The Ontario Beverage Room

With new liquor control laws in 1934 Ontario introduced or at least enshrined a cultural touchstone: the hotel beverage room. Since 1927, the sale of liquor and beer in government stores and authorized beer warehouses (forerunner of today’s Brewers’ Retail aka The Beer Store) was made lawful.

For its part, public drinking of regular strength beer in Ontario did not resume until the beverage room system was instituted.

In principle this meant that a tavern had to be part of a hotel and lobby that also had a separate dining room. Special licensing for clubs, soldiers’ messes, trains, and steamships (on the Great Lakes) completed the system. Only beer and wine were sold. Stand-alone cocktail bars were not allowed until the end of the 1940s.

The best remembered is the Silver Rail lounge on Yonge Street. I visited it a number of times in its decline before the end about 15 years ago. In retrospect I wish I had gone more often, for the history. Think mirrored walls, shiny banquette seating, and the famous curved long bar.

In contrast, as mandated by Premier Mitch Hepburn’s 1934 government, hotel beverage rooms were clinical in nature. They were packed with round tables and chairs and shielded from street view, with separate men, ladies, and with escorts sections.

There was no standing at the bar, drinks were consumed when seated only. From 1946, only one beer could be ordered at a time, served in small measures – no English or even American pints then.

In the 1930s and ’40s journalism regularly investigated the new beverage room. Maclean’s magazine ran major features in 1934 and 1945. You may read here Morley Murray’s crisp report of December 1, 1945, notable for its scope and “just the facts, ma’am” style, as much North American journalism at the time.

 

 

In August 1946 journalist Lex Schrag authored three pieces in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, successively called the Customer, the Hotelman, and the Law. Sadly he omitted the Beer, but as Murray’s piece shows too, that was last of the many things to think about when dealing with the beverage room.

Schrag did advert briefly to beer, in the sense that with rationing still operating the beer sold was often not sufficiently matured. Short of that, no discussion is afforded on the type of beer sold. Colour, style, temperature, taste characteristics – nada.

Murray not discuss the beer at all, his still valuable piece is more a social and economic analysis of the hotel beverage room system. Ontario temperance campaigning was far from a spent force in Canada then, and he does not neglect that aspect.

Schrag contasted to the beverage room the heritage of the British pub and posited its (allegedly) more peaceful, organic approach to community. He pictures an Ontario still marked by historical guilt about alcohol, leading to mechanical and furtive drinking, and sometimes drunken scenes, also described by Murray.

It is against this background that the exhibition of an operating English pub at the 1949 Canadian International Trade Fair in Toronto must be considered. The same for the follow-up in 1969 as part of British Week in Canada. I discussed both in recent posts here.

Only by the 1970s did the rules relax in Ontario to permit stand-up drinking and a beer drinking place – pub – without guest accommodations. The English pub phenomenon flourished here in the 1970s under the new regime. These English and Irish-themed pubs still do well despite often being overlooked by craft beer writers.

Yet, there are still pubs in Toronto that reflect the older, hotel beverage room era. I may visit one soon, to report.

 

 

The advertisement above is from November 1957, in Maclean‘s again, and reflects the succeeding era. The elegant home setting is notable. As the beverage room of the ’50s and ’60s still largely retained its anodyne, 1934 form brewers used home and recreational backdrops, with the most elegant suiting their most aspirational brands.

Note, too, how the drumbeat of “light” is emphasized, later crowned by the technological achievement (?) of light beer, still after all a major force in national beer sales.

Note re images: The first image above was drawn from Maclean magazine’s archives, here. The second was drawn from the website sootoday.com. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.