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

globe 1907-10-11 asiatic peril editorial.jpg

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.

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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.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Stopless Topless

Originally published on Torontoist on May 6, 2015.

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Key to Toronto, December 1978.

By the late 1970s, Yonge Street was synonymous with sin and sleaze. Despite growing calls to clean up its adult cinemas, arcades, and rub-and-tugs, especially in the wake of the murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques in 1977, businesses dealing in titillation continued to launch along the strip.

Take the Pancake Bakery Group, which began as a purveyor of flapjacks at its Pancake Bakery Restaurant and Creperie near Yonge and Eglinton. Browsing the entertainment sections of Toronto’s dailies throughout 1978 and 1979 shows a business with aspirations. First came novelty pancakes—pizza pancake, anyone?—then circus-style entertainment. In Yorkville, they launched Daddy’s Money & Apron Strings, billed as “a unique food & beverage establishment where you never know who you’ll meet.”

Down at one of the Yonge strip’s legendary music venues, the Colonial Tavern, the group operated a series of increasingly naughtier concepts with names like Daddy’s Folly, O’Daddy’s Restaurant, the Pussycat Patio, and the Black Bottom Lounge. One ad suggested that the venues were being run by “an unbelievably true Sugar Daddy,” even if it was officially a reference to a free pizza-pancake giveaway. The Black Bottom promised acts like “Hot Tamale and her breathtaking Fire Dance accompanied by X-rated live shows.”

Daddy’s Folly offered topless servers, which—along with other venues across the city that provided similar service—upset provincial officials. In October 1978, consumer and commercial relations minister Frank Drea warned lounge owners to cover up their staff or else be hauled before liquor authorities for a license review. While some bars, such as the House of Lancaster, resisted Drea’s call, Daddy’s Folly complied. Walking by the Colonial after Drea’s request, Star columnist Peter Gzowski observed several Daddy’s Folly staffers picketing, holdings signs which read “WE’RE NOT PRISONERS” and “WE ABIDE BY THE LAW.” Gzowski heard one of the sign-holders yell, “Where’s CityPulse News?”

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Toronto Star, June 15, 1978.

Daddy’s Folly and its siblings advertised “stopless topless” servers until February 1979, when Metro Toronto council banned the practice. Management was not happy about the move, claiming staff cringingly dubbed “Daddy’s Girls,” would earn less covered up. As a manager told the Globe and Mail, “[T]he public will be unhappy because this is the kind of entertainment they want.” Not everyone bought that line—a patron interviewed, while the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” played in the background, felt that partial covering was sexier (“It leaves more to the imagination”).

By spring 1979, ads for all of the Pancake Bakery Group’s enterprises vanished from the papers. A Star classified the following year listed their Yorkville location as a distressed property. The Colonial Tavern lingered on for a few more years before it was demolished in 1987 for a parkette.

Additional material from the December 18, 1978 and February 12, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the August 3, 1978, October 24, 1978, October 25, 1978, and May 29, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Wexford Restaurant

Originally published on Torontoist on April 22, 2015.

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Don Mills Mirror, May 20, 1964.

When the Kiriakou family took over the Wexford Restaurant in May 1958, they likely had little idea that nearly 60 years later a sign in their parking would proudly boast about the billions of eggs cracked and oranges juiced. Under three generations of family ownership, the restaurant has fed plenty of hungry Scarberians and, in the process, became a local institution.

Kiriakos “Jerry” Kiriakou emigrated to Canada from Vevi, Greece around 1950. Over the course of the next few years he gradually brought over the rest of his family. Saving money earned through dishwashing, Jerry bought a fish-and-chip shop on the south side of Lawrence, but felt that Wexford Heights Plaza on the north side presented a better opportunity. When the 50-seat Wexford Restaurant was put up for sale, the family purchased it, with Jerry’s sons Tom and Anthony in charge. Two decades later, having built up substantial real estate holdings elsewhere in Metro Toronto, the family bought the plaza.

Through three generations of Kiriakou ownership, the restaurant has expanded to 300 seats. Among the additions was a dining lounge opened in 1983 that was named in honour of Jerry (who is also memorialized with a plaque). The family name was also bestowed on a residential street near Lawrence Avenue and Kennedy Road, located just off Mike Myers Drive.

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Toronto Star, July 19, 1983.

While surveying diners across the city in 2000, Star writer Jon Filson gave a sense of the hubbub during a busy weekend at the Wexford.

