Beer for Grub
On Clinton Street in Toronto’s Little Italy, stands the Monarch Tavern, one of the city’s oldest drinking establishments, dating back perhaps as early as 1927. Possibly once intended as a main thoroughfare, the narrow one-way street hosts several sandwich shops and the Monarch, a two-story tan brick building on the corner of Henderson Street.
How the tavern has survived in its location for so long is something of a mystery to me. I began to question its longevity three and a half years ago when I first climbed the steep, narrow stairway to the second-floor bar, not long after my husband, Rich, and I purchased a house on neighbouring Claremont Street.
The dimly lit tavern hosts an array of mismatched tables scattered around the green-carpeted floor. A tiny kitchen sits adjacent to the long wooden bar. A pool table and a pinball machine stand at the far end. A red stained glass light shade dangles over the red pool table. Maple Leafs’ memorabilia hang beside an oil painting. I sat with my young family on torn bench seats and ordered a platter of ribs and brisket from the Monarch’s kitchen. We swiftly devoured the savoury meats.
The kitchen has since changed hands and Bunz Urban Kitchen now plates its own fine food. Their Asian Street food teases the taste buds. But despite the fine fare, the Monarch is not about the kitchen. The secret lies in its relationship with the surrounding neighbourhood. In particular, the Monarch’s unique affiliation with neighbouring San Francesco Sandwiches and Bitondo Pizzeria directly across the street.
I speak to Sandra Brawley, who lived at 6 Clinton Street during the fifties and sixties. She explains, “there is a symbiotic relationship with San Francesco that allows customers to buy a sandwich and take it in there [to the Monarch].”
I ask Sandra if she remembers when the business relationship began. “I recall my mom telling me about it [San Francesco] being called Louis,” she replies. “As far as I know, the tradition of buying sandwiches at the deli and taking them into the Monarch existed from the day they started making them. When I was in grade school, occasionally my mom would give me 35 cents to go and buy a veal sandwich, which my sister and me would share for lunch. It was a real treat.”
I decide I must try one of these sandwiches for myself.
A Maple Leafs’ game blares from the large screen television as I enter San Francesco Sandwiches on a quiet Tuesday evening. I ask the staff about the Monarch and the sandwich stores.
“You would never get a license to do this on a quiet street anymore,” states a buxom server, wiping her hands on her apron. “It’s unique to the area, mixing residential and commercial.”
I ask when it all started. “You should speak to Louis,” she says.
Louis has worked at San Francesco since 1974. The gruff, curtly spoken man informs me that the relationship existed even then. I learn nothing new. I order a sandwich and meander up Clinton past the Monarch as I bite into the crispy crumbed aubergine and sauce-soaked bread. I wish I had a beer in hand.
San Francesco sandwiches claims to have stood next door to the Monarch Tavern since 1954, but further digging in the 1954 Toronto City Directory shows a Luigi Curtolo Shoe Repair located at number 10, where San Francesco stands today. It isn’t until 1957 that Louis Butcher and Delicatessen appears, likely the predecessor to San Francesco Sandwiches.
So when did this symbiosis really begin? How did the Monarch survive in the early days?
I ask Billy, a bartender from the tavern, if he knows. Billy has tended the Monarch bar for a few years now and hears all sorts of tales from the locals. But Billy doesn’t have an answer for this one.
I scour the directories for several more hours before I luck out.
In 1942, with the Second World War rampant, scarcity and inflation impacted Toronto. Rations began for tea, coffee, butter, and sugar. Wartime cake recipes suggested hot water and lard to replace milk and eggs. Many suffered vitamin deficiencies.
The military increasingly influenced fashion sense, both through style and necessity. Army surplus grew as fabrics became increasingly scarce. But where possible, men sported double-breasted suits, wide-legged pants and wide-brimmed hats. Women’s A-line dresses cinched their waists and accentuated their shoulders.
In other ways, Toronto hummed along much as it had prior to the war: women styled their hair at the salon for a $1.25, purchased aspirin from the drugstore for 95 cents and washed their clothes at the local Chinese Laundry. Men smoked cigarettes, sipped 5-cent Coca-Colas and played cards with their mates. The average weekly salary was $29.14, rent set you back $35 a month, and a new car cost $920.
