Holiday weekend in Toronto

A New Yorker with fond memories of a one-horse Toronto returns to discover an exploding metropolis. Here are the new things he found: cosmopolitan crowd food fit for a globe-trotting gourmet, a show business boom, a dash of wickedness in Toronto the Good

James Dugan January 3 1959

Holiday weekend in Toronto

A New Yorker with fond memories of a one-horse Toronto returns to discover an exploding metropolis. Here are the new things he found: cosmopolitan crowd food fit for a globe-trotting gourmet, a show business boom, a dash of wickedness in Toronto the Good

James Dugan January 3 1959

This fall my wife and I finally did something about a long-overdue trip to see friends in Toronto. We met most of them originally in England during the war—among them John Clare, Art Wells and Ralph Foster— mostly newspapermen and film makers. We hadn't been in Toronto since 1948. It is a careless thing to let decades roll over such friendships. So we hopped a Trans-Canada Viscount on a Friday and were in Toronto six hours from our apartment in New York. In 1948 we flew up in an old-fangled machine sans jets in four hours. The airports keep getting farther and farther from town and crammed with more planes and people who steadily overcome the savings in air speed. The Viscount is our favorite airplane, though—smooth as ice cream. When we looked out its tall oval windows at Toronto we thought we were over Chicago. It seemed three times as big as the quiet, old, conservative provincial capital we had known. On the bus from Malton airport to town, the change knocked us in the eye: Toronto had exploded northwest in a shower of modern factories, homes and superhighways. Later, when we got a look in other tangents, the same furious expansion lay north, east and west. What a decade!

In our King Edward Hotel room there was a television set—more innovation. When we exchanged our U. S. for Canadian dollars, there was another. We gained ten cents on the deal in 1948; now we lost four cents.

The plane had not been a feeder, so Ruth and I went down to the lobby for a cocktail and a sandwich. The Times Square lounge served liquor but no food. We tried the Pickwick Tavern. It served liquor and food but not to ladies. We tried the Oak Room: not open until five. The drugstore and cafeteria allowed women and served food but had no liquor. Finally in the sixth public premises in the hotel, the Victoria Room, turned out to indulge itself in food, drink and the uplifting company of the sex. Well, one thing had not changed. It still took uncommon guile to fuel the inner man in Toronto. Or so we thought.

Once a year or so, Ruth and I join friends and blow the roll on the finest dinner obtainable in the city we happen to be in. We have had memorable ones in the White Tower in London, the Taillevent in Paris, La Baumanière in the medieval ghost duchy of Les Baux, the old Lafayette in New York, and at Tai Pak Fong, the floating restaurant in Hong Kong. In Toronto we applied to chef Stephan Vojtek, the veteran culinary savant of the King Edward, to choose a dinner for the John Clares and ourselves. Vojtek is the most distinguished member of his profession in Canada. In Toronto? Yes, in Toronto. In 1957 the maître packed off thirty-three kitchen cadres to Rideau Hall in Ottawa and conducted them in the prime minister’s state dinner for Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Weeks before that blowout chef Stephan had designed the arrangement of each dish on paper, but he was willing to produce one for us in two hours to eat before theatre. “The raw food for each serving to the Queen cost eighteen fifty,” he said. "But I would have to charge seventy-five dollars to put it on the table.”

We told the chef we were willing to forego footmen, gold service, the 1814 Napoleon, and crawfish flown from the Bay of Bengal. We did not want to commit lèse-majesté as early as Friday night. He fell into the mood, and promised a similar collation worth the mandible.

A corporal’s guard in smart green regulations escorted us to a glacial expanse of damask in the Victoria Room, a lofty salon in plaster baroque and gold paneling with crystal chandeliers and a professorial string trio sawing off muted Danubian airs. It took a while to identify the final subtle touch of elegance. The waiters and busboys had been instructed not to hurl dishes and silver across the room! This bespoke iron discipline and high staff morale and permitted the clientele to use conversational tones. I have been shoehorned into de luxe Manhattan joints where you could not hear a bomb going off under the table for the delight of the staff in crashing crockery.