Breakfast at the Wexford Restaurant in Scarborough is the best time anyone can have anywhere. At noon on Sunday the background buzz is louder and at least as entertaining as a patrol car’s squawk box on a Saturday night. Calm, firm waitress voices take charge: “Ordering over easy, with sausage and brown,” but occasionally a more urgent shriek comes through: “Johnny, I said ham with that, Johnny! Ham, Johnny, ham! Johnn-eeey…” Most of the voices come in bits and pieces, garbled by the sizzle from a massive grill manned by four heroic cooks wearing peaked white caps. Giddy customers are filling stools and packing into booths, and the whole bustling place seems totally out of control, without ever being out of control in the slightest.

Customers and staff have long shot the breeze over the topics of the day, which has made the Wexford a popular spot for campaigning politicians. When mayor Mel Lastman visited in November 2000 to boost the re-election hopes of Lorenzo Berardinetti in Ward 37 (husband of current Ward 35 councillor Michelle Berardinetti), the incumbent councillor observed that “he’s not here to make speeches or unveil a moose, he’s just having some eggs and meeting people doing the same thing.” A picture taken of Rob Ford holding up a paper coffee cup during the 2010 election campaign found a place of honour on a pillar near the cash register. During the 2014 mayoral race, the Ford brothers ran their local headquarters in the plaza a few doors down from the restaurant.

As the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrower put it during anniversary celebrations in 2008, the Wexford is “a centre of Scarborough power and Scarborough pride.”

Additional material from the June 15, 2006, May 6, 2008, and November 23, 2013 editions of the National Post; and the December 26, 1977, November 21, 1996, November 5, 2000, and November 29, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: “The Romance of Mexican Food”

Originally published on Torontoist on March 11, 2015.

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Globe and Mail, January 2, 1974.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Key to Toronto, February 1982.

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

gm 1938-11-17 winston norman explains tacos title

gm 1938-11-17 winston norman explains tacos 1

gm 1938-11-17 winston norman explains tacos 2

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

gm 1968-11-14 winter snacks mexican style

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

star 1977-09-10 viva zapata review

Toronto Star, September 10, 1977.

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

Ouch. Globe and Mail, August 22, 1981. 

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Taste of Hungary

Originally published on Torontoist on March 4, 2015.

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Key to Toronto, February 1982.

Walking into the Country Style Hungarian Restaurant along Bloor Street in the Annex is more than dining on central European cuisine served on checkered tablecloths. The venerable eatery stands as one of the last links to the strip’s past, before Hungarian businesses, butchers, and restaurants gave way to cheap sushi joints and falafel spots. The influx of refugees following the uprising against Hungary’s communist government in 1956 built up a community that stretched into Kensington Market and Yorkville.

In November 1956, shortly after the Hungarian revolution, Canada’s federal government announced that it would accept all refugee claimants, a move possibly motivated by Cold War–era one-upmanship. Around 37,000 Hungarians came to Canada, with 12,000 of them settling in Toronto. They were temporarily housed by organizations like the Salvation Army and YMCA, and in locations stretching from the CNE Coliseum to Chorley Park. Highly educated, the Hungarians made their mark by adding a touch of cosmopolitanism to a city starting to shed its staid, conservative skin.

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Key to Toronto, February 1982.

John Lorinc, whose parents arrived in Toronto from Hungary in 1956, reflected on the community in a 2004 Globe and Mail article:

In the late 1950s and 1960s, these neighbourhoods became popular with immigrants who harboured a deep belief that the key to preserving their culture lay in the availability of schnitzels, rye bread, and rich pastries. At the height of the Magyar invasion, Bloor West was a veritable Budapest of eateries, from Jack and Jill, in the old Colonnade building, and The Coffee Mill, on Yorkville, to Marika’s, Cake Master, Corona, Country Style, and the smoky, windowless Blue Danube Room. Although the quality of the food didn’t vary much from one to the next (there are only so many ways to stuff a cabbage), their respective patrons tended to be fiercely loyal.

The heart of Bloor Street’s Hungarian strip, between Brunswick and Bathurst, earned several nicknames. “Wiener Schnitzel Row” was favoured by some, while others, with apologies to writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, dubbed it the “Goulash Archipelago.” Beyond the émigrés, the cheap, hearty food appealed to university students on tight budgets.

Toronto’s first Hungarian eateries opened in the mid-1950s prior to the revolution, offering a taste of middle Europe to awakening post-war tastebuds. Clientele varied by restaurant: the Coffee Mill in Yorkville attracted artisans with its sidewalk café, while spots along Bay Street like Csarda and Hungarian Village advertised in tourist publications.

