Sunday, May 12, 2013

past pieces of toronto: fran's st. clair avenue

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 April 15, 2012.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, January 22, 1948.
The man probably struck the staff of Fran’s on St. Clair Avenue as eccentric. Most nights, he dropped into the 24-hour diner around 2 a.m., bundled up in a heavy coat regardless of weather, gloves covering his hands. Whether he spoke through his scarf or not, the order was the same every time: a plate of scrambled eggs. Given his nocturnal habits and its close proximity to his apartment, pianist Glenn Gould became a Fran’s fixture.

Catering to the habits of night owls like Gould was one reason the original location of Fran’s stayed in business for 61 years. As longtime customer Shirley Olejko told the Star when the restaurant closed in 2001,”when you were partying, after a long night you came here because nothing else was open.”
Francis Deck had worked for his brother’s Buffalo-based Deco restaurant chain for two decades before establishing his own 10-stool diner at 21 St. Clair Avenue West in 1940. The menu consisted of comfort foods like burgers (Fran’s introduced the banquet burger) and salads enhanced by dressings developed by Deck’s wife Ellen. The formula worked well, as the Decks opened two more locations by 1950.


The original restaurant survived a number of mishaps, including two serious fires. A two-alarm blaze caused by an unattended hot plate in August 1959 partially gutted the diner. In July 1970, customers calmly left their meals behind when a blaze that started in a fryer spread to the air ducts. Less calamitous, the second floor was converted into a lounge in the mid-1960s called the Francis Room, which hosted nightclub singers and revues.

Though its fare was later considered bland, it satisfied the tastes of a clientele reared in an era when Toronto lacked a diverse dining scene. Whenever food critics attacked, regulars strongly defended Fran’s. When Joanne Kates lumped Fran’s in among the “grotesqueries” of Yonge and St. Clair dining spots, Globe and Mail reader Vera Brawley wrote back to say that there was nothing wrong with Fran’s surroundings and that she could “always rely on a very palatable meal.” To others, like Star columnist Rosie DiManno, Fran’s appeal was a mystery: “Some of us have always been rather curious about Fran’s beloved reputation,” she wrote upon the restaurant’s 50th anniversary in 1990, “since its everyday menu is pretty much a paean to edibles bland and banal. (Although, fairly appetizing at 3 a.m.) Besides, for those of us who grew up in Toronto, venturing to the Yonge-St. Clair neighborhood was akin to penetrating the heart of WASPness.”

Besides Gould, another prominent regular was CFRB broadcaster Gordon Sinclair. He made a daily routine of socializing with fans and friends over a noontime glass of wine after recording the day’s commentaries at the station’s studio across the street. During the mid-1970s the Star speculated that such activity enriched Sinclair’s life to the point that he continued the daily grind of broadcasting “despite the fact he’s rich and could have quit long ago.”

Following Francis Deck’s death during a vacation in 1976, his children continued the business. Some changes were strongly resisted: when the restaurant dumped its beloved rice pudding, renowned for its creamy texture and touch of pudding on top, from the menu in early 1985, there were howls of protest. “No rice pudding at Fran’s?” wrote Star columnist Gary Lautens. “That’s like a Toronto without the Leafs, a Toronto without Rosedale, a Toronto without the Ex, a Toronto without a four-mile backup on the 401, for heaven’s sake.” Two weeks later, the pudding returned.

Following a failed expansion into markets like Kingston and Windsor, Fran’s went bankrupt in 1997. Besides overextending itself, the chain faced changing culinary tastes, more competition and, especially at the original location, a clientele which was dying off. When cook Ken Denzey arrived for his shift at St. Clair on July 9, 2001, he discovered he was laid off. He told the National Post that he observed Francis Deck Jr., who “just sat in the back dining room and cried the whole time. He just couldn’t face us.” Two weeks later, the company filed for bankruptcy again and the restaurant closed.

While the original Fran’s is currently occupied by Hero burger, the name lives on thanks to a franchisee who was unaffected by the bankruptcy, and kept the College and Yonge location open.

Additional material from the May 26, 1978 and May 18, 1984 editions of the Globe and Mail, the July 25, 2001 edition of the National Post, and the June 25, 1974, May 5, 1990, August 22, 1990, and July 25, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star

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