Old haunts – pretty and disconcerting


As the pace of change increases, places with old and continuing resonance take on extra meaning. Sometimes they point to sad changes in the way we live and work, sometimes they feel like a comforting point of continuity, and sometimes they give us new cause for hope.

“The Mars” at College and Bathurst, is an example of the first. First opened in 1951 – for decades it operated twenty four hours a day, seven days a week (except Christmas) and reigned as the absolute gold standard late night downtown spot for all the cabbies and beat cops. Fantastic diner food, awesome service – able to cope with seemingly impossible numbers, in what remains an incredibly small space, especially considering its imprint on the times.

As a kid, there were only two thrilling breakfast ‘destinations’ as far as I was concerned – Mars, and Switzer’s Deli, on Spadina (gone for decades, now). Weekends, the lineup stretched for half a block – and it was always worth the wait! Mars muffins are still insanely delicious (and were, long before muffins got trendy and widely franchised, in the eighties). All day breakfast, hot hamburger with peas and mash – liver and onions – no place better.

It was also my favourite lunch spot when I was a young computer salesman, working in the crazy and energetic early eighties ‘clone’ scene on College.

The glitzy ‘uptown Mars’ location is not the same thing at all – started off great, and then changed hands and lost all the charm of the original (and flavour).

But though this true original is no longer a bustling non-stop twenty-four seven concern (made me very sad to get there, and see their lovely sign turned off), it remains a perfect little fifties diner, and the folks who run it are still lovely – which makes it a precious gem worth supporting (and FUN).

The Gladstone (upstairs lounge)

Every time I go back to the Gladstone hotel, I am amazed all over again. Not so long ago, it was up there on the top-ten creepiest places one could stay in the entire city – competed with the nearby Drake, for scuzziest in already notoriously depressed Parkdale.

But as the original artsy heart of Queen West has been glamourized almost out of existence (certainly out of the price range of the genuinely creative start-ups and artistic concept storefronts) “Queen West” as a brand has been pushed way west into territory that used to be considerably more dangerous.

The Drake is now pure retro hipster territory – though I still vividly remember visiting a friend there, when it was a crumbling welfare hotel (the sort of place where any hope of assembling any hope, was destroyed by the ambiance itself).

The Gladstone is a thousand times cooler still – and I really am in awe of what has been achieved – and not just in preserving the very beautiful old building.

In renovating the place, they paid respectful tribute to it’s old history, including it’s low times – they also made every single room unique (each one designed with a different artistic theme) and the open areas of every floor display an art exhibit, which you are welcome to visit during normal day-hours. They’ll even run you up to the top floor in the antique elevator (with elevator operator), so you can browse everything they have on offer, easily.

This shot shows the lounge on the fourth floor – and you can really see their respect for the original building, and also the way they welcome their guests with funky beauty in a classic setting. Great food (and more gallery space) downstairs. If you are near Queen and Dufferin and you haven’t yet – stop in. Trust me, you’ll return to see what’s new, every chance you get.

The Free Times

Just a short saunter down College St from the Mars, on the same block as the (now much diminished) hardware hacker zone of small weird electronics shops (the place I used to work, is now a tea shop), I was delighted to find that the Free Times is still thriving. Nice crowd – lots of mellow smiles – sweet.

I have bemoaned the sad state of Jazz clubs in Toronto quite a bit – but Jazz is not the only form that needs a good venue. The Free Times has been hosting local and touring music acts since 1980 – folk music especially – and while I have been too broke for such fun lately, the vibe felt just as welcoming and laid back as it used to, back in my teenage years – when I was still aspiring to earn a bit of local stage time myself.

Must go back and bask in the music and audience sometime. Have a feeling I would lift a memory-rock, and probably fill-in some hilarious youthful blanks.

The Rivoli

Is another example of a place that was of surpassing importance to local live music in the eighties, which has somehow survived (along with the far older Horseshoe Tavern). That three out of four of the Rivoli, the Cabana Room (in the still standing but completely repurposed Spadina hotel), the Cameron House and “The Shoe” yet persist, is happy news indeed, for fogeys of my vintage, and new music lovers also.

The Cameron and ‘Shoe are especially about the bar and music – the Rivoli has always worked very hard on the food and cafe side of things, too – and also maintains an excessively (that is, Queen W appropriate) cool, pool hall – complete with it’s own bar, lounge and several century-old tables.

Yes to a game of nine-ball (any time). Not so sure about this memory rock – perhaps too many flashbacks! Then again, the last time Catherine and I went there to hear a much hyped ‘showcase’ for a band a friend was working with, we mostly just felt amused at all the weathered grey-hair hipsters, and the fact that we must have appeared precisely the same to them.

Thankfully – we were all much too politely Canadian to actually register our reciprocal middle-age horror!   (Except of course with hilarious sotto-voce wisecracks to spousal types)

Pretty and disconcerting

Back when I lived right next to Trinity Bellwoods park, the area around Queen and Niagara was the centre of a rather nasty heroin scene – many of the old storefronts were either empty, or else used as illegal residences and wildly unpredictable galleries, by artists who were happy for the space – ruin or not.

My mind goes blank when I try to estimate how much money has been poured into this area since – and the result cannot be argued. Rather than a hooker stroll filled with thugs, needles, and desperation, as it was in the eighties, Trinity Bellwoods Park is now filled with strollers, picnics, frequent art shows and great live music. Dogs are accommodated in the old depression (very sensible use of topography) and there is still room for sports fields for soccer (football), football (egg-ball), tennis and baseball – all kept very busy .

Mind you – I used to be able to get a big breakfast for less than three bucks (with bottomless coffee, which meant about a half a Bunn carafe, in my case).

When Nada and I stopped-in to check out the French Diner a few years ago, we found the place absolutely lovely inside – but the menu was intimidating! We ended up splitting a pricey piece of rose-flavoured cake. Exquisite stuff, but a rare treat at best.

Not exactly cheap “bacon, over easy, home fries and challa” – but the now-glorious park is totally worth it.

Almost like old times

I’ve mentioned the El Mocambo before – one of Toronto’s most important live music venues – hosted uncountable famous acts and debaucheries over the years – and currently in cryogenic suspension (though the lit sign feels hopeful).

That the place was saved is great – but whether the celebrity investor who bought it will ever open the damned doors, is still an open question. This is always a problem with deep pocket vanity owners. The place really did need serious bucks to make it structurally sound once more (dangerous was an understatement – and almost poachingly hot in summer, too). But someone who actually needs it to run, in order to eat, would probably make a more usefully motivated manager.

Must note a couple of more recent local additions – there are now two incredibly cool game stores, on this same block – one which has games from every generation of console known to man (hilarious old treats, everywhere) and one which specializes in board and strategy games, and very much encourages players to gather and play for hours, as well as purchase.

Plus – Gwartzman’s! (Which I will never ever stop loving – or laughing about)
Never has anyone so surly, served a community of artists so long and fantastically well!

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