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Feb 20, 2014 06:21 PM

Toronto's worst dives

This is prompted by the "Old Toronto Restaurant" thread.

During the mid 60s the city was in transformation: garlic was slowly coming onto the stage; Italians were being accepted and slowly transforming the dining scene (and the picnic greens with their jugs); rare beef was gaining traction; Jews were long doing their real thing with places like the Tel Aviv, Hushys and elsewhere, and Hungarians had set up shop on Spadina/College and Bloor West - however the city was still a holdover from intra-bellum or even pre-WW1. Jacket and tie were mandatory at any eatery charging more than $2 for main so we were either refused entry or forced to wear a jacket and tie supplied by the house. Food was mandatory with drink and we were served up with stale crackers and cheese that were passed on later to the next patron. Think "Murdoch Mysteries".

In the 60s and 70s it was hard to find a bought meal on Sundays. No drink at all except for hair lotion or mouth wash at the pharmacies on the Yonge Street strip. Hard up students who roomed with no cooking allowed - that was prevalent. Young kids from wherever getting their first crap jobs to launch them wherever. But we had accommodating "plastic-tops" that catered to our needs most days and others who doled cheap draught.

On Sundays we cheated if our landlords allowed no food and they knew this. Both parties were paying for accommodation in their own way.

Bear in mind that we did not scruple in that era. We had pool rooms, burlesque joints and rough cops who reached for their jacks or billies to make their points. If you bothered no-one, you weren't bothered. It was good.

So, I'll start with the Brass Kettle. It was on McCaul near Darcy/Baldwin. A small, cramped, steamy place that was always warm in winter with a cheap, decent breakfast. It fed most of Toronto's down and out bettors - horse players. Great place with a nice vibe on cold morning.

Silver Dollar Tavern at Spadina and College. I've been in rough bars - hell.I worked in Detroit during the riots, but this bar is the only one I've ever sat in where I could view 4 fights simultaneously from my seat - one of then involving 2 guys pounding on a guy in the women's loo. And then 3 more outside.

The Brunswick House was also interesting at the time. Great music.

Fairbank Tavern was at one time a place I stopped for a beer on a hot Saturday while doing chores - intersection of 3 biker gangs but never any problem.

Lansdowne Tavern same as Fairbank - but in addition to bikers it had mafia guys.

In my student days I lived across from the Rex in a walkup. Then it was the "Wrecks" and a damned fine place it was after 10 when my assignments were complete.

I encountered these places simply because I couldn't sit in a small room, nor could I afford better, and that's where I was. Same with my friends at the time.

Many of you were there too and I'm interested in your recollections.

Before you knock me down on this, please acknowledge that Toronto is still a hard scrapple, vigorous place although I don't see it in the (your) media.

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  1. A couple that come to mind are..
    The Gasworks(the Works) fights o' plenty,quarts of 50 or Blue only..some great live music to boot
    Cheaters..sticky floors, ugly girls and the guy who owned the place had the worst "rug" ever! I miss it so..

    7 Replies
      1. re: justsayn

        Loved the Gasworks but I loved Larry's Hideaway even more. Great music, great soundsystem and ugly as hell. The rooms upstairs were something to behold.
        Every night tht place was filled with punks, goths, metalheads, and every musician in town looking for a break.

        1. re: Torontotonto

          Check out this article about some places from the late 70's, it has an ad for Heaven also.

          1. re: foodyDudey

            I miss that place even more after reading the srticle. Thanks for passing on. I forgot about Danny K.

          2. re: Torontotonto

            Larry's Hideaway where you drank beer from the bottle 'cause you wouldn't dare drink from one of their glasses.

            And aaahh yes, The Gasworks. In it's day, it was considered the first big important step to playing Massey Hall.

            1. re: Torontotonto

              Larry's RULED period an irreplacable black hole of a loss for the gentrified new city T.O. is becoming...once saw Hanoi Rocks play there and the opening act on his FIRST VISIT EVER to Toronto was Gary Glitter and ped. or not when that dude saw the crowd and assessed the situation he was in him and his amazing band kicked so much ass that Mike and Razzle came out and jammed with the old pervert...Epic show and if you were there I'm sure it's in your top 5 of all time...! Red Hot Chili's, Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedy's you name it they all played there and that cute li'l thing in the Spoons that all the guys had a crush on...well I'm a gentleman so I'll stop here...