Mr. Vojtek’s simple opening gambit was a cut-glass boat of celery, olives and radish roses in shaved ice. The sommelier then proffered the wine selected for us—Niersteiner ’55, a dry, pale Rhine. The NCO in charge of hot toasted garlic-butter rolls advanced with his gift in a closed silver dish warmed by a spirit lamp. Belowstairs Stephan was personally retouching the next entry, halved cold Nova Scotian lobster in the shell, escorted by a hollow green pepper holding sauce mexicaine. From that point on to save space — the reader must envision everything enveloped in flickering flames, except the mints and toothpicks. The items arrived on mobile operating tables, pushed tenderly by a half dozen internes, who did not once lift the dish covers and clash them like cymbals. Our leather-footed personal stall was composed of Nino, Gino, Ruffino, Dino, Tino and Groucho—the latter a New Canadian from the Argentine. I think he must have said he was a gaucho and the others got it mixed up. All were supremely happy to be in Toronto. By this time, so were we.

It must have been hard for the maestro to refrain from riding in on the cart with his entrée. It was so evidently a masterwork —boneless Cornish hens in a casserole, each bird held down by a cartwheel of pâté de foie gras and a big black nugget of truffles. A sauce Nerac was spooned over the hens. I think it is made of chicken and ham slivers, myrrh and ambrosia. The side stuff consisted of soufflé potatoes in a nest and fresh broccoli hollandaise. The chicory-and-escarole salad came with whipped Roquefort dressing. We would not have cared, at that juncture, if the maître had tried to slip us the full royal tariff. But he was still at work in his alchemist’s shop on a cake, savarin au kirsch avec fruits, and fussing over his ultimate coup, a spun - sugar basket full of mints, with sugar flowers and petits fours. A demi-tasse and cognac Hines helped us decompress. If Stephan felt he had now given his all, he was wrong. When we got the marker, the repast came to eleven-fifty a plate. In Paris or New York it would have been twenty-five dollars.

Only ten years ago Toronto was the Gobi Desert of gastronomy. We shunned the city at mealtime. Today the clouds of steam from the overcooked beef and Yorkshire pudding have lifted and it is possible to enter several dozen restaurants without flinching. We had only one bum meal in three days, and will charitably refrain from naming the place, because our waitress was very pretty and the red wine was not iced. The reverse is often found in Chicago. Cooking revolutions are notoriously hard to bring off, but Toronto has managed one. The immigrant is at the bottom of it although Stephan Vojtek had been working thirty years in the underground for the cause. The rising cannot be consolidated, however, until justice is meted out to the fatheads who refuse to give liquor licenses to such worthy establishments as the Balkan and Little Italy. The authorities do not realize that a licensed restaurant rewards the teetotaler as much as the imbiber. Since liquor sales furnish the margin of profit in good restaurants the restaurateur can improve his food service without raising its price.

There are new French, Chinese, Dutch, Hungarian, and Bavarian restaurants, a Little Denmark, a House of Fuji Matsu, and a spate of pizza palazzi in the new Toronto. Another popular cuisine is offered by Shopsy's, more formally Shopsowitz’ Delicatessen, which issues splendid cured fish, knishes and cold barbecues in an inexpensive cafeteria operation. The mess at the Lord Simcoe Hotel, which tries to uphold traditional English fare, is called the Pump Room, a faithful replica of the Chicago Pump Room rather than the one at Bath. The menu lists confommé and deffert in flames. Goodneff graciouf! We found that comparable restaurant meals and service in Toronto are a third to a hall less than New York's. We customarily tip around fifteen percent. This unusual reward won us surprised smiles in Toronto. Taxi drivers, shop clerks, waiters and hotel staff were far more efficient and pleasant than in our town. By their speech, I think a lot of that is also chargeable to the New Canadian.

The biggest change in Toronto came in 1953 with the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, which took in the burgeoning suburbs. It is a mighty city, already as cosmopolitan as Greater New York and more tolerant than Montreal. In the Colonial Tavern a tiny Japanese jazz pianist, Toshiko, was sitting between sets with eight Torontonians of Japanese descent. Everywhere we encountered the “ethnic groups," as Toronto calls the postwar immigrants. A householder told us of a domestic scene while his kitchen was being done over. His Latvian housekeeper was scrubbing the floor and interpreting for the German carpenter, the Polish plasterer and the Italian tile layer. She had acquired their tongues in German and Russian concentration camps.