Bing Crosby released his hit single, “White Christmas”, in time for the festive season and instant coffee experienced instant success. War-themed “Casablanca”, starring dreamy Humphrey Bogart and dainty Ingrid Bergman probably aired at the Royal Theatre on College Street just before Christmas.
The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup that year. Roy “Shrimp” Worters, a former NHL hockey goalie, and, at five foot three, the shortest ever hockey player in the NHL, owned the Monarch. I imagine he celebrated the win with friends inside the tavern.
Also in 1942, Italian Louis Spizzeri opened a sandwich joint next door, called Beefy’s Monarch Lunch. The name cannot be a coincidence. Beefy’s place marks the beginning of the long relationship between the two establishments.
Beefy’s Monarch Lunch ran for six years between 1942 and 1947, through the end of the Second World War and into the difficult years that followed. Other various delicatessens then came and went before the next long-running relationship between Louis Butcher and Delicatessen, and later San Francesco Sandwiches, took hold. Bitondo Pizzeria joined the reciprocity in the mid-1960’s when it opened across the street. The symbiosis continued uninterrupted until just before the turn of the century, when owner Jeano Amato, of the now defunct Amato pizza chain, refused to allow any outside food into the tavern. I suppose he intended his own pizza sales to trump those of the sandwich stores. But his plan went awry and the Monarch went out of business.
“They killed the place by stopping the BYO food policy,” states James Russo, a prior owner of the Monarch, speaking of Amato, who hung a sign on the tavern door stating, “No outdoor food allowed.”
James sits across from me at a round table, at his current business on King Street. His warm, Italian-inflected English reminds me of Tony Soprano. He explains that the Monarch closed its doors for two years, following the change in BYO food policy, before he scooped it up.
“As we were renovating here [at his pub] in 1999, I remember it was a rainy night and we went to get a pizza from Bitondo’s. We were standing out the front and Louis, my business partner, said to me, “it’s too bad the Monarch is closed cause I’d like to go up there and get a beer with my pizza”. And then we noticed the For Sale sign in the window. And so we put an offer in and they accepted. We got it by luck.”
James informs me that he and Louis reinstated the food policy as soon as the Monarch reopened in 2000, reigniting the long-running relationship between the three joints. James and his partners successfully ran the Monarch until they sold it to the current owners.
I ask Evan Georgiades, one of the current owners of the Monarch, about the policy. “We let people bring sandwiches up from downstairs. It’s always been that way”, he says.
“This place was once a bank you know, a Bank Italia,” mentions Billy, the bartender, as he polishes a glass and returns it to its place on the shelf. I look around the upstairs tavern. The lights on the Batman-themed pinball machine dance near the door. A microphone stand leans against the wall. Rum and whisky bottles fill the shelves behind the bar. Joe, a regular, sits beside me at the bar, sipping a beer and peering at his phone through his hoodie.
The Toronto Archives have no listing for a Bank Italia and I find nothing in the directories, or the Toronto Star archives. Evan Georgiades isn’t sure either.
“The hotel got its liquor license in 1927, but I don’t know what happened before that,” he responds, “I heard it was used for prostitution.”
According to Might’s Toronto Street Directory, a Mr. Samuel Simoni occupied number 12 Clinton Street in 1927, and number 14 was a Chinese Laundry. Perhaps Simoni ran a licensed bar in his home. But Simoni was gone the following year, and the city plans show two distinct dwellings. No hotel. No bank.
Both 12 and 14 Clinton stood vacant in 1929, according to the street directory. In 1930, the directory shows Mr. Francisco Tomaioulou at number 14. By 1931, Tomaioulou, a steamship agent, occupied both number 12 and 14. His business is listed as the Italian Canadian Printing and Publishing Company. Not a hotel. Not a bank.
I decide to ask former owner, James Russo, if he knows anything about a bank having occupied the land where the Monarch stands today.
James leans over the table at his pub on King Street and points to a door behind me.
“There is a safe in the basement of the Monarch, a vault, like this,” he says.
I swivel around. A huge black bolted door stands behind me, the entrance to a former bank vault. James says the walls of the Monarch are thick, like a bank. Perhaps James and Louis began the bank rumour back in their ownership days. None of this makes any sense.
