The blogTo website has some excellent articles on Toronto bar and tavern history, this recent one by Derek Flack on the late lamented Silver Rail gives the essential details. See also this piece by Doug Taylor at the Historic Toronto site. It has great information on the design history of the bar.
Ontario alcohol prohibition was in force from 1916-1927, t-total except that local wines were allowed for sale. When alcohol came back, liquor could be bought at the new Ontario liquor commission stores. You could have beer or wine with a meal in a restaurant, but cocktail bars proper were not allowed. Beer parlours existed of course, generally male preserves but sometimes with entrances for women or “mixed”.
From a wide-open frontier alcohol culture to a more measured Victorian tolerance for the saloon, Ontario ended with almost nothing in 1916, ostensibly as a war measure.
The older tradition gingerly returned in 1947 after the war and Silver Rail was the first to be licensed.* While always a restaurant and a noted one in its day, you could walk up to the bar, down a Martini or rye and ginger, and go about your business as in most of the civilized world.
The Silver Rail operated until 1998 and I visited there a couple of times in the 90s. I took good note of the art deco and 1940s aluminium stylings as I knew the place was not long for this world. (The art deco part derived from an older restaurant there, a cafeteria from the prewar era).
Below is the Silver Rail drinks menu from 1962, stolid but well-laid out.
It is an interesting curio as potations of the distant past, more recent past and the future glimmer from its (presumed) laminated pages.
The presence of egg nog and flips, drinks of 19th century origin or older and more American than Canadian, attest that this oldest part of the liquor tradition was still remembered and thought important to offer in soon-to-be zippy postwar Hogtown. The same applies for sherry and port, that was the Victorian part restored for the nuclear age. (Some of the Canadian sherry and port then did have a kind of lurid glow, in fact!).
The cocktails include many classics, I wonder what the first listed, the house specialty, was. If you said, back bacon-infused rye and soda, in ’62 people would have thought you were joking if not making fun of Canucks. Today, bacon in drinks is a happening thing, or was that two years ago?
What was the “Martina”? A sweet Martini probably, maybe a descendant of the Martinez, the original Martini Jerry Thomas and others chronicled before the modern dry Martini emerged.
And long tails, a term I’ve never heard before. It means here a long drink, a mixed drink vs. cocktail in technical terms, but the term is new to me after 40 years reading on cocktails and spirits.
The beers: most brand names still exist, notably Labatt, Molson, Carling. No more Dow though, or Brading. The latter was from Ottawa originally. Did Black Label taste then as now?
“Pilsner” was probably Pilsner Urquell from what is now the Czech Republic, although maybe it meant Labatt Blue Pilsener, as distinct from Labatt 50 Ale, that is. No American beer names are listed, we drank our own styles then, even our lager was regarded as different at the time, “stronger” as the multi-generational wisdom held.
There seems to have been a “Canadian” Scotch then, Old Mull, probably the base of the Scotch sour denominated “Can”. Maybe that was imported bulk Scotch blended with some of our own. Or perhaps it was a surviving malt whisky of our own distillers, as most made a whisky of that type in the 1800s.
All the Scotches were blends, or so it appears. The Irish whiskeys then were straight though, the blends hadn’t come in yet including (I believe) for Bushmills.
The rye whiskies were all Canadian, many of the names still exist. Kentucky Tavern bourbon was not Canadian certainly, and I remember drinking it downtown here circa 1990. It was I believe from Medley in Owensboro, KY and fine it was.
Dutch gin was still on offer here, from Bols in this case, an echo of Empire when “Hollands” or Geneva, predecessor to London Dry, was a standing refreshment in all the Anglo-Saxon countries.
The wines are a mixed bag, it’s interesting to see Australian red even then. Canadian wines were minimal: the LCBO-bottled sherry and Diamond Jubilee (probably), the Canadian champagnes, and Bright Wines’ claret. Our wine industry, a few bulk producers apart, was all in the future.
Good rum selection, most of the names are still available.
Where is the vodka?? All in the future, but a foreshot, so to speak, is the “Tovarich” mentioned in the cocktail section. Maybe it was served chilled with an olive and nothing else, as a Martini then was surely just with gin.
Tovaritch vodka, from Russia, is still a top-seller and gets high ratings by tasters. It is available in some local restaurants but not listed with the LCBO to my knowledge.
Maybe I’ll have a flip tonight. Any recipes?
*According to Mike Filey in Sketches of Toronto, Silver Rail was actually no. 2, the Hotel Barclay was first. Details here.
Note re images: the first image above appears from the Tovaritch vodka website, and the second, from this Toronto history site, Lost Toronto (from p. 138). All intellectual property in these images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.