«RETURN TO 501 Queen Streetcar


At Parliament: Cinema Ras

John Goddard Staff Reporter

The variety store Cinema Ras takes its name from a movie house near a vast open-air Ethiopian market in Addis Ababa.

To walk through the store — all the way to the back — is to experience a slice of that far-off place.

The Queen St. E. entrance, a little west of Parliament, opens into familiar Canadian territory: chewing gum displays, an ice-cream freezer, racks of sunglasses and batteries. Shelving near the door bears the expected soft drinks, cookies and canned tuna.

But keep going and the store's unusual nature suggests itself.

Overhead hang sports jerseys and men's hats. Grocery carts line up for sale alongside fresh samosas and lamb sandwiches.

Farther still, the selection looks drawn from separate stalls of the Addis Ababa market — Ethiopian coffee in gold foil wrap, Ethiopian CDs and DVDs, flat spongy injera bread made from iron-rich teff, and spice packages containing berbere, mitmita and ground korerima.

Then a doorway appears.

Past a beaded curtain, bathed in maroon colours, several figures sit at four small tables sipping espresso and watching satellite-fed Ethiopian state television, ETV. Two men take turns drawing on a water pipe.

"The job is not going to be boring when I always have people around," owner Khalid Ahmed says cheerfully of his odd store/café combination.

He is 34 now, a Toronto resident for 13 years. He was driving a taxi five years ago when he spotted a building for rent, an IDA pharmacy at the time, one block west of the 501 Queen streetcar stop at Parliament St.

He knew that homeless shelters and public highrise apartment buildings mark Regent Park as a neighbourhood where "anything can happen," he says. But, to him, the risk also suggested opportunity: no enterprise except the streetcar was open 24 hours.

Ahmed established his niche. With his sister Fadela as co-manager, he opened the store as his main business and the café as a source of companionship and security.

"Always people are coming," Ahmed says. "Cab drivers, workers coming off shift, people coming from dawn prayers.

"It's a mini-social club without a membership and everybody is welcome."


Cinema Ras takes its name from a movie house near a vast open-air Ethiopian market in Addis Ababa.




Khalid Ahmed relaxes in the back-room coffee lounge of his store. Cinema Ras is a variety store on the Queen streetcar line, near Parliament, with a hidden coffee shop in the back.




At Bay: Arcadian Court


Arcadian Court in its heyday, in the late 1940s. The facility will undergo three months of renovations before reopening next spring as a venue for special events such as weddings, banquets and fashion shows.

Oakland Ross Feature Writer

What is 82 years old, seats 1,200 for lunch and will be around in its present form for just a few short weeks?

Hint: it occupies the eighth floor of the Simpson Tower at the southeast corner of Queen and Bay and was once the largest department-store restaurant in the world, not to mention among the grandest of Toronto's downtown dining spots.

No one who ever celebrated a childhood birthday there can be in any doubt that the facility in question is the still sumptuous Arcadian Court.

For more than 80 years, ever since the dark days of the Great Depression, the huge art deco space, with its vaulted ceiling, gaping skylights and crystal chandeliers, has been the place where le tout Toronto "did" lunch.

It still is — at least for now.

"We're still in operation right now," says Cliff Snell, head of business development for the Oliver & Bonacini gastronomic empire, which now operates the Arcadian Court and several nearby restaurants under a management agreement with the Hudson's Bay Co. "There's so much history, and there are so many people with attachments to the Arcadian Court."

Closed for lunch since May, the court temporarily reopened in November with a "seasonal" luncheon buffet. After that, the restaurant will offer a Christmas lunchtime buffet until the year's end, but that will be the final chapter in the Arcadian Court's long run as a conventional restaurant.

Beginning in January, the facility will undergo three months of renovations before reopening next spring as a venue for special events such as weddings, banquets and fashion shows.

This might sound like a dramatic metamorphosis, but it isn't, really.

A Toronto institution since its opening on March 11, 1929, the Arcadian Court has always been a banquet hall, one that just happened to double as a restaurant at lunch-time.

For decades, the facility competed for the same up-scale midday market as the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel or the seventh-floor restaurant at Eaton's College St., a space now known as The Carlu. But lunch was never the Arcadian Court's only forte.

Over the years, the facility has provided a venue for special events that included Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts performed for radio broadcast. In 1967, the room played host to the first Sotheby's art auction ever conducted outside the U.K., with Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra in attendance.

Although extensively remodelled on several occasions over the years — most recently in 1989 —the Arcadian Court has never lost its ability to dazzle.

"It took my breath away when I first saw it," says Snell, a transplanted Vancouverite.

He promises that the upcoming renovation will pay homage to the Arcadian Court's proud past rather than impose an arbitrary future.

True, the grand Swarovski chandeliers will come down, says Snell, but they will be replaced by dangling lights more reminiscent of the René Lalique crystals that illuminated the court when it first opened.

