The Ontario Beverage Room

With new liquor control laws in 1934 Ontario introduced what became a cultural touchstone: the hotel beverage room. The sale of liquor and beer in government stores and authorized beer warehouses (now The Beer Store) had been lawful since 1927, but the 1934 changes permitted licensed taverns which sold full-strength beer.

In principle, a tavern had to be part of a hotel with a lobby and separate dining room. Special licensing for clubs, soldiers’ messes, trains, and steamships on the Great Lakes completed the new system. Beer and wine only were served.

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 before the end about 15 years ago. It was in decline, but one could see that glitter and glamour once ruled.

In retrospect I should have gone more often, for the history. It was mirrored walls, shiny banquettes, and the sinuous curved long bar of local fame.

In contrast, as mandated by Premier Mitch Hepburn in 1934, hotel beverage rooms were clinical in style. Round tables and chairs handled the traffic, shielded from street view by frosted glass or other building features. There were separate men’s, ladies’, and “with escorts” sections.

There was no standing, drinks were consumed seated only. From 1946, only one beer could be ordered at a time, served in small measures. English or even American pint measures were far in the future.

In the 1930s and ’40s Toronto journalism regularly investigated these haunts. 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 journalism was then.

 

 

In August 1946 Lex Schrag wrote three pieces for Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, successively entitled the Customer, the Hotelman, and the Law. Sadly he omitted the Beer, but as Murray’s piece shows too, beer per se was last on the list when considering the beverage room.

Schrag did advert briefly to it, noting that, with rationing still in force, the beer was often not sufficiently aged. Short of that, he offers no discussion: colour, style, temperature, taste characteristics – not addressed.

Murray not discuss the beer at all. His piece is still valuable as social and economic analysis of the beverage room system. Temperance campaigning was far from a spent force in Ontario then, and he made sure to address that aspect.

Schrag contrasted with the beverage room the heritage of the British pub and its (allegedly) more peaceful, organic approach to the community. He pictures an Ontario marked by historical guilt about alcohol, which lead to mechanical and furtive drinking, and often drunken scenes. Murray describes these as well.

It is against this background that an operating English pub at the 1949 Canadian International Trade Fair in Toronto must be considered. The same applies to a similar pub in 1969, part of British Week in Canada. I discussed both these in recent posts here.

Despite such tantalizing looks at the foreign version of our beverage room, stand-up drinking did not arrive here until the 1970s. It was the same for a drinking place, or pub, sans overnight accommodations. When those changes arrived the English-style pub flourished here from 1970s, to this day.

Yet, there are still drinking places in Toronto that reflect the older, beverage room tradition. Often the hotel is still there, perched aside or on top but no longer used.

 

 

The advertisement above, from November 1957, appeared in Maclean’s and reflected an immediate post- 1930s/40s atmosphere. The elegant home setting may be noted. As the beverage room still largely retained its anodyne, 1934 form, brewers used home and recreational backdrops to vaunt their most aspirational brands.

Note the drumbeat of “light”, later crowned by the technological achievement (?) of light beer, a major force still 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.