TORONTO — They came from around the world, and brought their cuisines with them, cultures mingling to give Toronto its distinctive flavour.
Others brought the party, turning up the volume and letting the liquor flow, providing phosphorescent, rollicking refuge for anyone who danced to their own rhythm.
Even as the city calcified into a Brutalist concrete streetscape, these restaurants, bars and nightclubs scraped by on slim margins in the face of rising rents and the creep of commercial development.
Then came COVID-19. As dining rooms and dance floors were emptied, many establishments had no choice but to permanently shut down, and businesses run by and for members of immigrant, racialized and queer communities seem to be among the hardest hit.
“Restaurants and bars … are the places where commerce happens, but also where a community is formed,” said Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning at University of Toronto.
“These are safe spaces where people can come together and feel comfortable and safe amongst their own group. And then over time … people outside the community come and learn about (other) cultures.”
Between June 14 and June 20, the number of people working in the accommodation and food services sector was down by one-third compared to February, according to Statistics Canada, amounting to roughly 400,000 job losses since the outbreak hit.
This financial fallout could have a ripple effect in cities like Toronto, which touts its eclectic food and drink scene as a key economic driver, Siemiatycki said.
Over the course of generations, newcomers and outsiders have turned Toronto into a patchwork of cultural neighbourhoods — Greektown, Chinatown, Little Jamaica and many more — and the city prides itself on this diversity, said Siemiatycki.
But in recent years, many independent eateries and bars have been priced out of the neighbourhoods they helped invigorate, he said. The pandemic appears to have accelerated the disappearance of these communal spaces, putting Toronto at risk of losing its kaleidoscopic vibrancy.
“A Toronto without its restaurants, its bars, its cultural hubs, its venues, will be a duller, worse-off city.”
The Wexford Restaurant in Scarborough is saying goodbye to its regulars after more than 60 years of slinging bacon and eggs, fresh-squeezed orange juice and piping hot coffee.
Since his father and uncle founded the diner in 1958, George Kiriakou said the Greek immigrants saw their menu grow alongside the multicultural community.
The restaurateurs sponsored local sports teams, high school scholarships and a street festival, said Kiriakou. The Wexford has attracted many prominent patrons over the decades, including local politicians, prime ministers and athletes, and once hosted the Stanley Cup.
The family may have kept the grill going for a bit longer, but Kiriakou said he didn’t want to see his nearly 80-year-old father behind the counter given the risks of the novel coronavirus.
“We’re an integral part of the community,” said Kiriakou. “We benefited as much as they benefited from coming to us.”
“When you lose all these independent businesses and get these faceless, nameless (chains)… the city becomes colder.”
Even corporately owned nightclubs lack a certain soul required to appeal to a broad spectrum of clientele, said Amanda Taylor, co-owner of Club 120 and the 120 Diner in the heart of the city’s gay village.
Taylor, a trans entertainer professionally known as Mandy Goodhandy, said the mission of the Church Street complex was to provide a space where people with nowhere else to go could party with abandon.
Since it opened as Goodhandy’s Nightclub in 2006, the venue has hosted all manner of revelry. The event calendar featured T-girl parties where trans women could socialize safely, an open mic art series called Afroqueerism, and themed “Sodom” nights decked out with glitter, body paint and wigs.
After rebranding in 2012, Taylor said Club 120 narrowly dodged the wrecking ball when the building was purchased by new owners with plans to turn the property into a condominium.
Taylor said she and business partner Todd Klinck countered with a proposal to expand to the bottom floor, and in 2014, the 120 Diner opened for late-night eats and live performance.
But COVID-19 proved to be a death blow for a business with high overhead costs and no guarantees about when partygoers would be welcomed back at full capacity, Taylor said.
Unlike most mainstream nightclubs that host the occasional queer event, Club 120 was owned and run by a trans woman and a gay man, and that representation ensured that the community felt respected, she said.
“(Big businesses) don’t put their heart into it. They don’t care about the people that come in and spend their money in your space,” she said. “We were honoured to have these people come in, and that’s how we treated them.”
Chef and activist Suzanne Barr feels the forces of commercial greed and systemic inequality conspired to prevent her from fully realizing her vision for True True Diner.
Since opening last September, the spot near St. Lawrence Market served up soul food fusing her Afro-Caribbean roots with flavours from the American South, with a menu full of savoury offerings such as braised beef back ribs with oxtail gravy nestled on a bed of plantain mash.
The eatery also worked to nourish the soul of the community, said Barr. The walls were decorated with photos of the U.S. civil rights movement as a tribute to the historic role diners have played as hubs for social change.
Barr said she set out to ensure True True Diner lived up to that legacy, working with community organizations to empower and employ Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour, newcomers and people with disabilities.
After COVID-19 forced the restaurant to shut its doors, Barr said she and her husband proposed ways the business could pivot during the pandemic, including initiatives to feed people in need.
But their business partners weren’t onboard, she said, and True True Diner was shut down. The partners did not return requests for comment.
A rising star in Toronto’s food scene, Barr said she has no plans to open another restaurant in the city, unless she can find a way to buy a property and build the business from the ground-up.
Barr said the restaurant industry runs on the “sweat equity” of marginalized people, allowing landlords and corporate stakeholders to reap the rewards of their labour.
She said the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated these structural inequities as governments open their chequebooks to prop up the powers that be at the expense of racialized restaurateurs and the customers they cater to.
“We’re dealing with a system that does not value what we are attempting to bring to communities and what communities need.”
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press