The old Roundhead element, the Upper Canadians as I shall call them—those descended from the lot who pushed out the Indians fulminate about the New Canadians, “You can walk down Spadina and not hear a word of English spoken," is a standard grumble. Others point with pride to their ancestors' advent during the United Empire Loyalist emigration, as if it had not been motivated by exactly the same combination of necessity and opportunism that is bringing the new people.

The postwar mélange of cultures brightens the old place no end. The café espresso has arrived and also raging soccer wars at Fred Hamilton stadium. Lingering national animosities from the other side are catharsized on the football pitch, which is surrounded by a sharpened palisade fence to protect the players from the heroic crowd.

Let the waves of foreigners come as they may, nothing will disturb the hallowed civic rite of Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto National Hockey League entry struggles to reward its idolators. The most nervous moment at the reading of a Toronto will is just before the lawyer announces to whom Uncle Ron left his season hockey tickets. The seats go down in families like brass-bound Bibles. There are elder hockey-crazed couples who have not received a social invitation on Saturday night for thirty years. All their friends know they will be at “the game."

Despite its rise to a metropolis, the Toronto civic ego flags. People still say, “There’s nothing to do in this town.” They asked us, “Whatever do you see in Toronto?" Of a skilled local actor, they’ll opine. "If he was any good, he’d be in New’ York.” They do not realize he has been in New York and returns there from time to time for Broadway and television roles. Toronto is now a bigger show business city than Chicago or Montreal. Indeed, its entertainment payroll ranks third on the continent, after Los Angeles and New York. The city is receptive to migratory troupers like Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Muggsy Spanier and Maria Callas and supports its own full - time players, writers, dancers and directors. Toronto dotes on an exceptionally rare form of theatre—the satirical revue. It has an irreverent arboreal harbinger called Spring Thaw that has been breaking out with saucy songs and sketches annually since 1948.

We saw a similar revue called Clap Hands at Hart House on the Varsity campus, expecting a student rag that asked indulgence of the audience to make up for its shortcomings. The curtain rose on the entire cast, three boys and three girls, coming upstage with symbols of the national might. I thought, “Uh oh, fasten seat belts. Here comes the corn.” Instead, the sextet belted out a hilarious, mocking ballad by Pierre Berton that disjointed Canadian and U. S. politicians, and tore local shibboleths to shreds. The actors were frauds. They weren’t students at all, but smart, well-directed professionals with vaudeville timing. About ten percent of the payoff lines were too Canadian for us to catch, but the rest would sell on Broadway or the Strand.

We said as much backstage after all the sacred cows had been gored. One of the girls. Betty Leighton, took it sweetly and remarked that she had no intention of invading New York. "I am very happy working in Toronto.” How do you like that? It is an example of the new subversion I am talking about.

This reborn Toronto pokes awkward fun at its nascent Bohemia, which is alleged to wear beards. I find it a rule of thumb, which I shall submit as Dugan’s Law, that, if a community has one poet with whiskers it sees beavers and sandals on all writers.

One of the Clap Hands sketches the crowd loved was nothing short of amazing: it was a rib on architecture. Is there another city on earth where you could jab at such a subject and keep the audience from bolting? Well, it happened in Hart House and we saw the inspiration for it on every hand—the sprouting of great new office blocks, apartments, factories, homes and expressways. The players polished off a slightly disguised combination of two firms of architects, who are inflicting a modernized barracks style on the city, buildings that will seem just as dull as the old City Hall or the Provincial Parliament Buildings in ten years. The designers had six standard models, each less inspired than the next. They debated whether the latest client should get design No. 3 or No. 5.