And then the pieces fit together.
According to John Zucci, who wrote about early Italians in Toronto, Tomaioulou opened the first steamship agency on Clinton Street in 1913. His steamship agency sold passenger tickets, insurance, books, stamps, tobacco, musical instruments, and groceries. He also issued money orders and received gas and electricity payments. In addition, he operated an immigrant bank.
Tomaioulou also published a local Italian newspaper, edited by his brother, from 1929 to 1931, hence the directory listing of the Italian Canadian Publishing Company. He originally lived at number 10 Clinton and moved to the larger premises of 12 and 14 Clinton Street as his business prospered.
The 1920’s saw a great influx of Italian Immigrants to Toronto, many of whom settled in Little Italy. The roaring twenties were in full swing. Jazz music piped from the radio and women smoked, danced, and drank. Men held steady jobs, women entered parliament, and post-war Canada prospered. As Canada’s national identity flourished, so did Tomaioulou’s bank.
Tomaioulou’s clients appreciated his confident manner, his simple, yet elegant shopfront, and his poster advertisements that implied his banking professionalism. As a result, his bank boasted as many as 300 depositors at its peak. Some entrusted him with as much as $18,000, in today’s equivalent. But as the decade drew to a close, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression hit.
As the economy collapsed, the immigrants of Little Italy began to demand their money from Tomaioulou, who was unable to produce their cash. According to Zucci, Tomaioulou had invested their life savings in the expansion of his bank and a small hotel. The money was gone. In 1931, Tomaioulou declared bankruptcy.
Rich, my husband, and I head out to the Monarch on a Thursday evening. I hope to catch a glimpse of the vault in the basement. The air is frigid as we trek up the silent snow-lined street to the Monarch. Halfway up the narrow staircase to the upstairs bar we hear noisy chatter from within. Legging-clad men and women fill the bar. The joggers enjoy a beer in the warmth rather than completing their 10km run. Their laughter echoes off the low tiled ceiling. Nirvana plays softly beneath their chatter.
Downstairs, Shakespeare’s epic play, Richard III, just wrapped up and the hundred or so audience are making their way home. Mike Dorbyk, the co-owner of the Monarch, offers to show me the safe. We push through the actors, who are receiving their last praise from audience members, and swing around the corner. Just as we begin our descent to the tavern’s basement, Mike points to the left. There, taped to the wall is one of Tomaioulou’s posters, advertising his bank.
In the centre of the faded yellow poster is a black and white photo depicting tall, slender Tomaioulou. Dressed in a black suit, he sits poker-straight behind a large wooden desk. To his right stands his burly brother, dressed in a shirt and tie, a stack of papers in hand. Hidden between rows of bookshelves that line each wall is a large door. The black and white writing surrounding the photo states in Italian that the establishment, situated at 14 Clinton Street, is a modern Italian bank and bookstore. They claim to process money orders, act as a notary, and send telegraphs. Perhaps I too would have entrusted them with my savings.
We descend the concrete stairs to the basement and follow Mike down a corridor lined with boxes and bottles to a small door on the right. There, in a corner, sits an old safe, about a metre in height and half as wide. The small safe seems symbolic of how much Tomaioulou kept for his clients. An old turn-dial holds its black metal door firmly shut. I wonder how many cried over that safe.
The first listing of a hotel at the sight of the Monarch appears in the 1935 edition of Might’s Toronto Directory, under the name Venzie Hotel. In subsequent years the hotel lists as The Venezia, probably owing to an initial misprint. I wonder if the Venzie/Venezia was Tomaioulou’s.
The Venezia Hotel ran until 1939, when Mussolini aligned Italy with Hitler’s Germany and Canadians began to distrust anything Italian. The hotel, under the ownership of Roy “Shrimp” Worters, changed its name. Roy first proposed the “Roy-al,” an amalgamation of his and his wife’s name. But the Liquor Control Board refused, and the Monarch Hotel was born.
