own set of details. Here are the full stories.

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The Globe, July 21, 1919.

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Mail and Empire, July 21, 1919.

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Evening Telegram, July 21, 1919.

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Toronto Times, July 21, 1919.

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Toronto World, July 21, 1919.

A Motherly Sign

Originally published on Torontoist on June 19, 2008.

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Since it was built in 1887, the Alexandrina Block on College Street west of Spadina has seen numerous tenants come and go, including The Bagel music venue. Among its current elements is a 1970s-style sign promising over a dozen variety of submarine sandwiches. Those hoping for a retro experience will be disappointed as all that remains of the self-proclaimed “Rolls Royce of submarines” is the sign, fully intact and party covered by a tree.

The earliest media mention we can find for Mothers a dining guide in the June 3, 1972 edition of Star Week, which gave Mothers four stars out of four (tying it with the only survivor in the $5-$10 category, The Coffee Mill). “Mothers serves a Super-Sub sandwich for $1.35. It could use a little more oregano, but otherwise it’s the closest thing we’ve found in Toronto to the Philadelphia hoagie or New York hero. Hero-worshippers please take note.”

While Mothers may have been lacking in the oregano department, it did offer a unique delivery vehicle to back up its slogan: a Volkswagen Beetle modified to resemble a Rolls Royce. Such conversions were a fad during the period, with surviving examples including one owned by Liberace on display at his museum in Las Vegas. According to co-owner Howard Waxberg in a January 1974 interview with Toronto Life, “it cost us $450 to have the body work done, and then we had to get it painted—maybe $600 altogether.” The main problem with the car was finding suitable parts, especially after an accident damaged the first front grill. Waxberg felt that the vehicle “was the best advertising money we’ve spent. It’s fantastic to drive the thing. People look at you, laugh, point, stop you and ask questions, like ‘What is that?’”

A question now asked by pedestrians passing the sign.

UPDATE

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The Mothers sign gradually faded away. First one side was replaced by a sign for another business. As of July 2019, only the frame remains.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Mothers Sandwich Shoppes–note the fancier spelling–was revisited by Star Week circa November 1977. The following review, which gave it 2-1/2 stars (out of three I’m guessing, since all of the restaurants listed were given either 2-1/2 or 3 star ratings) ran for nearly a year-and-a-half:

Americans say Canadians have no idea what a submarine sandwich really is. That is with one exception–the owners of Mothers are reputed to make versions more than acceptable to even the sophisticated “sub” palate. Hot steak sandwiches and veal sandwiches are salso served.

At this point, there were also locations at 44 Eglinton Avenue West (at Duplex) and 826 Yonge Street (at Cumberland).

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Want some solitaire with your sub? Photo by Neil Graham, Globe and Mail, February 23, 1993.

By 1993, Mothers served up subs and computer parts. From the February 23, 1993 Globe and Mail:

Staff need a certain amount of versatility to work at Honson Computer Corp. and Mother’s Sandwich Shop in downtown Toronto. When the lunch hour hits, employees scramble back and forth between helping customers pick out computer systems and serving up tangy meatball sandwiches on thick, crusty rolls. The combination computer store and lunch counter is one of the more unusual manifestations of a trend in computer distribution and retailing: most people in the business of selling computers are looking for way to hedge their bets.

According to owner Peter Lee, the key to surviving in the computer business was finding a way to cover your overhead.

In Mr. Lee’s case that meant broadening into chicken soup, french fries, and corned beef on rye. Mr. Lee had operated Honson Computer near the University of Toronto’s downtown campus for six years when the recession hit. Looking for a way to cut costs he took over Mother’s Sandwich Shop next door and piled his computer boxes and demonstration models alongside the long, wooden booths and orange plastic tabletops. Mr. Lee said he makes less than $100 profit on a $2,000 computer system. A sandwich, on the other hand, yields about 100 percent profit.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Original Blue Jays Advertisers

Originally published as a gallery post on Torontoist on March 25, 2015.

“One of the most pleasant tasks for me as we are entering the 1977 baseball season,” wrote commissioner Bowie Kuhn in his introductory letter to Blue Jays fans, “ is to welcome all of you to the Major League Baseball family. Major League Baseball is exceedingly proud to include Toronto, one of the great cities of the world, within its ranks.”

Great way to stroke the egos of Torontonians aching to be seen as residents of a world-class city, eh?