Such a firm wants no part of Toronto’s prospective City Hall, the most original architectural conception since Mies van der Rohe built the noble Seagram building on Park Avenue in New York. The plan was published just before we visited Toronto and already the Roundheads were buckling on their rusty corselets to go fight. The design, resulting from a major international competition, is by a young Finnish architect, Viljo Rewell. He has made a wide one-story platform on a great plaza and placed a clean-domed council chamber on top. Then he raised two flanking towers, slightly concave in plan, around the dome. Ruth and I thought the idea was breath-taking, beautiful and, judging from the quality of the international jury that picked it, a sound and functional building. Against it the Roundheads can only argue they don’t like it. It is not like the Toronto of their nostalgia. But, then, nothing much is anymore.

Returning to Toronto was like finding a Jaguar parked in front of the vicarage and the padre inside with a pitcher of vodka martinis, reading Lolita.

On Saturday morning Ruth went shopping with Lenore Clare while I took a long walk around the old city. I am interested in archaeology and found some fine neo-Victorian and paleo-Edwardian piles occupied by banks, insurance houses and brokerages. These donjons of Upper Canadian might were designed to keep the money safe. A stranger half expects to be pinned by a portcullis if he goes too near. Toronto’s banks and hotels like to have royal or lordly allusions in their names. In order to keep up the tone, a new hotel, the Lord Simcoe, posthumously elevated a simple soldier, John Graves Simcoe, founder of the city, to the peerage. "They couldn’t very well call it the Royal Simcoe or the King Simcoe,” a citizen explained. We noticed, however, that a leering latin note is creeping into the civic nomenclature. New apartment houses on the north are called the Algiers, the Sands and the Benvenuto. My walk took me past the Grand & Toy stationery company, one of my favorite Toronto names, and I saw a beefy man on Yonge Street wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Picton Girls Trumpet Band."

The Upper Canadians contributed a fine centralized sporting and cultural plant to the metropolis. Within minutes of each other downtown there is a professional baseball park, a large football pitch in Varsity Stadium, the hockey mecca, the museum and the art gallery, the university, the provincial capital, and many halls and theatres. The old city offers a vanishing urban luxury, the pleasure of walking from appointment to appointment.

On the polar end of my prowl there spread new midtown Toronto, where old business empires are encasing themselves in glass, shining trim and white stones.

In Eaton’s College Street, Toronto’s vaunted department store. I bought a tie and received in change a dollar in a glassine envelope surprinted "85 cents of every dollar Eaton’s spends on merchandise is spent in Canada.” This seemed commendable but I wondered why all the trouble. A friend explained later, "It’s a knock at Simpson’s. They sold the mail-order end of their business to Sears Roebuck. So T. Eaton changed its name to Eaton’s of Canada and started stuffing dollars into those envelopes." Both retail giants run mail-order operations throughout the land, and stand cheek-by-jowl in the city, bidding for the retail buck. However, a quick canvass of the stores produced no evidence that they are competing in discounts the way Macy's and Gimbels do.

Ruth came back from the expedition to Bloor Street with scribbled notes: 'Went to meet Lenore at Creed’s. Good Italian knits in window. First room filled with handbags, costume jewelry, scarves and frilly lingerie in very good taste. Back of that lots of handsome suits at not bad prices. Young Mr. Creed showed us a $7,500 mink coat on a model. While we gandered, three other gals bought mink coats. We reeled out to look at Toronto's Fifth Avenue. Bloor has many smart shops, between them setback real-estate firms, etc. Stores have spiffy modern fronts, but don’t look from across the street. With the exception of Holt Renfrew and shops in the Park Plaza, fronts are pasted on old hulks. Specialty stores offer fine products from all over: modern Danish and Swedish, Finnish, French antiques, English silver. Bloor a real international bazaar. Women's clothing runs from smart Paris modes to pleated tartan skirts. Canadian Handicrafts Guild good idea for visitors. Liked the catalogues, rag rugs from Quebec and the Maritimes; homespuns, pewter and copper work, and Eskimo soapstone carving. Bought a pretty ceramic flower bowl by Kit Ross —$9.50.”

