The iconic Carnegie Deli in New York City was a favourite hangout for celebrities, until it closed in 2016. Shopsy’s and Switzer’s were the equivalent hot spots in Toronto.
In their heyday, these two popular delis attracted VIPs and celebrities. Switzer’s was known for its baby beef and fries, while Shopsy’s was the hotdog king of the city.
These two delis are among the many eateries featured in a new exhibit on the history of Jewish Toronto’s favourite restaurants. From Latkes to Laffas opened at Beth Tzedec Congregation’s Rueben & Helene Dennis Museum and runs until March 30.
The exhibit traces the history of Jewish eateries from the early kosher establishment frequented by immigrants as far back as 1900, to the kosher and kosher-style restaurants of 2017. The installation includes archival photos and memorabilia.
Dorion Liebgott, curator of the museum, said the idea for the exhibit stemmed from the community’s growing interest in Jewish food.
“So many new kosher laffa restaurants are popping up,” said Liebgott. “It was this explosion in Toronto of Jewish restaurants that made us look back and see the history. We started to look at places like Shopsy’s and Switzer’s.”
It took more than a year of research to put the exhibit together, said Liebgott, who worked closely with historian Ellen Scheinberg, co-author of The Ward: the Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood.
The shul’s museum committee is co-chaired by Gella Rothstein and Emily Snow.
Putting together the exhibit entailed a lot of research. “I knew where to go. It was tough tracking people down,” said Rothstein.
The location of the various restaurants reflects the geographical shift of the Jewish community in the 1950s from downtown to more suburban locales along the Bathurst Street corridor.
Eglinton Avenue West had a slew of Jewish eateries from the ’50s until about the mid-’70s.
Rothstein, a grandmother of nine, grew up in that area. She and her high school friends ate at many of the restaurants on the Eglinton strip. “I’m old enough to remember these places,” she said.
One of her high school sorority sisters provided her with a black-and-white photo of the Town House Restaurant on Eglinton Avenue. Also on the strip were The Bagel King, Moe’s and Joe’s, The Menorah and The Noshery, a fabled family restaurant. “My husband enjoyed their ebony kiss sundae,” said Rothstein.
Toronto’s first bagel restaurant, The Bagel on College Street, opened in 1953 and closed in 2006. “It was the place to go to for Sunday brunch,” Snow recalled.
Rothstein nodded in agreement. “Everybody went there,” she said.
Kosher restaurants at the turn of 20th century were generally meat or dairy.
The Jewish restaurant with the most longevity is United Bakers (UB), a dairy restaurant founded by the Ladovsky family 1912. UB started out on Agnes Street near Dundas and Bay, a poor immigrant area, and in 1920 moved to the Kensington Market area, the heart of the Jewish community from the ’20s until the mid-’50s. In the ’80s, the Ladovsky family moved UB to the Lawrence and Bathurst area.
Like UB, the earliest restaurants were located in St. John’s Ward, commonly known as The Ward, a slum-like area near City Hall, where the first Jewish immigrants settled.
The Harris Delicatessen, a kosher deli on Queen Street West, opened in 1900. At the time, there was no kosher certification, as the Kashruth Council of Canada wasn’t established until the late ’40s.
With increasing secularization, many restaurants became kosher-style and remained open on Shabbat.
The number of delicatessens grew steadily in the mid-20th century. In 1931, there were about 40 and that number mushroomed to 140 by 1960, although only about 30 per cent of them had Jewish proprietors.
But delis lost their popularity over time and many closed. Pancer’s Original Delicatessen, which opened in 1957, and Katz’s Deli & Corned Beef Emporium are still going strong, as is the Pickle Barrel.
Both Shopsy’s and Switzer’s still exist, but they lost their former luster. The closure of Switzer’s Spadina location in 1991 marked the end of an era.
However, Caplansky’s, which opened in 2007, has brought the Jewish deli back to the College and Spadina area, along with a renewed interest in traditional Jewish deli fare.