"We want to return it, as much as possible, to the spirit of the original design," he says. "We hope to take it to a place it hasn't been for a long time."


At Carroll: Mary Macleod's Shortbread


Mary Macleod works on some shortbread at her Queen Street bakery at Carroll St., between Broadview Ave. and the Don River, where she has been for 14 years.



Paul Hunter Feature Writer

Stand at the Carroll Street streetcar stop, breathe deep, and you can smell the neighbourhood changing. The sugary aroma of butter and chocolate, a treat for the olfactory wafting from the cookie factory, sweetens the air as the dust settles on the latest nearby condominium construction.

Mary Macleod didn't see herself as an urban pioneer when she hung up her shortbread shingle at Queen E. and Carroll 14 years ago. Her passion was baking and she promised homemade, all-butter treats in a quarter of the city that promised little else.

The rent at her previous Yonge and Eglinton location — the one where the previous shopkeeper took bets that she wouldn't last six weeks — had become, she says, "extortionary." After 16 years uptown, Macleod surveyed Queen from one end to the other seeking the perfect location, and purchased a 150-year-old brick beauty between Broadview Ave. and the Don River.

"When I decided to move here, I called up my son and I thought, he's going to have me committed," recalls Macleod.

"We were a little bit afraid," agrees daughter-in-law Sharon Macleod.

But the senior Macleod had been reared in Glasgow, the Scottish city known for its own hardscrabble pockets, and had long ago learned to see beyond the streetscape stereotypes to find the good in people.

"It was a rough area (but) I used to love to go out at night and walk up to Broadview," says the 77-year-old. "Nobody ever bothered you. Everybody was friendly. They'd say hello and pass on. I never felt threatened or frightened ever being down here.

"We were the first one to come in with sort of an upscale product. Since then it's grown, I'd say in the last five or six years. There's a lot of fine eateries that have emerged and a lot of nice little stores."

Mary Macleod's Shortbread has grown too. Initially, her store did the bulk of its sales in wholesale, distributing shortbread to other retailers. But with an increase in pedestrian traffic and the scent of her baking luring commuters from the streetcar stop at her door, storefront sales now account for about half of her business.

"Just over the last few years we've had the retail traffic really pick up," says Sharon. "There's condos going up, a lot of families moving into the houses."

The quaint, inviting store doesn't look as out of place as it once did, and the business is evolving too. Mary has just formally retired (leaving Sharon to run things), but you'll often still find her in the shop extolling the virtues of her signature chocolate crunch shortbread — "a magical little cookie," she calls it — or working with her bakers developing new products.

"Here I am 30 years later, so I think it's more than just the shortbread," she says. "It's about people. Everybody that comes in is happy and they go out happy. They just love coming in and smelling it. It's a great privilege to have done that as an immigrant.

"I was able to make a living, and a good living, at just making shortbread. I always enjoyed doing it. That to me has been the secret. If you find something that you love, you're blessed. You really are."


Initially, Mary Macleod's Shortbread did the bulk of its sales in wholesale, but with the scent of her baking luring commuters from the streetcar stop at her door, storefront sales now account for about half of her business.



Mary has formally retired, but you'll often still find her in the shop extolling the virtues of her signature chocolate crunch shortbread — "a magical little cookie," she calls it.




At Dovercourt: El Almacen


The preparation and celebration of mate remains job one, but El Almacen is also a café where customers may choose from an array of coffee-based concoctions.


Oakland Ross Feature Writer

They say it boosts the body's immune system, slows aging, returns hair to its original hue, enriches creativity, reduces fatigue, thwarts insomnia, eases stress, topples Middle Eastern dictators and lowers your unpaid credit-card balance . . .

Okay — the last two we made up.

But all these other benefits — and many more besides — are routinely attributed to an evergreen plant that is native to parts of South America and whose crushed leaves can be transformed into a drinkable infusion. Just add water. Ideal temperature: about 75 C.

The plant is called yerba mate (pronounced MA-tay) and it is, to the good people of Argentina, what tap water is to other earthlings — not just a beverage but a necessity.

The same goes for most Uruguayans, some Paraguayans and even a few Brazilians.

"Uruguayans drink more mate than we do," concedes Silvio Rodriguez, joint proprietor of El Almacen, a moody little pocket of vintage Buenos Aires on West Queen St. West, steps from Dovercourt Rd. "I've heard stories of people in Uruguay riding on motorcycles with mate in hand."

Mate is one attraction, but a visit to El Almacen — which means "the store" — also includes the pleasure of beaming yourself back into the stylish, prelapsarian world of the Argentine Republic circa 1925, when that sprawling, golden land of gauchos, wheat fields and beef cattle briefly counted itself among the 10 wealthiest countries on the planet.

At El Almacen, it is 1925 forever.

Born amid the vineyards of Mendoza province, Rodriguez moved to Toronto with his family when he was just six. His first job, at age 15, was in the restaurant business, and he has dreamed of launching a place like El Almacen ever since.