Next door to the Monarch Hotel was Beefy’s Monarch Lunch, nicknamed a “Kibby Joint” by the locals. There, men “kibitzed”, or chatted over a card game, most likely wagering their weekly pay. In 1953, long after Worters’ had sold the hotel to a Mr. Frank Perelli, police ceased illegal gambling in the hotel’s basement. Perelli defended the liquor license in court and the hotel remained open.
Two robberies occurred during the 50’s and a bomb was planted in the top bar under Samuel Sitzer’s ownership. The explosion blew half the sidewall into the alley off Henderson Street. Rumour has it that a toilet landed in a neighbour’s yard, but no one was hurt. Some say the explosion was part of a war waged against the Jewish owner. Others say it was an insurance scam. The legacy of the explosion is etched into the sidewall, leaving a scar where old and new bricks lie side by side.
When Paul Sitzer later owned the Monarch in the late 60’s, thieves attempted to crack the safe in the basement, according to the Toronto Star. I searched the safe for evidence. The smooth black surface shows no signs of damage.
“We never managed to open it,” Mike Dorbyk tells me.
“Have you seen the YouTube video about Pete, the famous bartender?” asks Billy, the bartender, one afternoon as I sit at the end of his bar.
“I’ve heard of him,” I respond, “but I can’t find the video on YouTube.”
Billy flips open his laptop positioned on the bar and searches for the video. The link no longer works. He tells me that Pete ran the downstairs bar between the 60’s and 80’s.
The following week I meet with James Russo, a former owner of the Monarch. James remembers Pete: “ Every Friday the suits would come down to the Monarch,” he recalls. “Peter would do practical jokes. He was Jewish. He was funny.”
I ask Evan Georgiades, the current owner, if he knows where I can find the video. A few weeks later, Evan leaves a DVD at the bar for me. He has managed to find a copy through an old friend. I slip the DVD into my computer and watch as the crackly old news story comes to life on my screen.
Peter Pesce, the sixty-year-old bartender, strolls down Clinton Street, cigar in mouth, sporting a slick comb-over of bottled black hair, and a stiff pale blue suit. He pushes through the lunchtime crowd of suited men gathered on the sidewalk and screeches through his cigar for the businessmen to go elsewhere. They smirk and chase him into the bar.
Inside the downstairs level of the Monarch tavern, beer glasses clank as raucous executives down beer after beer during their midweek lunchtime. It is 1979. They will all drive back to the office after lunch. Cigar smoke has stained the stucco walls a deeper shade of cream. The caverned ceiling echoes the deep laughter from within. Men crowd around small tables, crouched on wrought iron chairs, chatting and laughing. Pete carries a tray of beers amongst the tables and yells profanities at his all-male fans.
Pete slops a dirty grey mop onto a table and swishes it over across the top. He barely misses his patrons and the crowd roars. Pete gives them more. He shoves his hand deep into a customer’s half empty beer glass until the pale yellow liquid rises to the top.
“What are you talking about?” he jeers, “You couldn’t put another drop in it.”
Pete remains deadpan as his customer’s chuckle.
Pete’s charades continue throughout the afternoon. He pours a beer from a piss pot, offers to shave a man with a cutthroat razor, steals another’s cigar, and threatens to shoot another with a bow and arrow. The crowd love it.
“I’m loyal here till I die,” declares one rowdy customer. “ My buddy!” he yells towards Pete, making a fist pump in the air.
“He is outrageous and totally unpredictable,” states Jack Harrell, narrator of the American hit television show, Real People, after Pete escorts a lone woman from the bar. Harrell pauses only a moment to acknowledge the male-only scene. Women aren’t welcome at the Monarch, according to Pete. A sign once hung on the side door of the downstairs tavern to affirm this.
The old-fashioned men-only beer hall dates back to the early 1950’s when women could grace the upstairs bar only, and only if escorted by a man. There, seated at a back table in the most discreet part of the bar, women were “allowed” to converse quietly with their male companion.
“I was only in the bar one time in all those years I lived in the area,” recalls Sandra Brawley. “Women going to a place where men drank was scandalous! It is an old European cultural thing.”
After all, Canadian women only gained the right to open a bank account without their husband’s signature in 1969 and at the time earned 57 cents to every male-earned dollar. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms paved the way for equality between women and men.