Westerns in the ravines

We went on to the 18th story roof lounge of the Park Plaza Hotel, from which there is a surprising prospect of the city. We saw nothing but trees and church steeples, save in the distant south, where the foliage disappeared in the grim downtown pueblos, and to the east where boom-builders have deforested the land. The freshman course in mass housing is how to knock down the trees: after the houses are built, the nurseryman charges you through the nose for planting new ones. However, large sections of Toronto completely frustrate the bulldozer. There wild sylvan pleasures are possible to a secret populace of rabbits, birdwatchers. raccoons, small boys, pheasants and lovers. These are the ravines, long deep glens hidden from the motorist hurling himself across the bridge above, who is not aware of them until a nocturnal raccoon upsets his garbage pail. Ralph Foster, who produces movies in the Meridian Films, said, “We don’t bother going on location for forest scenes. In five minutes you can be shooting in a ravine.”

We lunched at Malloney’s studio restaurant. It is an art gallery that got to he a restaurant and then added the only standup bar in the city. At the prodigal dollar-fifty buffet you may spear into a hundred dishes and come back for more. The pictures are still for sale, but they don’t seem to move as fast as the hors œuvres. Another good buffet is the Town and Country at the Westminster Hotel, where unlimited pickings are a dollar thirty-five at lunch and two fifty at dinner. People who cook at home have it good these days, too. We browsed through the St. Lawrence Market and the barrow markets around Spadina. They offered just about every vegetable, dairy product and viand required by the world’s palate.

Several youthful Americans we encountered in a bar on Saturday night turned out to be soldiers from Fort Drum in New York State. “All the guys head for here when they get a weekend pass, they testified. "Man, this town is alive-" They said that the visiting anthropologist can catch a legal strip tease at lunchtime at the Casino Theatre for seventy-five cents. This is not possible in Paris, Macao, Budapest or Chicago. Romantic writers are slow to hear of newly wicked cities, and it may be a generation before Toronto has its Murger or Scott Fitzgerald.

During our stay ten years ago two prosperous Toronto institutions were founded: the Opera Festival and cocktail bars. The opera has grown from a modest offering in Hart House to a social extravaganza almost filling the Royal Alexandra Theatre. We had made opening day in the first cocktail bar opened in Toronto—the Silver Rail on Yonge Street. Women, who had previously been confined to special beer taverns, were out in Amazonian force to claim their new right that day. They have not allowed it to lapse in the ten years since, as we confirmed by visiting the Silver Rail Saturday night.

As we went to bed Saturday night we knew we faced on the morrow the critical challenge of the weekend—how to get through the Toronto Sunday. We spent a restive night, awakening several times from apprehensive dreams. In one I saw us walking down thirty miles of Yonge Street—it actually is that long— without seeing a living soul except the refuse of last night’s deadline drinking, asleep in doorways which bore signs: Closed, or Milkman, leave four bottles of Tom & Jerry. We were brought stark staring upright in bed about nine a.m. by the shattering silence. In the heart of a great city not a gearbox or footfall was heard. The fiscal canyons were so many Nile tomb valleys. In New York we live on Second Avenue, a river of grinding, squawking cars and trucks, and this contrast was unnerving. Then, low at first and growing in volume, came the peals from church spires throughout the town. Toronto has even more churches than it has banks, and all the sextons were hanging flushed from the ropes calling Toronto the Good to worship. The deafening tintinnabulations quickly corked us off, and we slept soundly through the initial perilous part of the day.

At noon there was no ducking it. We set out for the Toronto Islands by water taxi. Ours was a sentimental journey. In 1948 we summered on Hiawatha Avenue on Hanlan’s Point as perhaps the only people who ever deliberately picked Toronto as a resort. Torontonians travel over a thousand miles to Miami to find less pleasure than we had that summer on their doorstep. We played at lawn bowls and served as patsies in a ferocious type of croquet played under house rules. Some evenings we took a launch to Maple Leaf Stadium, surely the best way to go to a ball game. The late-season games were played in sepulchral lake fog, which helped the suspense, since Toronto usually lost.

