The artsy Queen West scene was always a curious mix, even back in the eighties, with the new music Rivoli, Cameron House, and Horseshoe tavern balanced by neighbourhood institutions which served the working artists (not yet driven out by high rents) like the wonderful old Stem Diner – and Active Surplus – forever Freddy’s to me (since the tech I apprenticed-with, just down the street, knew it’s owner so well).
Freddy’s in the old days
Active was unique and unmissable – they literally had a human-size robot ape on one side of the door, and a robot clown on the other, either of which might randomly assault-you as you walked by, if you weren’t paying attention. It was filled with cheap technical tools, raw electrical components in bulk (but you need to know what you were doing, codes-wise, or you’ll never get the right values of anything) and the most incredible collection of technological offal from far and wide – electromechanical everything – going all the way back to the fifties, and constantly being updated, as new tech was rendered junk in it’s turn. It was scuzzy and weird and no-doubt toxic, and magical like crazy – it was absolutely impossible to enter that place, and leave again without having formed some manic plans for a time-machine, or robot. Why of course, it’s so obvious how to do it now! I got giant panels of apollo-style toggle switches, micro pliers (dental tools are the BEST for fine electronic work) a tiny van television and many other treasures over the years from that giant cheap department-store of mad-science. Still the heaviest single loss on the strip. Nothing quite like it.
There were also some truly great art, music and book stores of course – and seriously-cheap antique (junk) shops, where we could get furniture for almost nothing (our budget exactly, at the time – for anything we hadn’t already found on someone’s lawn, on garbage-day). That the Rivoli, Horseshoe and Cameron house yet persist is great (rare) fortune indeed – and that the rest have been swept away, is nowadays little surprise.
Queen Mum (top photo)
But this special gem – The Queen Mother Cafe – endures intact – and has been cool throughout. The very first place most of my pals ever ate Thai-fusion food (long before it got trendy) but more importantly, it was one of those early cool outposts where you’d get excellent food and good treatment, even if you walked in with death-pallor makeup and combat boots.
Odds were, the waitperson had combat boots too – and was probably at the same dance club as you were, last weekend. Funny how that whole oasis feeling seems in many ways to have faded – so much of subculture community has moved out of the physical world and into digital projections of imagination.
The Bloor St Diner was probably the very fanciest place where we monster-kids could go and be welcomed. There was something sweet about looking over your sweetheart’s synthetic red pineapple-hair to salute the tuxedo-wearing standup bass player in the cool-jazz combo, as you enjoyed a chicken salad sandwich (with mandarin orange), and looked down on Bloor St traffic below – tres chic – high luxury too, and really not pricey. I can’t even afford to order toast, in it’s modern replacement!
Into the fire?
Mind you – we did have a scare a little more than a year ago – the other favourite Queen St. W scene restaurant back in the eighties – The Peter Pan – (where Susur Lee got his start) was boarded-up and being sandblasted – and I was terrified they were going to knock it down.
The Pan once more (doesn’t that look romantic, honey?)
Nope – excited new owners were just reviving the old place, some floor and wall work, new kitchen gear, new tables – it was probably due for all of that – but they still do lovely food much cheaper than it should be, and exhibit good local artwork on the walls. (and they seemed super friendly, when I popped-in and said hi)
Also, this is still the irreplaceable place where I first met my incredible Catherine, under circumstances so hilariously far from ideal or auspicious as to make our subsequent nuptials very little short of miraculous.
Tale for another day.