Accompanying Kuhn’s letter in the inaugural Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazinewas one from American League President Lee MacPhail:

Now the youthful Blue Jays are off and flying on their own and it will be an exciting experience watching the development of this team. Your outstanding ownership and management will be working constantly toward building the contending baseball team that all Blue Jay fans will be proud of. Enjoy this first season of Major League Baseball at CNE Stadium. It will be fun. And the years ahead will be increasingly enjoyable.

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CBC sent 26 people to cover the Blue Jays’ inaugural spring training in Dunedin, Florida. The network’s plans included an hour-long special to introduce the team, along with feature segments on The National and 90 Minutes Live. To mark its 25th anniversary that fall CBLT rebranded itself as “CBC Toronto,” a move which the Globe and Mail declared was “an admission of defeat in a campaign that’s gone on for years, to give CBLT an identity as a Toronto local station, not just a network outlet.”

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Around 100 members of the Toronto media attended spring training, including CFRB’s trio of sports reporters. Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield didn’t mind the distraction. “I’d much rather have it this way,” he told the Globe and Mail, “then the other way with no reporters at all.”

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CKFH, whose primary format in 1977 was country music, served as the Blue Jays’ original flagship radio station. Sixteen other stations, including one in Buffalo, signed on to carry games. Calling the games was a Hall of Fame duo: Tom Cheek on play-by-play and Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn on colour. Before joining the Jays, Cheek spent three seasons as an alternate radio announcer for the Montreal Expos. Wynn lasted through 1980, and was replaced the following year by Jerry Howarth. Apart from a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s when CHUM held the rights, CFKH and its successor CJCL (Fan 590) has remained the team’s radio home.

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Pizza Pizza’s signature phone number still wasn’t in place a decade after its original location at Parliament and Wellesley opened in 1967. Before becoming ubiquitous, Pizza Pizza earned praise for its pies. In a taste test of eight pizzerias conducted by the Star in June 1971, Pizza Pizza came in second: “Pizza Pizza raises its standing with style. The pie arrives in a box that’s zippered into an insulated black bag. The deliveryman uncased it with words like ‘Here is your delicious Pizza Pizza. Enjoy it in good health.’ Their motto, ‘When you think of pizza, think of pizza twice,’ is also catchy. It is expensive with “the works”—a dollar more than any of the others. It was also the largest by several inches and easily the best-looking entrant.”

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George’s Spaghetti House was a fixture of the Toronto jazz scene for decades. Founded by Doug Cole in 1956, its booker was multi-instrumentalist Moe Koffman. Bourbon Street was a sister club which operated during the 1970s and 1980s. Playing at George’s this week in 1977 was trumpeter Sam Noto. Worn out from playing assembly line style gigs in Las Vegas during the first half of the 1970s, Noto relocated his family to Toronto. “Not only does he rank it as the jazz centre of North America,” Frank Rasky wrote in the Star, “but it’s the city that has enabled him to double his income, so that he now earns $44,000 a year. So it’s little wonder that his jazz creations sound so jubilant.”

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With its proximity to Exhibition Stadium, Ontario Place may have seemed like an excellent spot for families to prepare for the game ahead or unwind after the final out.

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Foster Pontiac Buick was among the local car dealers who advertised in the debut scorebook. One of the earliest dealerships to establish itself in postwar Scarborough, Foster switched its affiliation from General Motors to Kia around 2009. After over 60 years at Sheppard and Warden, the dealership moved to Markham Road in 2015.

We’d also like to note the recent passing of outfielder Gary Woods, who was part of the Blue Jays’ opening day lineup on April 7, 1977. Woods talked to the Star about the first season several years later:

I remember the snow on the field and I remember Doug Ault [who hit the franchise’s first home run just before Woods stepped up to the plate] and I remember the excitement in the city. I was a young ballplayer very excited to be part of a building experience. It was a really neat feeling. But of course we played like an expansion team and I played like a guy who wasn’t quite ready for the major leagues.

All images taken from Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine Volume 1, Number 17 (1977). Additional material from the March 21, 1977 and September 15, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 5, 1971, April 2, 1977, and October 8, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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A full ad for Ontario Place, which notes there were 10 restaurants to choose from. No mention of little Grozki.

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The “internationally famous” seafood platter from Fishermans Wharf was a staple of Toronto tourism magazines for decades. What visitor couldn’t resist a massive plate of overpriced crustaceans and other delights from the deep garnished with a lemon wedge?

