The Only Cafe

This is a feature I wrote for a class at Ryerson University in the winter of 2008. It details the importance of a joint pub and cafe to its unusual host of a neighborhood in Toronto. From gentrification to the love of the locals, there is no other place at Danforth and Donlands that shines as bright as The Only Cafe.

Please let me know what you think.

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The Only Cafe
By Jessica Lewis

The neighborhood on Danforth Avenue from Pape to Greenwood avenues is something of a missed connection to a surrounding Toronto. While it may represent what the city boasts, an unusual mix of culture, the area doesn’t seem to be able to decide if it’s run down or on its way to a better place.

The intersection of Danforth and Donlands avenues, where Greektown comes to a full stop and a small South Asian and Middle Eastern community is beginning to grow, is a perfect example. Eyes make double-takes to see pre-teen boys work the counter of a small but packed variety store. Just ahead and across the street stands the Youth Employment Centre and the Toronto East General Withdrawal Management Centre, sharing a wall. The latter plays host to desperate clients, banging the metal bolted frame with heavy, pulsing fists.

After a right turn onto the Danforth, there is one fast food shop that beams yellow lights onto the pavement, two empty stores on display like a sad puppies, a Champion food chain and a new olive oil store that used to be a Chocolate Heaven. Next, there are two venues joined together. They are painted in wisps of baby blue and tie-dye.

This is where an East York community can safely say they’ve found their place. It’s where they come out of dark pockets that stem from the Danforth to meet neighbours and reflect over a pint or cup of Brazilian coffee. Originally a pub, but now joined by a café on one side, it is fittingly named The Only Café.

***

The first door leads to a pub that was built twenty-six years ago. During the winter months, the garage door that is the front window fogs in a grey sweep from the corners, leaving everything inside dark and musty as a distant memory. Inside it’s cozy and cluttered, a reminiscence of a 1970s basement, complete with a bar of over 170 types of international beer. There are mismatched painted tables with topsy-turvy lamps and a pinball machine in the back. A collection of jagged, dusty picture frames cover every dark mint wall. These frames hold the faces of the remembered and the forgotten; religious, political, musical and mystical leaders of the times: Van Gogh, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Batman and Robin. Books and board games litter the nooks and crannies.

The next door is to the café, named The One in the Only, which opened last November. James O’Donnell, the owner of the pub for the last six years, opened it because he wanted a quieter place for his customers. The doors jingle as you walk in toward a bench piled with city newspapers. The coffee bar, where customers rest their elbows while waiting for their drinks, is from the now defunct Sam the Record Man store downtown. A mix of bright and dark coloured furniture provides a bohemian living-room vibe. The artwork is similar to next door, but growing; each week the walls look different.

Both venues’ street-facing walls are windows; they can see the Danforth as much as it can see them. The surrounding space feels empty. Ethnic food and trade joints try to sustain themselves with little foot traffic. The local Budget Car Rental outlet recently went out of business and now is a much needed, albeit temporary, parking lot. Adam Radwanski reported in The Globe and Mail in August 2008 on the neighborhood’s gentrification. “In most downtown areas, gentrification of the major throughway means converting storefronts and renovating small buildings,” he wrote. “But between Donlands and Greenwood, the Danforth has the barren markings of 20th-century suburbia.”

Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party, also leads the riding of the pub and café. The area, he says, is “sort of a caught-between.” But that doesn’t mean no good can come from it. “The Donlands stretch and towards the mosque has always struggled a bit,” he said at his annual holiday celebration at his office on Dundas and Broadview last December 12. “But I always find those are the areas that are most interesting because there’s the most creativity.” Layton is familiar with the pub; the regulars remember him from his visits years ago.

O’Donnell lives upstairs and can’t sleep until it’s loud enough in the pub because then he knows his business is doing well. He’s fond of the neighborhood and is aware that it’s in an unusual area. “I consider it as a gathering place for the community,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people come in [to the café] that wouldn’t necessarily go to the Only. Muslims don’t drink, but I’ve seen them come in here.”

***

The Only Café and the One in the Only are a picture frame to the portrait of the people who perch on stools by the bar. New people find their way in, mainly for the weekend brunch (made with a hot plate, waffle iron or microwave) or the occasional Friday night beer.

“It’s a real community bar,” says bartender Tal Regev. “Ninety per cent of the people here are regulars. If I don’t know them, they’re not a regular.”

Last December 2 the Only had a staff and customer appreciation party. O’Donnell acquired a liquor license for the café half for that evening. People came out of all sorts of East York pockets; finding new neighbors. The venue was warm and sweaty; palms clasped around chosen international ales. Everyone was happy to celebrate the venue they love so much.

Sitting by the front window next to candles in wine bottle holders is Cindy Fleurquin. She has been frequenting the pub for almost eight years and is confident it has the formula to last in the neighborhood. “It’s hard for people to start up there and make a go out of a place like this,” she says.

Out on the back patio Peter Davies smokes a cigarette. He’s a sound technician who used to DJ disco tunes at Yonge and Eglinton back in the 1970s, until he moved to the Danforth area to work at a different pub down the street. He’s been a regular at the Only Cafe for since 1997, known as “Pedro”. He’s collected a crop of stories from the pub of rough times; an employee held at gunpoint in 1990, the late Platinum Blonde bassist Kenny Maclean drunkenly terrorizing the staff and customers, numerous chases down the back alley and just as many attempted robberies. He laughs about it now. “You have to enjoy every moment,” he says.

For the appreciation party, Davies works the soundboard for a musician named Romney Getty. She’s been playing folk-country twang at The Only Café for five years after learning of it from her drummer Mike Churchill, who’s one of the locals. She can’t get enough of it, even after living in Australia and Hollywood. “There’s something in the walls,” she says after she plays her first set. “It’s just the vibe in here that can’t be replaced. People just kind of take a lot of pride in it. But if I were them, I would want to hide it a little bit… this is their home.

Between Getty’s two sets, rock musician Sam Roberts walks in with two other members from his band. The stunned regulars break into whispered murmurs. The Canadian icon discovered the place through his manager, who heard about it from his friend Regev. At the same time, Regev is outside promoting his company, Juggling is Fun, by way of juggling fire. Cars are paused in the middle of the Danforth and on-lookers chuckle.

Roberts is overwhelmed on his first visit to the Only Café. After he took a few moments with his Polish beer, he declares that he would henceforth not be just an observer, but a part-time participant. “I’m realizing I didn’t just walk into a bar,” he says with gusto near the Espresso machine. “I walked into a place that has a lot of tradition and people have a very profound connection with it, so I’m not going to just come in and step all over it.”

The weekend brunch employees are in attendance at the appreciation party. Nancy “Nana” Roussel, a waitress, has been working there for almost seventeen years. She has an honorary plaque at the front of the bar and her name is on the menu. Beck Tate has been there almost ten years as one of the chefs, and she organizes the speed behind the bar. They both noted that the place has a certain aura to it. “Everybody always says ‘I have to go and check that out sometime’,” says Tate.

Throughout the night a couple inched closer to one another on the café’s couch, the beer kept pouring from the taps, Roberts and his band mates were accosted and memories and small talk were exchanged as the dancing began.

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5 thoughts on “The Only Cafe

  1. “The Only Café and the One in the Only are a picture frame to the portrait of the people that perch on stools by the bar. ”

    I love this sentence.
    <3

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