          3. re: petek

            The Gasworks....LOL good times, got in a fight there on my best friend's 19th birthday...ah memories!

          4. Nice. There's a mini series in there somewhere.

            2 Replies
            1. The original Pilot House at Yonge and Bloor with that great neon sign. Where all the sport's reporters hung out after a Leafs game or a championship fight. Lotta cigar smoke, great bar food and a real slice of old, colorful Toronto. This is also the joint where you could always make book, if so inclined. I got into a great bar fight at the Dollar one night when 'Stompin' Tom' was working his board, so I might of run into D'potato that night.

              3 Replies
              1. re: TorontoTuna

                Not seeing stompin tom live is a deep, deep regret for me

                1. re: TorontoTuna

                  That Pilot was before my time but my teachers at OCA always remembered it fondly. It was apparently quite the artsy club house but that did not carry over to the Cumberland location.

                  1. re: crawfish

                    Actually it did carry over: perhaps not as much. I encountered Arthur Handy at Cumberland well as another OCA instructor whose name escapes me now - he taught typography and lettering. Jack Bush was a regular as well even after he became established.

                    You see, there was a fondness of the owner and the bartender whose name escapes me - the one who had your drink waiting as you sat down at the bar even years after your last visit.

                    There were several good articles about his memory feats in the various papers. It was true. I sat down 7 or 8 years when work took me back and my Blue was waiting as I sat down with the exact amount of foam I preferred. If I was with someone else he always asked for my order.

                2. Are we also going after draught rooms that closed from 6:30 to 8Pm each day?

                  Places like the Chez Moi, BayBloor Tavern, Embassy, Jolly Miller, et al? 1950s-1970s.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Dean Tudor

                    Mmm, the Embassy... As a dirt-poor undergrad, I'd sit there with the female habitues, enjoy a soap opera or two, and drink 20-cent draft...

                    Used to skate on the outdoor rink at the [unreclaimed] Jolly Miller--the bar itself had a fearsome reputation during my childhood.

                    1. re: pearl3

                      It was 10 cent draught in my day, 1962...I was at Glendon College...we used to rustle up a gal to join us in the Ladies and Escorts (no more than 3 guys to a gal) room, with table cloths and a nicer set of waiters. Also, I think that they were open through 6:30 - 8Pm

                      1. re: Dean Tudor

                        Late 60s, U of T student [UC]--and doubling prices, who knew inflation hit so early?

                        By then, I don't think the "Ladies Room," as it was familiarly known, routinely sported tablecloths. But I could be wrong, memory-wise.

                        1. re: pearl3

                          I liked the "Escorts" part, gave it some kind of class...

                          The price of beer was determined by LLBO or some govt body. There was a correlation to the volume. I think my 10 center was 10 ounces, yours might have been 12 ounces. Eventually, it dropped to six ounces.

                    2. re: Dean Tudor

                      I recall the Jolly Miller in 1962. Wrote my final exam at Glendon and walked to the Jolly Miller with 8-10 guys. Had 2-3 pints and walked back and down to the rink in the Don Valley to play some ball hockey. Some of the guys had additional supplies and were using bad language at the top of their lungs when we spotted the Dean of Students watching from beyond the wire fence. He again uttered the immortal words--The new students bring so much to the University and the graduates take so little away. Then most of us went back to the Jolly Miller.

                      1. re: Dean Tudor

                        The Jolly Miller-also known as the Jolly Killer. The place to go in high school. We had grade 13 so lots of 18yr and 19yr olds. They would never serve anyone underage (LOL)
                        Ah yes the Chez Moi. Great patio, would go there on Sunday after playing ball.

                      2. Geeze, you're an old fart like me!

                        you seem to have a better memory than me too - I fight to remember those days so every clue you give me wakens more memories! No way it was the lifestyle, eh?

                        email & registration hassles means I will soon have to be re-incarnated - but you'll recognize me