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Globe and Mail, December 23, 1972.

When Fishermans Wharf opened in late 1972, it was featured in Mary Walpole’s advertorial dining column in the Globe and Mail. I’m curious to find out (whenever time’s available) to see if Walpole’s claim is true that the restaurant hired the city’s first female maitre d’.

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Globe and Mail, February 24, 1973.

Walpole regularly featured Fishermans Wharf in her column during its early years. Over the course of its early months, she updated readers on the construction of the restaurant’s oyster bar and touted its luxury liner qualities.

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Globe and Mail, December 17, 1977.

The only newspaper ad I found for Fishermans Wharf from 1977, spotlighting its New Years celebration. There’s that platter again!

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Globe and Mail, January 7, 1978.

At this time, Walpole continued to tout its ship-like qualities, but fails to mention the maitre d’ or chef Niki – perhaps both had set sail by this point.

A callout on social media didn’t produce any recollections from anyone who might have eaten there. The restaurant survived into the 21st century, ending its days on the south end of Church Street.

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Star Week, June 5, 1971.

The Star‘s random pizza test that placed Pizza Pizza in second place. Its current incarnation is one of the last things that I would enjoy in good health. Besides Pizza Pizza, Vesusvio’s is still turning out pies in The Junction.

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Globe and Mail, March 21, 1977.

A note on CBLT’s coverage of the Jays’ first training camp.

Shaping Toronto: Chinatowns

Originally published on Torontoist on February 4, 2016.

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Marking the end of the Second World War in Chinatown, August 12, 1945 (two days before the official declaration was signed). City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98337.

A glance at the listing for Adelaide Street East in the 1878 city directory shows a mix of Anglo-sounding businessmen whose trades range from contracting to insurance. The name at number 9 stands out: Sam Ching & Co, Chinese laundry. Mr. Ching’s presence was a cultural milestone, as he was the first recorded Chinese resident of Toronto.

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Page from the 1878 city directory listing Sam Ching’s business at 9 Adelaide Street East.

Since Ching’s era, Toronto has included several Chinatowns, a term which has evolved from its original negative connotation. As Library and Archives Canada observes, “’Chinatown’ was coined in the 19th century as a European concept to signify an undesirable neighbourhood full of vice, and peopled by an inferior race.” That proper Torontonians of the early 20th century viewed the city’s small Chinese population—just over 1,000 in 1910—as lesser beings puts it mildly.

Both the respectable and gutter press hyped up the “yellow peril,” editorializing on how the eastern mindset was alien to western concepts of democracy and good citizenship, and how the Chinese would corrupt morals via gambling and opium. Efforts to curb their presence in the laundry and restaurant trades ranged from licensing fees to unsuccessful attempts by City Council to deny business licenses. Paranoia led to provincial legislation preventing Chinese-owned businesses from hiring white women, lest they be sold into white slavery. The Rosedale Ratepayers Association wanted to keep Chinese laundries out of their neighbourhood, adding them to the long list of things people don’t want in Rosedale.

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100-110 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 178.

While there had been small clusters of Chinese along Queen Street (one at George, another at York), by the end of the First World War a stable community established itself in The Ward, the neighbourhood west of Old City Hall which, despite its great poverty, had welcomed numerous immigrant communities. Elizabeth Street between Queen and Dundas served as this Chinatown’s spine, lined with businesses, restaurants, and societies. It mostly served single men, thanks to a series of harsh immigration measures preventing families from joining them. These laws escalated from head taxes to the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which all but banned entry to Canada for two decades.

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56-48 Elizabeth Street, April 8, 1937. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 33, Item 171.

Over that time, the “almond-eyed Celestials,” as the Globe dubbed Chinese residents during the early 1920s, endured frequent police raids on gambling houses, a riot, and periodic rumours of imminent tong wars. If anything, the gambling dens offered lonely people social space, work, and shelter during hard times. Viewed as a threat to the existing social order, the Chinese found Chinatown a refuge they felt accepted in.

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Globe and Mail, October 14, 1948.

Major changes came after the Second World War. The end of the Chinese Immigration Act led to a slow reunion of families. Provincial liquor law reforms allowing cocktail bars provoked a restaurant boom in Chinatown. Locals and tourists dined at Kwong ChowLichee GardenNanking TavernSai Woo, and other eateries which benefitted from both the new booze rules and increasing interest in Chinese-Canadian cuisine.