Two years ago, along with his Mexican-born wife, Estela Velasco-Cortes, he did.

"Canadians have opened up to more ethnic places," he says.

The preparation and celebration of mate remains job one, but El Almacen is also a café where customers may choose from an array of coffee-based concoctions.

"People say we have the best Americano on the block," says Rodriguez, now 38.

Immediately, his wife corrects him. "A lot of people say, ‘The best in the city.' "

The bar is dominated by a large silver Elektra coffee machine that's fashioned in Belle Époque style and sets the antique tone of the room, with its natural wood floors, tin-plated ceiling and casual grace.

The signage at the entrance is lettered in a flamboyant design known as fileteado porteno, a decorative script that's as redolent of Buenos Aires as a formally dressed couple dancing a tango on a spot-lit stage.

"We try to use this Buenos Aires style, without being too in-your-face," says Rodriguez. "We're selling a particular culture and tradition."

The Argentine menu has Mexican overtones and includes fare that ranges from spicy, Mendoza-style empanadas to jalapeno tuna sandwiches.

As for El Almacen's customers, Rodriguez says Canadians tend to be fairly knowledgeable about the country of his birth, familiar with many of its most famous sons and daughters — everyone from writer Jose Luis Borges to folk singer Mercedes Sosa, from fallen revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara to rock group Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

"And, then," he says, "there's tango, of course."

Of course.


At Broadview: Dangerous Dan’s

Paul Hunter Feature Writer

It is, says Jason Schott, on his bucket list.

But when the featured item of the Colossal Colon Clogger Combo thumps onto the table, the 39-year-old real estate agent wonders if he might kick it sooner than he'd anticipated.

"I have no idea how I'm going to eat this monster," he says, wide-eyed and stoked to fill his face with a hamburger that's, well, the size of his face.

The setting is Dangerous Dan's Diner, a carnivore's corner at Queen St. E. and Broadview Ave. And this meal is an eater's Everest, a mountain of meat intended to make chowing a challenge.

Schott's order isn't for the faint-hearted. The Coronary Burger or the Big Kevorkian would actually be a safer bet. The Quadruple C is a 24-ounce burger — the beefy equivalent of six quarter pounders — topped with a quarter pound of cheese, a quarter pound of bacon and two fried eggs.

"There's also some tomatoes and lettuce on there to make it healthy, so, basically, it's like a salad on a bun," says Schott, who clearly understands the spirit of the place.

The burger is served with a small — no need to be excessive — poutine and a large shake. No mention of a defibrillator on the menu.

So how many calories do you get for $24.95?

"Lots and lots and lots," says the genial James McKinnon, who opened the "Double D" 12 years ago and has been dishing burgers and friendly barbs ever since.

"We're not hiding the fact, it's not healthy for you," he says. "If you want to eat sprouts or whatever, you can do that at home."

When McKinnon opened the diner, named for his late grandfather, it was not on the most inviting of inner-city intersections. He likes to tell of how a requirement for his first employees was that they could fight. He figured cooking was an easier skill to teach.

"Twelve years ago, it was the Wild West down here," says the 45-year-old. "It's definitely a neighbourhood coming back up."

And while he frets that gentrification could bring higher rents that may eventually force him out, his sense of humour never wanes. It is pervasive at the diner, though it might not be to everyone's taste.

Customers sit on seats removed from car. Posters of food encourage diners to dig in "While we still have health care" or declare that "Meat is Murder. Tasty. Tasty Murder." Some items on the menu are highlighted with a marijuana leaf, indicating that they are recommended for "medicinal" cannabis users.


James McKinnon opened the "Double D" 12 years ago and has been dishing burgers and friendly barbs ever since.


McKinnon believes that when it comes to burgers, nothing succeeds like excess. And fun. That helps explain why the Colon Clogger has been the object of pilgrimages, including one by a group off young men from Kingston who bused in for the culinary challenge.

"It's just silly — I never thought I'd sell the number of them that I do, but it's good if people remember us for it," says McKinnon, who estimates about 15 orders of the Quad C go out of his open kitchen each week.

"That's about as big as we think you can make it and it can actually be eaten by one person. It's ridiculous and it's stupid but it's not impossible."

So was it was indeed mission possible, Mr. Schott?

"Ate it all; cross that off my bucket list," reports the real estate man, who opted to take his burger booty home to consume it in private with a knife, fork and a little dignity. "I'm probably more full than I've ever felt."

Schott, who is 5-foot-10 and was 162 pounds, says the meal took 52 minutes to finish and that he almost quit about three-quarters of the way through — fighting through what McKinnon calls "meat sweats," like a marathon runner hitting the wall — before devouring the last hunk.

"A surprising number of people finish the burger," says McKinnon. "It's the poutine and the shake that kill you."


Dangerous Dan's Diner, at the corner of Queen St. E. and Broadview Ave., features such daunting items as the Coronary Burger, the Big Kevorkian and the Colossal Colon Clogger Combo.