Every weekday from the late 60’s through the mid 80’s, Rolls Royces and Porsches lined narrow Clinton Street while their owners jammed into the downstairs bar to watch Pete’s antics and wallow in the bar’s virility. Sloshed patrons “would get in their cars skunk drunk and hit every car left and right coming down the street,” recalls Ernie Chiriatti, who grew up on neighbouring Grace street and could see the street from his 3rd floor bedroom.
Pete worked the downstairs tavern for at least 20 years, building a loyal clientele of masculine weekday drinkers who would spill onto the quiet residential street late each afternoon, more animated than when they entered. And the bar sold the most beer in Toronto: the delivery truck would pull up outside the front entrance and roll kegs directly into the basement. Seventy thousand pints poured through the taps on any given month. The place pumped and the Jewish owner, Paul Sitzer, filled his pockets with the cash. Stockbrokers deliberated, entrepreneurs invented and lawyers argued over a lunchtime pint, accompanied by a steak and veal sandwich from San Francesco. And Pete the bartender delivered drink after drink, year after year to the rowdy all-male downstairs crowd.
On a frigid Tuesday afternoon in late November of ‘87, Laurie Derdaele, a union worker, entered the downstairs bar with her male colleagues for an afternoon drink. The illegal “men only” sign was long-gone from the downstairs door, but the male-only sentiment inside remained unchanged.
“We do not serve women,” announced Pete, as the young woman entered the public lounge.
Undeterred, Laurie ordered a drink, but was told she couldn’t be served, because of her sex, reported the Toronto Star the following day.
“This is the last male bastion we have,” declared one patron, after he sauntered across to Laurie’s table and announced to her male colleagues that they should be ashamed of themselves for bringing a “broad” into the joint.
“Women aren’t always comfortable drinking amid my ground level clientele,” explained Pete to the paper after Laurie reported the incident. “But if women want to brave the premises, that’s their right.”
Pete claimed the incident was “a courtesy, not discrimination.” He clarifies, “downstairs we have a lot of rowdy ones, you know how the beverage rooms are today.”
Stories of dirty Pete’s foul mouth and loyal following still float around the bar today. “He was an over-the-top crass joker,” explains Evan Georgiades, as he sits across from me in the women-friendly upstairs tavern. “He had a dirty side, people were always laughing. Guys in suits would get loaded at lunchtime. It was a real scene.”
One afternoon during Pete’s heyday, Joe, a local, entered the downstairs bar complaining of a toothache. Pete disappeared behind the bar and returned minutes later with a beer and a pair of pliers. He handed trembling Joe the beer and instructed him to slosh it around his mouth. Pete reached for the pair of pliers, prised Joe’s mouth open, and plucked the rotten tooth out of his mouth. Joe swallowed his beer and the crowd cheered. Or so legend has it.
Some time in the late 80’s, Dirty Pete’s reign at the Monarch came to an end. Pete retired and the downstairs bar at the Monarch closed, at least momentarily.
When James Russo and his partner’s Louis and Larry Cristello bought the Monarch at the turn of the century, they revived the main bar on the first floor and re-invented the downstairs space into an 80’s style piano bar. Named after the 88 keys on a piano, Lounge 88 would soon play its way into the Monarch’s history.
“It was kind of like a little party room back in the day,” Billy the Bartender reminisces. “They [Russo and the Cristello brothers] would rent it out for stags…or one of the lad’s birthday parties…Jimmy Two Shoes’ birthday…you know,” laughs Billy as he pulls a beer for a customer.
The downstairs bar grew in popularity during those early years of the new millennium and Thursday nights, in particular, gained a regular crowd. Brendan J Canning, a popular musician, drew all sorts of celebrities to the bar, James Russo recalls. “The place would be rammed,” he tells me.
“I Dj’d a pretty solid Thursday night for close to two years. Semi-legendary,” remembers Brendan Canning. He tells me he would set his turntables up on the end of the long wooden bar, or sometimes directly on the Baby Grand in the corner. Lax smoking laws still permitted patrons to smoke inside the lounge. Ashtrays lined the bar and a grey smoke cloud hovered over the low ceiling. Clients dialled friends on their flip phones, or punched out an SMS on its tiny keyboard. People snapped party photos on pocket cameras and printed their unedited shots on Kodak film. Patrons danced on the carpeted floor and sipped cocktails in the plush red booths that lined the Henderson Street wall. The windows behind the booths were sealed shut so no natural light entered the bar and the dimly lit space pumped into the early morning hours.