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Globe and Mail, June 17, 1969.

There were also new threats. The City acquired properties at the southern end of Chinatown to build the current City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. By 1967, the city’s development commissioner recommended that the remaining buildings be replaced by municipal structures. Lead by the likes of Kwong Chow owner and community activist Jean Lumb, the Save Chinatown committee fought to preserve what was left. Lumb presented her arguments to the Star:

One reason why we feel there should always be a Chinatown in a city the size of Toronto is simply that there has been one, and to have it lost would be strongly felt. Its existence has its effects on people, especially as long as there are new Chinese immigrants coming every year. We should have a spot for them to start from, a place where they can be among their own people, hear their own language spoken. The Chinese people are quiet and reserved; it takes them longer than many other immigrants to make friends, to get used to new ways.

Some people say a Chinatown encourages ghettos and this is a reason why it shouldn’t be, but that’s not so. It just gives the people a sense of belonging. It’s a nice environment for them until they’re ready to go on their way more and fit into the Canadian community.

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1971.

After a series of deputations in 1969, City Council decided to keep what was now known as Old Chinatown. Efforts to keep the neighbourhood alive during the 1970s included Dragon Mall (a pedestrianized Elizabeth Street, à la the Yonge Street Mall) and earning recognition as a tourist destination. Over time, large scale development projects crept in and the remaining Chinese businesses closed. By the 21st century little remained beyond historical plaques marking where the neighbourhood had been.

Meanwhile, the gradual loosening of immigration rules during the 1960s prompted an influx of arrivals, especially from Hong Kong. As the old Chinatown shrank, a new one grew to the west along Dundas and Spadina, replacing the Jewish community which was moving north. By the late 1970s this area was recognized as downtown’s primary Chinatown, marked with cultural motifs and Chinese-language street signs.

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Corner of Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East, sometime between 1975 and 1988. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 383, Item 1.

For those who found Spadina too pricey or touristy, there was Chinatown East, which emerged at Broadview and Gerrard. Starting with the opening of Charlie’s Meat in 1971, the neighbourhood’s affordability attracted businesses which served an increasing number of migrants from mainland China and Vietnam.

By the mid-1980s, new Chinatowns developed in the suburbs. The influx of new businesses and residents revealed that fears of the “yellow peril” were far from dead. Agincourt became a flashpoint in 1984, as a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong (on the move as the end of the British lease on the colony in 1997 loomed) arrived. Some longtime residents were alarmed by the new faces around them. “I don’t want to be biased or prejudiced but I don’t think they should be allowed to come into a neighbourhood and take over with such force,” 30-year resident Mildred Jackson told the Star. A heated community meeting ostensibly about parking issues related to the recently-opened Dragon Centre and two other plazas at Sheppard Avenue and Glen Watford Drive degenerated into jeers and racist remarks. The tone may have been set by the meeting’s chair, who referred to the “rape of our community” and that “we should not actively encourage any group to cling together as an enclave” (he later wrote the Star to protest that his remarks were taken out of context). Flyers distributed to homes asked for tougher immigration policies, alleging links between new arrivals and crimes across the Pacific.

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Dragon Centre, Agincourt, February 2016.

Backlash against emerging Chinese business and commercial areas continued over the next decade as new enclaves emerged in Markham and Richmond Hill. But Agincourt also pointed the way to the nature of later areas, from large restaurants to Asian-themed shopping centres like Pacific Mall.

In a book profiling Canadian Chinatowns, Paul Yee summarized how the role of these neighbourhoods changed from a necessary presence to ensure the community’s safety to being woven into the urban fabric.

Some Chinese saw old Chinatowns as living monuments to a turbulent history and to the fragility of equality. Others saw them as sites where Chinese culture was preserved and shared. Both these views supported the building of cultural facilities there. In a sense, old and new Chinatowns bridged the historical divide between Chinese Canadians, because more and more people appreciated Chinatowns’ different functions and freely visited them.

Additional material from The Chinese in Toronto From 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle by Arlene Chan (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); Chinatown by Paul Yee (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005); the July 6, 1922 edition of the Globe; and the March 8, 1969, May 14 1984, and May 29, 1984 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, October 11, 1907.

The fear of the “yellow peril” in action – one of the more jaw-dropping (from a modern perspective) editorials regarding the place of Chinese in Canadian society during the early 20th century.

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The Globe, July 6, 1922.

