As you can imagine, things have been quite busy here. I’m working on two articles for Business Edge magazine, and I’m arranging a Toronto-area launch for The Unwritten Girl. I’ve also been developing some pages for Transit Toronto, and keeping the house (relatively) clean (sort of). Stir in a newborn daughter who has me constantly on call, and something has to give. My blog has been that something.
So, I’m dropping in a freelance article that I wrote for Business Edge back in August that I wasn’t able to sell. It focused on three small family-owned restaurants in and around downtown Toronto that represent amazing discoveries. It was inspired by my continuing amazement that a restaurant has operated on the corner of Cherry Street and Front even though almost nothing else exists around it. But the Canary Grill has been profiled before, so the editor suggested other restaurants be added to the profile.
I got some great interviews (and great meals, which I paid for) out of this project, but I think the article failed because it was never sure if it was for a business magazine or a travelogue. I’ve looked at submitting it to travelogue magazines, but I fear that the information within has dated, so I’ll submit it free to you readers for your enjoyment. Bon appetit!
Located at the corner of Front and Cherry Streets in the Toronto Port Lands, in the only occupied building on the intersection, the Canary Grill defies the adage of location being key to a successful business.
The decision to set up shop here made sense in 1963 when Chris Koidis moved his then five-year-old restaurant away from the corner of University and Dundas. “Industry was large back then,” says great-nephew Tom Vlahos, who today shares ownership with his older brother Nick. “When we got it back in ‘85, my dad and my brother were opening from five in the morning to nine or ten in the evening.”
But industry was already relocating, and the City of Toronto expropriated the land for the ill-fated Ataratiri housing development project. The restaurant was left almost without clients, but the Vlahos family stuck it out.
“We wanted to see what was going to happen,” says Tom. “My dad died in ‘92, so we decided just to keep it running.”
Prudent financial management kept the family in business while the area changed. The booming film industry eventually provided the Canary Grill with much needed customers. “Back when we got it, our clients were truckers and people like that. Since we started being known as Hollywood North, it’s been a lot of film guys hanging out.”
By the mid 90s, the Canary Grill’s reputation as a tenacious restaurant in an odd location had the diner profiled in a number of publications. The historical and architectural significance of the building helped. With portions built in the 1850s, the building has served as one of Toronto’s oldest schoolhouses and a turn-of-the-century hotel. “A lady was in last week,” says Tom. “She wanted to know some history on the restaurant too. They’re doing a walking tour down here, and we’re in it.”
The Canary Grill isn’t the only restaurant to have seen great changes in its neighbourhood. Established in 1958, the Mars Diner near the corner of College and Bathurst has seen more change than most. Since last February, new owners Natha Rafish and John Theo have been living up to the diner’s reputation for good breakfasts, reasonable prices, and the best muffins in Toronto.
Natha bought Mars just six years after immigrating from Sri Lanka. “My father had his own restaurant; a farmer’s country style restaurant. I want to be in his field.”
John Theo has worked for Mars for thirteen years, and brought Natha in when the restaurant went up for sale. To make sure the new owners carry on Mars’ legacy, former owner Steve Tsecaris, known as the Muffin King, stayed behind the counter. He boasts forty-eight years of experience, including twenty-five years as Mars’s owner, and he has the memories to show for it.
“We had the Chuvallo and Clay bout at Maple Leaf Gardens, and after the fight, they came here,” says Steve. “Chuvallo was all puffed up, and Clay wasn’t even touched. And I said, ‘George, what happened? We listened on the radio and you were winning!’ And Clay said ‘the best fighter I ever fought,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t put him down.’”
“The Jewish area used to be here, with Kensington Market,” he adds. “In the seventies, they started moving up north, and we had new people coming into the neighbourhood. But the old customers kept coming back, especially on weekends.”
For Steve, the food is what establishes the loyal client base to build off of. “We got the corn beef hash; most places don’t make the stuff. And we keep on making it the way we’ve made it so many years ago. Now with the grandfathers talking about Mars with their kids and grandkids, the kids come and they ask me, could I have some of the same?”
“A lot of people come through here,” he adds. “Politicians, actors, actresses. Most of the politicians went to the University of Toronto. Lastman and Bob Rae, after they become big shots, they still come, because when you grow up in the place, it doesn’t matter what position you get, you still like the place.”
Yung Sing Pastry Shop, tucked away on Baldwin Street east of Spadina, was a part of the trend that saw the Jewish neighbourhood transform and other cultures move in.
Immigrating from Hong Kong in 1967, Chu Ko and his wife Ngan established the shop in 1968, the first to bring authentic Chinese dim sum (literally “little treats”) into the area. “This used to be an extension of Kensington Market,” says daughter Linda. “The store before us was a meat market, and we’ve kept a lot their original stuff. We use their meat counter as our pastry counter; their freezer is our kitchen.”
The expansion of nearby hospitals and the construction of a new headquarters for Ontario Hydro provided vital foot traffic in the seventies. Yung Sing’s selection of hot meat-stuffed buns, spring rolls and other delectable items proved popular. “We are cheap and good,” says Linda. “We keep our food fresh and the prices reasonable. You can walk up here for five dollars for lunch with a drink.”
Yung Sing has seen Baldwin Street change from a through route to Chinatown, to a destination in its own right. “At that time, when Hydro opened, there were hardly any eateries on Baldwin,” says Linda. “Now, almost every store is an eatery. We have bragging rights. We are one of the longest-running stores on Baldwin. It used to be Mendel’s Creamery.”
Mars and Yung Sing reside in neighbourhoods which have seen incomes rise and activity increase. Mars is a reminder of its area’s past whereas Yung Sing was the start of its neighbourhood’s present. Neither face the Canary Grill’s challenges.
With the film industry experiencing lean years of its own, the Canary Grill has had to rely on its loyal customer base to stay in business. “If you come in here for a month,” says Tom, “everybody will get to know you. It’s the same guys everyday, all the time.”
The weekends are another matter, as people come from across the city to try out Canary’s diner breakfasts. “You’ve got the Bayview Extension that comes down,” says Tom. “I get this I don’t know how many times, ‘I’ve driven by so many times and I’ve never had a chance to come in.’ They finally come in, grab a pop and go ‘oh, really cool’ and you may see them again, or you may not.”
Surviving and thriving on the changes their neighbourhoods have seen, the owners of these restaurants are cagey about their future.
“I can’t predict,” says Natha. “Maybe tomorrow you can die. Otherwise, I will do whatever I feel it. Maybe ten years, something like that? Mars is a traditional restaurant. I would like to get more customers, more flexibility, more opportunity. We can work it out from there.”
Linda Ko notes that Yung Sing still belongs to her parents. “My parents are quite old, now. We’ve been doing this for thirty-seven years. They like to keep busy. In terms of the kids, we’re waiting to see if this is something for us or not. I see my parents hard at work, day and night.”
The Canary Grill sits beside empty lots for now, but the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation is working on developing the area, now known as the West Don Lands. A new clientéle is emerging from new condominiums on Mill Street and the hip new Distillery District, two blocks away. Will the Vlahos family stick around to see it?
“If you go to the TWRC’s website,” says Tom, “you’ll see the Canary in the drawings of what it’s going to look like as they look down Front Street. They say we’re going to be here for a long time. In reality, between development and everything else, who knows?”