The revisiting Sunday was a lyric day. The willows along the lagoons were yellowing in the autumn and the fourteen footers out of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club were beating to the racing buoys. A committeeman stepped out of the clubhouse and fired the leg signal with a little crack and a toy puff of smoke. The taximan landed us on the bulkhead in front of Sam Stevenson's house, where we had lived. There was Sam’s white Eiffel Tower in front, from which he flaunted the Maple Leaf. The paint was scaling. The grass was uncut and littered with rose petals. That was not like Sam and Connie, his wife, who kept the neatest house on the lagoon. As Ruth and I stood hesitatingly in the yard, a passer-by said, "That house has been sold and condemned.” I asked, “Where did the Stevensons go?” He answered, “Sam and Connie? They’re both dead. This is going to be a park.”

We turned from the many mullions and dark lights of Sam’s house and walked up to the belt ferry slip at Hanlan’s Point. John Durnan was still running the boathouse and soda-pop stand there. "The city is tearing all the houses down,” he said. "They let people take away sashes and stuff they want, then the crew comes and takes out the bathrooms and the bulldozers push them down. They burn them on the spot.” Half the cottages are already gone. The island’s summer population has been reduced from ten thousand to one thousand.

We looked across the blue bay at the mastabas of Toronto, the exploding city, and from the Queen Street slip we saw emerging the familiar drawbridge ramp of the ferryboat Sam McBride, headed for Hanlan’s with a load of New Canadians, people addicted to parks rather than automobiles. The Sam McBride poured them off past us—leather jackets, walking shoes, kids, cameras, food hampers, and possibly some jugs of Chianti to profane the Sabbath. Church was out: a parade of midget planes raced into the air from the Island Airport and floatplanes scoured across the ferry's course, got on the step, and were airborne for lakes on the Canadian Shield.

We did not have time to do the Royal Ontario Museum properly, but we did return on Sunday afternoon to its unsurpassed collection of Chinese art, which ranks with that of the Louvre and the Freer Gallery in Washington. Thirty-four centuries of Chinese creativity are laid out chronologically in eighteen galleries. For us the eight-hundred-year-old Chinese temple frescoes in the museum arc among the glories of art.

All the marks of change—the lofty TV aerials clutching for Buffalo, the immigration and the restaurants—-must give place to the best thing that has happened to Toronto—the subway. Yonge Street wears its lighted escutcheons, TTC Subway, with commendable pride. Ruth and I have traveled in just about all the subways save Moscow’s and the Toronto tube is the best for its length among them. Before they built the pastel-tinted tunnel and ordered the jaunty rolling stock, the subway planners had the highly original idea of looking at what was wrong with the other underground systems, and proceeded to reduce noise, dirt and darkness. The trains pick up and go like rockets, covering four and a half miles and twelve stations in just over fifteen minutes. 

However, motorcar worship imperils the city. Toronto has more cars per capita than any city in the world except Los Angeles and Detroit. Anybody studying traffic for five minutes will conclude that massive four-wheeled pleasure domes carrying Toronto’s average of 1.6 persons do not belong on downtown streets. Nothing can save Los Angeles from committing carbon monoxide, but there is hope for Toronto. The subway was a blow for reason, and there are plans for a Bloor Street line to cross it. 

At City Hall I learned that the city had nearly doubled in developed area and had increased half again in population since 1948. I think this beats the world, if we count out the rebuilding of obliterated cities like Warsaw and Tokyo. Four hundred thousand people of the postwar increment are immigrants. Toronto gives a stronger cosmopolitan impression than any city we saw on a five-month trip around the world last year. To cap off Sunday night, our last in Toronto, we accepted Lenore Clare’s invitation for dinner at home. It seemed right and fitting, instead of forcing a shuttered night club or sneaking into a closed restaurant. Our hostess had not lost her wizardry with broiled steak. Lenore had promised a reprise on a Gaelic-Canadian delight she introduced us to in 1948, and she delivered it as a savory. This wonder-drug consists of oatmeal cookies and blue cheese, the cookies baked by John’s mother from Saskatoon.

It got late and we had an early plane. The Clares called a taxi which took us to the Eglinton terminus of the wonderful underground. We rode to the hotel in a private subway car. Toronto the Good was asleep, resting up for another wicked Monday.