In 1975, when Toronto was still considered by some as something of a culinary backwater, I began writing a series of stories about Jewish delicatessens and restaurants in the city for a Canadian Jewish newspaper.
My first story was illustrated by a photograph of yours truly sitting contentedly in front of a pastrami sandwich and a vanilla milkshake. To my editor, a secular Jew unconcerned by the niceties of kashrut, the photograph was innocuous. But to Orthodox Jewish readers, it was positively scandalous, and indignant letters-to-the editor poured in about our transgression.
The mini scandal blew over quickly, but my interest in Jewish delicatessens never waned. Being hooked on their repertoire of pastrami, corned beef, smoked meat and tongue sandwiches, I continued to frequent delis in Montreal, where I was raised, and in Toronto, where I’ve lived for the past 43 years.
When I heard that Beth Tzedec Congregation’s Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum planned an exhibition examining the rich history of Toronto’s Jewish deli and restaurant scene from 1900 to the present, I was most definitely interested.
The exhibit, From Latkes to Laffas: Jewish Toronto’s Favourite Eateries, opened last week and runs until March 30, 2018.
Its theme is succinctly expressed on one of the explanatory panels:
“Food has always occupied a central and delicious part of Jewish culture. In some respects, it has served as the glue or schmaltz that binds families and communities together. Like politics, it often leads to controversial debates such as which establishments boast the best bagels, smoked meat, latkes, and matzo ball soup. In recent years, Jewish food has been catapulted to a whole new level of interest and importance, thanks to the TV food channels, celebrity chefs, social media sites like Instagram, food bloggers, food festivals, and documentaries.”
Jewish restaurants in Toronto began to emerge in the early 20th century, when the vast majority of Jews lived near and around the bustling Kensington Market, which is still a going concern. The first restaurants, which were family-run, operated out of the owners’ homes and offered traditional Ashkenazi cuisine drawn from Eastern Europe. Menus tended to feature either dairy or meat dishes so as to maintain the restaurant’s kosher status, which was often boldly etched on the front window pane in Yiddish. Factory workers, businessmen and professionals would eat and schmooze at these “kibbitzerias” — a term coined by Toronto Jewish Congress official Ben Kayfetz — on College Street and Spadina Avenue.
From 41 delis and restaurants in 1931, they grew to well over 100 by 1946 and 140 by 1960. Since then, many have disappeared, but some are still in business.
The first Jewish deli was opened in 1900 by Samuel and Sarah Harris on Queen Street West.
“There were a number of restaurants in the city, but with the exception of the one Chinese restaurant established by Sing Tom in 1901 across from City Hall at 37 1/2 Queen Street West, they all served traditional British-type fare that catered to middle and upper-class Torontonians,” writes Ellen Scheinberg in the Torontoist. “Consequently, the delicatessen was quite distinct, offering exotic international delicacies to tempt the local pedestrian palate. Ultimately, the Harris Deli was one of the restaurants in Toronto that helped pave the way for other ethnic eateries to take root in the city.”
Toronto’s first strictly kosher restaurant, J.S. Goldenberg’s, was owned by Joseph Goldenberg, an immigrant from Galicia who arrived in Canada in 1905. It lasted until 1925, and was supplanted by Kosher Quality (Shapiro’s), which was renowned for aged rib steaks, kishka and soups.
The city’s oldest Jewish dairy restaurant, United Baker’s Dairy Restaurant, was founded in 1920 by Aaron and Sarah Landovsky on Spadina Avenue, in the heart of the Jewish immigrant district. Aaron Landovsky, a native of Kielce, Poland, immigrated to Canada in 1906. His restaurant specialized in soups, fresh fish and dairy dishes. In 1968, it moved to its present location in the Lawrence Plaza.
Zuchter’s, one of the first delis, was originally a grocery. Its owner, Fanny Zuchter, converted it into a restaurant in the early 1930s. It closed after a fire in 1962. Wexler’s Kosher Restaurant, at 294 Spadina Avenue, was founded by Max Wexler, a cigar maker, who shuttered it in 1940 after segueing into caterering.
In 1921, Harry and Jenny Shopsowitz opened an ice cream parlor in front of their home at 295 Spadina Avenue. It morphed into the Shopsowitz Delicatessen, one of the city’s best known delis. Switzer’s, at 324 Spadina Avenue, was another favorite hangout. It closed in 1993 after moving north to Steeles Avenue.
As Jews moved northward after World War II, a succession of new delis and restaurants popped up.
Joe’s and Moe’s, which started as a soda shop in 1944 and transitioned into a restaurant in the early 1950s on Eglinton Avenue West, was located near Forest Hill, an upper middle-class neighborhood where about 40 percent of the residents were Jewish.
Coleman’s, at 3085 Bathurst, was renowned for its pastrami and pickled tongue sandwiches. It was around from 1956 until 2009 under different owners. The Bagel King Bakery and Restaurant, at 1000-1002 Eglinton West, was a neighborhood favorite from 1957 to 1995, selling from four to six million bagels annually.
Yitz’s Delicatessen, at 346 Eglinton West, still serves up a wide selection of deli fare. Owned by Yitz and Bernice Penciner from 1972 until 2000, it has been run by Barry Silver since then. Moe Pancer’s, a fourth generation business north of Bathurst and Wilson, is still going strong, too. The Center Street Deli, serving a Thornhill clientele since the early 1980s, is famous for its Montreal-style hand-cut smoked meat and pastrami sandwiches, the best Toronto has to offer.
Druxy’s Famous Deli, founded in 1976 by Bruce Druxerman, has become a chain of 48 restaurants and kiosks (in hospitals, office towers, airports and shopping centres). Dr. Laffa, at 3027 Bathurst, is a strictly kosher Israeli restaurant that serves large Iraqi pitas, or laffas, with meals. Its Moroccan-Jewish proprietors, Yoram and Orit Gabay, ran a bakery in Beersheba before immigrating to Canada in 2001.
Fat Pasha, opened by Anthony Rose and Robert Wilder three years ago, offers a menu based on Ashkenazic and Israeli-inspired food. Caplansky’s Deli, on College, serves up old-fashioned smoked meat sandwiches in what was once the epicentre of Toronto’s Jewish community.
Delis come and go, but Torontonians have always been fortunate enough to have their fair share of them.