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Key to Toronto, February 1982.

One attraction of Toronto-style Hungarian dining was seeing how each establishment outdid each other with their groaning boards. Offered as wooden platters or flaming feasts, these plates piled mounds of food to feed more diners than advertised. Take Hungarian Village’s “Attila’s Flaming Platter,” as described by Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole in 1960:

Attila’s Flaming Platter is a gourmet’s triumph … borne flaming to your table, with background music of ravishing Gypsy violins. This is a platter for two (or more, if desired), piled high with the choicest hot meats, surrounded with a selection of delicious salads in lettuce cups, surmounted by a tall spit with spirit cup (specially designed) on which tenderloin pieces and mushroom caps wrapped in bacon strips are given that incomparable flavor filip of flambe.

Elements like strolling violinists became, depending on your point of view, a charmingly kitschy part of the meal, or something that sped up requests to pack up the leftovers.

By the 1990s, the Hungarian influence faded as the second generation assimilated into the mainstream, moved away from the core, and decided not to keep businesses going. Aging clientele doomed spots like the Coffee Mill, which closed in 2014 after a half-century run. The number of restaurants along Bloor shrank, leaving Country Style as the last paprikash standing.

Additional material from the October 17, 2006 edition of 24 Hours; the May 28, 1960, August 28, 2004, and October 14, 2006 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 17, 1976 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

gm 1955-09-08 csarda profile

Globe and Mail, September 8, 1955.

gm 1955-09-08 csarda recipes

star 1956-05-10 hungarian restaurants 1

Toronto Star, May 10, 1956.

star 1956-05-10 hungarian restaurants 2

Toronto Star, May 10, 1956.

star 1956-05-10 hungarian restaurants 3

Toronto Star, May 10, 1956.

star 1976-07-17 country style review

Toronto Star, July 17, 1976.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Big Boy

Originally published on Torontoist on January 14, 2015.

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1974.

He’s an icon of the North American roadside. Garbed in his red-and-white checked overalls, cowlick resisting the wind, Big Boy holds his signature double-decker hamburger aloft with pride. During his heyday from the 1950s through the 1970s, Big Boy’s smiling face graced drive-ins and family restaurants owned by franchisees whose names spanned the alphabet from Abdow’s to Yoda’s (no relation to a certain Jedi master). He even had a long-running comic book whose early issues were written by Stan Lee.

Torontonians welcomed Big Boy in 1969, when the Canadian franchise rights were acquired from Marriott Corporation (along with the Roy Rogers fast food chain) by a subsidiary of mining/real estate firm Canadian Goldale. Within months, the first local outlet opened at 1540 Albion Road. For a time, it seemed hockey might be Big Boy’s draw—stars like Gordie Howe dropped by for autograph sessions, while Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau was interested in operating locations in Quebec.

In charge of the venture was John Bitove Sr., who had entered the restaurant business via a 14-stool Avenue Road coffee shop 20 years earlier. Applying his initials to the chain, Bitove gained full control of JB’s Big Boy within two years of its launch. During the 1970s, Bitove ran a combined 40 Big Boy and Roy Rogers outlets. His children worked in the restaurants, training for their future roles in the expansion of the family’s catering empire. “I learned all the nuances of the quick service business,” John Bitove Jr. once observed of his experience in a downtown Big Boy, which included cleaning tables, cooking, and running the cash register.

The downtown locations were ideal for workers on the run but not in such a hurry that they felt like grabbing an Egg McMuffin. “I settled on Big Boy’s because it was closest when I had this great craving for pancakes,” dental receptionist Elaine Fuller told the Star when it interviewed people about their fast-food breakfast habits in 1979. “I had to be at the office at 9 a.m. this week for special appointments. Ordinarily I make my own breakfast at home. It’s a real treat to let someone else prepare a hot, fast breakfast of pancakes for you.”

The chain didn’t last much longer, as Bitove Sr. sold the Canadian rights to Michigan Big Boy franchisee Elias Brothers. While Big Boy continued on in southwest Ontario for two more decades, it vanished from the Toronto market. Statues periodically surfaced, including one that watched over customers at Sam the Record Man’s Yonge Street flagship. Local comedians also got mileage out of Big Boy, from an SCTV parody starring John Candy to Mike Myers’ use of a statue as Dr. Evil’s spaceship.

Additional material from the January 21, 1969 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 2, 1979 and June 9, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star.