A profile of Chinatown, which tosses off a “gee, aren’t they cute?” vibe.

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Chinese victory celebrations, parade on Elizabeth Street, August 26, 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 98604.

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1969. Click on image for larger version.

The article from which Jean Lumb’s defense of maintaining a Chinatown was quoted from.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1971. Click on image for larger version.

An early 1970s look at Old Chinatown, which discusses some of the remaining businesses, the Dragon Mall pedestrian zone, and several recipes inspired by local grocers.

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Globe and Mail, June 27, 1975.

One of the first major projects as Spadina became the heart of downtown’s Chinatown was China Court, which opened in August 1976. Within a decade, it was razed for the cold concrete of Chinatown Centre.

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Globe and Mail, August 2, 1976. Click on image for larger version.

The building at 346 Spadina Avenue has gone through numerous incarnations, from the Labor Lyceum, to a series of Asian restaurants beginning with Yen Pin Place.

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Toronto Star, May 29, 1984.

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Toronto Star, June 1, 1984.

The Star’s coverage of a testy meeting in Agincourt, and reaction from readers. The paper also published an editorial criticizing attendees for their remarks, observing that the parking issue was one Scarborough’s city council was attempting to fix.

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Toronto Star, June 16, 1984.

A few weeks later, meeting chairman Dr. Douglas Hood defended his actions, claiming that coverage was a smear job which took several remarks out of context. Having covered community meetings over the years where the yahoos came out in full force, and reading about similar meetings in the 905 belt a decade later, I’m tempted to lean toward the paper’s interpretation of events.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Town & Country

Originally published on Torontoist on May 20, 2015.

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Key to Toronto, September 1957.

Once upon a time, the all-you-can-eat buffet was marketed as an exotic experience with a touch of European class. Descended from the Swedish smorgasbord, the mid-20th-century buffet was marketed as a way to sample fancy dishes drawn from a United Nations of cuisines. The experience was often marketed as “French,” even if the majority of the items bore little resemblance to French cuisine.

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Globe and Mail, February 11, 1949.

Such was the case for one of Toronto’s longest-running gorge-fests, the Town & Country. Opened in 1949 at Gould and Mutual streets in the Westminster Hotel, it billed itself early on as “Canada’s most unusual eating place.” Mary Walpole, Globe and Mail advertorial writer, captured the early vibe of the joint:

This is the fabulous buffet that everyone talks about and you could do a lot of travelling before you would find anything equal to it. Even Chef Pierre, who is unusually modest, looks at that extravagant set up with a proud gleam. The cold buffet is all set forth on crushed ice, fresh salmon masked in mayonnaise, lobster, shrimp and chicken salads, wonderful appetizers so tempting you don’t know where to stop; chicken, tongue and the crispest of fresh greens. Then there is the hot buffet with the emphasis on roast beef and roast chicken. And you can go back again and again, just like a party. Luncheon $1.10, dinner $1.95. Definitely a must.

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Globe and Mail, September 17, 1951.

In preparation for a new lounge room in late 1967, the restaurant added live music to its feast. Blaik Kirby, the Globe and Mail‘s entertainment critic, was less than impressed with the preview offering, a trio led by guitarist Chris Sullivan. While the musicians were skilled, Kirby complained that their amps were too loud, and that numbers like “Unchained Melody” sounded “as if they’d been arranged with an ear to the record player.”

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Key to Toronto, May 1960.

Town & Country expanded to the suburbs in the mid-1970s, starting with a location in Scarborough; eventually, it operated buffets as far west as Mississauga. Back downtown, the flagship was refurbished with nostalgic decor such as antique posters and old photos of Toronto. It wasn’t long before the restaurant itself became a nostalgic memory—it closed in 1981 to make way for the demolition of the Westminster Hotel complex. The property is now occupied by Ryerson University.

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Key to Toronto, July 1976.

The chain lingered on elsewhere for years, though its “French” aspects were gradually phased out. A later downtown location at 190 Queens Quay East was built around old railway cars. A tourist-centric Star review from 2008 noted that “while Toronto is indeed a blend of dozens of global cultures, the food on offer at Town & Country Buffet is an accurate sampling of none of them.” That location closed the following year when the city didn’t renew its lease in order to make way for Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization of the area.

Additional material from the April 27, 1953, October 3, 1967, and March 5, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the August 28, 2008 edition of the Toronto Star.