Notes on the Ontario Beverage Room

As part of new liquor laws introduced in 1934, the Province of Ontario introduced what became a cultural touchstone here: the hotel beverage room.

The sale of liquor in government stores, and of beer via company warehouses (now The Beer Store system), had been lawful since 1927, but from 1934 licensed taverns were allowed to sell full-strength beer.

Generally, a tavern had to be part of a hotel with a lobby and separate dining room. Special licensing for clubs, soldiers’ messes, trains, and Great Lakes steamships completed the new system.

Beer and wine only were served in taverns. Stand-alone cocktail bars were not allowed until the end of the 1940s. The best remembered is the Silver Rail on Yonge Street. I visited it a number of times until its closure about 15 years ago. Its decline was evident in the tired decor, but one could not doubt glitter and glamour once ruled.

In retrospect, I should have gone more often, for the history. It was all mirrored walls and shiny banquettes, anchored by a sinuous curved bar.

In contrast, as mandated by Premier Mitch Hepburn in 1934 hotel beverage rooms had a clinical mien. Basic round tables and chairs handled the traffic, and frosted glass or other stratagems hid the interior from street view.

Separate men’s, ladies’, and “with escorts” sections were intended to preserve an orderly atmosphere.

There was no standing in the tavern, patrons had to drink beer seated. Changes in 1946 meant only one beer could be ordered at a time, in small measures. English or even American pints in the bar were far in the future.

In the 1930s and ’40s Toronto journalists regularly investigated these statutory haunts. Maclean’s magazine ran major features in 1934 and 1945.

You can read, here, Morley Murray’s crisp reportage on December 1, 1945, notable for its “just the facts, ma’am” period style and comprehensive scope.

 

 

In August 1946 Lex Schrag wrote a three-part series for the Toronto Globe and Mail, successively “the Customer”, “the Hotelman”, and appropriately, “the Law”. Sadly, he omitted “the Beer”, but at the time neither customers nor the Fourth Estate expressed much interest in beer as such, not any recorded to my knowledge.

Schrag did state that with war-era rationing still in force, beer was often not sufficiently aged. Short of that, he offered no discussion on colour, style, temperature, or taste.

Murray did not discuss beer at all, meaning its intrinsic merits again. His piece gains value for the social and economic insights offered. For example, temperance as a public issue was far from a spent force then. He made sure to address the issue.

Schrag for his part contrasted the beverage room with the British pub, noting the latter’s image as a largely peaceful, organic part of the community. He hoped the beverage room would morph into this, which it did to a certain extent finally.

Schrag pictured a 1946 Ontario wracked by historical guilt about alcohol. This caused mechanical and furtive drinking and drunken scenes, as he well described.

The temporary English pub at the 1949 Canadian International Trade Fair in Toronto is all the more striking in this light. The same applies for a similar pub in late 1960s Toronto at British Week in Canada. I described both these in recent posts.

Despite the warm reception “Toronto the Good” gave the British pubs, that style of drinking only took root here from the 1970s, ditto the idea a tavern could stand alone, sans hotel.

Yet, there are still drinking places in Ontario, even Toronto, that resemble the old beverage room. Sometimes the hotel is still there, perched alongside or on higher floors, disused.

 

 

The advertisement above is from November 1957 in Maclean’s magazine. With the beverage room still retaining its anodyne 1934 form, beer ads might portray brands being consumed in comfortable, even stylish homes.

The subtext was the tavern’s beer needn’t be consumed only in austere surroundings of prewar Canadian imagination.

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.