“I went by the name Champ,” says Brendan, speaking of his DJ name. He describes the era as “The Golden Years.” “It was a good vibe. People definitely got their drink on,” he laughs.
Brendan recalls Marty, the doorman at Lounge 88. “He would get wasted,” he tells me. Brendan chuckles as he remembers Marty’s antics. He recalls that the burly bouncer, who also played a Mafioso role of sorts, once told him he threw a guy in a meat freezer and forced him to eat a bucket of KFC. Images of “The Godfather” come to my mind. “There were always rumours it was a mob bar,” Brendan adds.
I ask James Russo about Marty. “He was my downstairs manager,” he replies. His poison was vodka-cranberry. “He would pound them away, but he brought in some good people.”
On other nights, the bar held true to its name and a piano man tinkled tunes on the Baby Grand. The smaller crowd sat in the red plush booths and chatted quietly, probably munching on a sandwich from next door. Others perched at the bar and requested a memory from the piano man. The piano bar drew a modest crowd some evenings, but it was Brendan’s Thursday nights that obtained the bar’s legendary status.
As Brendan Canning’s fame increased, he ceased his regular Thursdays at Lounge 88 and the crowd moved elsewhere. Ossington Street bars gained popularity and the Drake Hotel on Queen Street opened, recalls James Russo, speaking of the changing demographics. The Monarch returned to more of a local’s drinking hole and Lounge 88, despite regular DJ nights for the rest of the decade, lost some of its lustre.
Today natural light enters through the north facing windows of the downstairs bar and the carpeted dance floor is long gone. So are the ashtrays and the plush red booths. A small stage now stands at the rear of the space. A curtained “Green Room” lies to its left. The red curtain hangs open revealing an old Chesterfield in the corner. A framed picture of Elvis hangs on the wall behind the bar. A bronze statue of a lady clutching a torch sits on the bar in front of Elvis. Her left leg is poised in the air as she leaps towards a Buddha statue at the other end. Two small, framed Toulouse Lautrec posters depicting the dancers of the Moulin Rouge hang above my head.
The only remnant of Lounge 88 is the Baby Grand. She still stands in the corner. I wonder if she is in tune.
When Evan Georgiades and Mike Dorbyk, the current owners, took over the Monarch in 2011, they transformed the downstairs space to accommodate stage plays, concerts, and private events. Their renovations revealed beautiful Terrazzo tiles under the two layers of additional flooring. The black and white square tiles, trimmed with a thin silver piping, remind me of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The art deco-style tiling earned its popularity between the 1920’s and 1940’s: the time the Venezia Hotel first opened its doors. I wonder who graced these smooth polished floors where I now stand. I wonder who checked into the hotel and why. Perhaps one of the same names now etched on the Hollywood Walk. Perhaps the hotel’s reception desk stood where the bar stands now. Perhaps men still drank at the rear.
The air feels cold against my skin as I push my way through the side door and onto the silent street. No one snaps my photo as I leave.
Despite the changing landscape of Little Italy, despite stories of bombings, thefts and blatant patriarchy, despite boutique bars, pubs, and every type of watering hole you can imagine on neighbouring College and Dundas Streets, the Monarch’s long-time customers still patronise the faded tavern day after day, year after year, as if nothing has changed.
I want to find out why. I ask Billy to whom I should chat.
“Mike Nelson,” he responds.
I laugh and lean over the bar, “You know everybody, Billy.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he chuckles, “ I always tell everybody I’m the hub in the middle of the wheel…everybody’s connected through me in the city. My tentacles reach everywhere and all roads lead to Rome. Oh yeah. I know everybody and lots of people know me.”
And indeed Billy knows many people. And now, so do I. Over the past couple of months, after my many visits to the Monarch, I too feel I qualify as a regular. Each time I ascend the stairs to the first floor bar a welcoming face greets me, sometimes two or more.
