Tip-Toeing Around Tipping

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

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

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

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Globe and Mail, May 15, 1979.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Editorial, Toronto Star, July 16, 1979.

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Toronto Star, July 17, 1979.

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Toronto Star, July 26, 1979.

The Wimpy Awards

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on March 27, 2012. The number of burger joints, especially those with gourmet aspirations, continues to grow. There’s even a website (Tasty Burgers) dedicated to review the GTA’s purveyors of ground round, or whatever they’re tossing in the burgers these days. Stick around to the end of this post for some of my (as of 2019) favourite burger spots.

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Illustration by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

It’s safe to say Toronto is currently hamburger crazy. Whether you prefer going to an old-school burger joint that retains its 1960s-era appearance, testing a highbrow patty made with gourmet ingredients, or joining the never-ending lineups at The Burger’s Priest, Toronto has rediscovered its love for a slab of ground meat loaded with every topping imaginable (though you still can’t get lettuce at Johnny’s in Scarborough).

Back in March of 1983, Toronto Star food writer Jim White felt the local burger scene needed recognition. Noting that there were so many awards for the arts, White jokingly told readers that to correct a “cultural imbalance,” the paper was launching a series of articles to hand out Oscar-style statuettes to worthy local eateries. To honour Toronto’s best burgers, White devised the Wimpy Awards, which honoured Popeye’s gluttonous pal.

White’s criteria for the Wimpys ruled out “anything pre-fab, served by clowns or named after someone like Harvey or Wendy.” Though he intended to focus on the burger alone, White discovered that “the décor, background music, and ambience of a burger joint can be just as important as the product.” As a control measure, a basic burger and fries were ordered at each restaurant in the competition, as “the quality of French fries colours one’s impression of the burger.”

Some winners from the Wimpy Awards, presented with little fanfare on March 16, 1983:

Best Burger for the Buck: the original location of Lick’s in the Beaches, then a narrow eatery with long lines, two tables, and six stools. For only $1.95, Lick’s served large burgers that White described as “superb and perfectly charbroiled.” He noted that “the only thing missing in this setting is John Belushi shouting ‘Cheezeburgah…cheezeburgah.’” No mention as to whether the chain’s singing schtick was already in place.

Most Expensive Burger in Toronto: For $10, patrons of the Courtyard Café at the Windsor Arms Hotel received a loosely packed patty served with a truffle-tinged artichoke, purposely-undercooked chips, and a bland tomato tart.

Best Staging for a Burger: At the Bloor Street Diner, diners enjoyed their meal amid a backdrop of “pink neon, high-gloss black lacquered trim and stainless steel table tops.” The burger itself had a quality most people would appreciate—it wasn’t “sinewy.”

Best Patty: The Hayloft at 37 Front St. E. offered a burger that was lean, juicy, flavourful, and extremely fresh. Unfortunately, White felt it was ruined by lousy condiments, mediocre bun, and fries that had been sitting around for a while. The server accidentally brought White a cheeseburger, which was topped with “a tasteless, carrot-coloured film to peel off as one peels dried rubber cement off the back of one’s hand.”

Best Burger in a Supporting Role: Both Mr. Greenjeans (Eaton Centre and 120 Adelaide St. E.) and Partners (836 Danforth Ave. and 765 Mount Pleasant Rd.) served their burgers in large wicker baskets filled with Buffalo chips and on what White considered the city’s best burger bun, a light egg roll prepared by Central Bakery.

Toronto’s Darkest Burger: The experience of eating at Toby’s Good Eats at 91 Bloor St. W. on even a sunny day was “like sitting in a cellar during a hydro black-out.” When the waitress told him to enjoy his lunch, White replied “we would if we could see it.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

star 1977-07-13 best burgersToronto Star, July 13, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

An earlier roundup of the Metro Toronto’s burgers from the Star. Two of the spots mentioned remain: Johnny’s (notice they don’t mention the lack of lettuce as a topping option) and Apache.

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

One of the articles which accompanied the Wimpy Awards. As of July 2019, none of the winners exist in their 1983 forms. Lick’s expanded into a chain then collapsed in the early 2010s. Only two locations appear to have survived. The Courtyard Cafe at the Windsor Arms has been used as a brunch buffet space in recent years.

That pricey $10 burger? The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator puts it at $23.76 in 2019 funds, which wouldn’t be out of line at higher-end eateries. Don’t get me started about $100 stunt burgers that periodically provide fuel for clickbait.

Where do I enjoy digging into a burger in Toronto? It depends on my mood. Sometimes you want a high-quality patty with top-notch ingredients. Sometimes you want a char-grilled slab of beef from a place that’s been around forever.

In alphabetical order…

Burger Shack (Eglinton and Oriole Parkway)
Old school homeburgers. Excellent fries. Giant selection of canned sodas. Thick sauteed onions. Swinging seats that remind me of childhood meals at the Woolco cafeteria.

Burger Stomper (Danforth west of Chester)
Fresh-tasting meat, doesn’t go overboard with the portion of fries.

Five Guys (Leaside location, Laird north of Millwood)
Pricey, and a chain, but worth it taste-wise. Beware filling yourself up with free peanuts.

Golden Star (Yonge north of Steeles)
Another old-school homeburger joint, serving condiments out of giant metal bowls just like Harvey’s used to. Decor screams 1970s.

Great Burger Kitchen (Gerrard and Jones)
Only if you’re really, really, really hungry, or plan to share your sides.

Jumbo Burger (Runnymede and Dundas)
Yet another old-school hamburger joint, with delicious thickly-battered onion rings.

No Bull Burgers (Kingston west of Victoria Park)
Recent discovery. Fresh burgers in different sizes, delicious fries and rings, and (for vegetarians) an excellent quinoa-based patty.

Slab Burgers (Charles and Bay)
Handy for a research day at the Toronto Reference Library.