Sunday, April 14, 2013

past pieces of toronto: ed's warehouse

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on February 19, 2012.

Cover detail from Honest Ed’s Story by Jack Batten (Toronto: Doubleday, 1972)
Honest Ed Mirvish had a giant beef with his restaurant empire on King Street West. A 500-ton-per-year-sized beef. Chosen as his signature dish due to the simplicity of cooking and serving it, the affordable roast beef dinners Mirvish devoured amid the bric-a-brac at Ed’s Warehouse and its sister restaurants kept actors, businessmen, theatregoers and tourists well fed for over 30 years. Diners enjoyed Yorkshire puddings, canned peas, Salvation-Army seating, galleries of forgotten actors and Tiffany-style lamps, but only so long as men donned a jacket and tie.

Long after most Toronto restaurants abandoned formal dining dress codes, Ed’s Warehouse stuck by its fashion policy. Show up without either jacket or tie, and staff either forced the garments upon diners (regardless of fit) or they were denied entry. How zealously were the rules enforced? A trio of teenaged Boy Scouts found out in November 1977, when their families chose Ed’s for a celebratory meal after the three Scouts received Duke of Edinburgh awards of excellence from Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McKibbon at Queen’s Park. The trio were required to wear their official uniforms at the ceremony and figured they wouldn’t be a problem when they dined out after. Wrong: the party was denied entry at both Ed’s Warehouse and neighbouring restaurant Old Ed’s, where Honest Ed himself reputedly gave the order to staff (the party ended up at a basement hotel cafeteria). Following the ensuing bad press, management conceded the Scouts should have been served, as clerics and Shriners were allowed to bend the rules.

The code was funny, considering it required patrons to look more pulled together than the restaurant itself. When Mirvish envisioned a restaurant to serve Royal Alex patrons after he bought the theatre in 1963, he intended to model it on Boston’s venerable Durgin-Park, where truck drivers and business executives downed hearty food at long communal tables on a sawdust floor. He purchased the neighbouring Reid Building, a six-storey warehouse that once housed McClelland and Stewart. As construction proceeded, Mirvish filled the space with eccentric décor. Experts had suggested he purchase nice $65 chairs; Mirvish cleared local thrift stores of their $5 seats. When an item he eyed in an antique shop was pricier than he liked, the owner, who was tired of the business, offered to sell Mirvish the store’s entire inventory. The wallpaper included pieces from the set of the musical Flower Drum Song. A collection of chamber pots served as planters. The end result was a space said to resemble a “Baroque bordello,” or, as Mirvish biographer Jack Batten put it, “a magnificent hodge-podge.”

Uncharacteristically for Mirvish, Ed’s Warehouse enjoyed a low-key launch in January 1966, partly because it received its liquor license minutes before opening and partly because, as Mirvish put it, “we didn’t want the press or public finding out that we still knew nothing.” Business was brisk from the beginning, thanks to its odd atmosphere and low prices. For $3.15 a diner enjoyed a meal of roast beef, rolls, pickles, mashed potatoes, canned peas and Yorkshire pudding.

Over the next decade, Mirvish expanded his restaurant empire to two nearby buildings. At their peak, the Mirvish restaurants, which also included Old Ed’s (initially staffed by waiters age 65 and older), Ed’s Folly (a lounge), Ed’s Italian, Ed’s Seafood and Most Honourable Ed’s Chinese, had capacity for over 2,600 diners and served 1.2 million meals a year. Though the eateries were immune to critics, local food writers didn’t dismiss them—the consensus was that for their utilitarian purpose, they did a good job. “Steaks or roast beef, quite respectable,” summed up the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates in 1978.

By the late 1990s, their efforts having paved the way for other restaurants to operate on King West, Mirvish and his family wound down their eateries one-by-one. Ed’s Warehouse served its last roast beef dinner on Boxing Day 1998, though diehards continued to enjoy the meal at Old Ed’s until it closed in September 2000. The colourful décor was auctioned off, donated to charities, or sold at Honest Ed’s. The building, whose recent tenants have included a golf store and health club, was granted a heritage designation in October 2011. As far as we know, the honour wasn’t followed by a ceremonial roast beef dinner.

Additional material from Honest Ed’s Story by Jack Batten (Toronto: Doubleday, 1972), How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate or 121 Lessons I Never Learned in School by Ed Mirvish (Toronto: Key Porter, 1993), the December 28, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the November 30, 1977 edition of the Toronto Star. Image taken from the cover of Honest Ed’s Story.



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