I meet Mike Nelson, one evening at the end of the bar, an inclusive smile and beer in hand.
Mike tells me he is a regular at the Monarch since 2003, but more so over the last decade. He recalls that early on, he would frequent the upstairs bar on a Saturday afternoon. The bar was quiet and he and his friend Hank would watch the baseball on the television. James Russo and the Cristello brothers owned the Monarch at the time and Larry Cristello and his friends used the upstairs bar “as a hangout”, he laughs. “They were kind of intimidating,” he says, “they would sit like crows at the bar.”
Despite the air of intimidation, Mike stuck around, and fifteen years later still comes each weekday, a book and the paper tucked under his arm.
“What the place embodies to me… is that it’s an evocation of community,” he says.
The Monarch draws in all types of people, from tradesmen to filmmakers and everything in between. And they come here because it isn’t on the main thoroughfare. The bar isn’t affected by fashion, unlike like Ossington and Dundas Streets. It is instead an “odd confluence of things I value,” he says.
Mike tells me he once held a book launch at the Monarch, commenting on the generosity of the owners, who “would let you have the bar, as long as they were selling beer.”
I wonder how many places would do that.
Mike describes “chilli cook-offs” and spontaneous dinners that happen upstairs between staff and friends. “At times it’s like our living room,” he says. “We look after one another…and the street.”
Mike Nelson, aka Baseball Mike, tells me about some of the local “bar crows” he knows from the Monarch. Johnny Buzz, Skinny Joe, Bowler Boy, Postal Dave, Horndog Hopkins and Screwface come to mind. And of course, there is Pinball Joe, a small guy with a big smile. Each time I see him he orders a drink at the bar before striking the ball bearings of the machine near the door.
“It’s ecumenical,” says Mike Nelson, speaking of the different ways the bar serves its locals.
“It was the first place I had a beer,” former owner James Russo informs me. “Underage,” he chuckles.
Current owner, Mike Dorbyk tells me his first visit to the Monarch was with his father. “He purchased a meatball sandwich from San Francesco and we proceeded upstairs to the dimly lit Tavern. I remember watching the Leafs’ game on a front projection big screen TV while being served by an old guy wearing a bow tie. Very charming. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old,” Mike says.
Everyone seems to remember the first time they visited the Monarch. I don’t know why it’s etched in our memory when so much else is forgotten. Perhaps it’s the location, or the climb up the narrow stairs. Perhaps it’s the welcome you receive on the first floor.
I think back to my first visit to the tavern after I embarked on this project. I sat upstairs opposite owner Evan Georgiades and we discussed the people who come to the Monarch.
“Regardless of rich or poor, liberal or conservative, people come here and find a common ground,” he told me.
“I think we appreciate one another,” Mike Nelson states, speaking of the locals and the staff at the tavern. “This gives me all I need,” he adds, sipping his pint.
Much has happened in the decades since the Monarch first opened its doors. Owners have bought and sold, regulars have come and gone, and the price of a beer and sandwich has increased ten-fold. But at the same time, not much has changed.
I look at an old black and white photograph taken in front of the Monarch in the spring of 1945. On the 8th of May, Germany surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe. People gathered in front of the Monarch to celebrate. Young men swing from the white windowsills of the downstairs bar, women chat and laugh, and couples dance in the street. A British flag hangs behind the lit sign to the Monarch Hotel. A band of local musicians play upbeat tunes in front of Beefy’s Monarch Lunch. A Coca-Cola sign hangs from Beefy’s window.
In 2017, the Monarch reproduced the VE-day photograph: customers, regulars, staff, and friends gathered in front of the tan-brick building, smiling and laughing. A man hangs from the bare tree in front of San Francesco’s red and green sign. People wave and clap their hands. The weather is cooler, the British flag no longer flies, but the tan building looks otherwise the same.
Mike Nelson takes another sip of his beer as we wrap up our conversation.
I look around the bar. Posters and paintings depict long-gone eras. A Kraken Black Spiced Rum sign faces a Union Jack. A New Mexico reward poster hangs adjacent a Molson beer advertisement. The Rolling Stones play over a black and white Bette Davis movie.
“It’s the people,” states Baseball Mike, “It really is.”