The Sign of the Steer was Toronto’s first steakhouse, European-style. Established in 1948 by Canada’s most famous and first televised celebity chef Hans Fread (1901–1971), the restaurant was a sprawling mid-century-modern restaurant situated at one of Toronto’s busiest intersections. Although the commercial complex at 146 Dupont Street would later be dismissively referred to as “Hans Fread’s Folly,” its design merits a closer examination.
It sheds light on Fread’s legacy not only in the culinary (and fine-dining) history of the city, but also on the chef’s legacy within Toronto’s postwar architecture. The restaurant’s carefully designed stylish exterior and interior were important visual elements reflecting the founding chef’s intentions to transform the city’s experience of dining out in the postwar period.
The original location of the restaurant was opened in a converted house at 161 Dupont Street, on the northern edge of the Annex, in 1947, at “one of the most dismal, traffic-choked corners of Toronto,” according to Mary Jukes, The Globe and Mail‘s food critic. The community was among the city’s richest residential neighbourhoods. However, beginning the late forties, the character of the nearby community was transforming. The once stately mansions in the Annex were being converted to boarding houses, apartment buildings, and other multi-tenant properties, consequently changing the neighbourhood’s association with exclusivity and wealth.
After its opening, the Sign of the Steer was renowned for its charcoal broiled steaks, served with French-fried onions. According to Mary Walpole (a reviewer and columnist who contributed a regular feature, “Dining Around the Town” on the pages of the Toronto Daily Star), the Sign of the Steer was considered to be one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Naturally, an expansion seemed inevitable.
“Where You Dine by Choice…”
Fread intended to dazzle his guests from the moment they stepped foot into his sprawling restaurant, and dining there was designed to be an experience (although Jukes stated that the brown-brick, windowless wall of the square-shaped building had “no outward sign of the taste, restraint, and excitement” that awaited guests once they entered the restaurant). Following the restaurant’s exclusive grand opening in late November 1955 to specially selected guests, Fread announced the opening of his eatery to the local gourmands in a half-page advertisement in The Globe and Mail:
“No longer a dream but a reality! The new home of the Sign of the Steer is now open. We are proud to welcome you to our handsome new dining rooms—The Sign of the Steer, The Sign of the Seas and the beautiful Balinese Banquet Rooms.
With the most modern and scientific equipment in our kitchens we are now able to offer you the ultimate in fine food, service, and atmosphere.
Mrs. Fread and I appreciate your patience in awaiting the opening, and your good wishes. We will be happy to greet you in our new home.”
The chef’s vision for fancy dining was carefully incorporated into the architecture of the building, which was reflective of many popular trends, materials, and colours associated with the decade in which it was constructed. The restaurant was designed by the renowned architectural firm of Bregman & Hamann. The interiors were designed and supplied by the Contract Division of Robert Simpson Company. Western Store Equipment Company supplied additional equipment and furnishings, and the silverware was purchased from McGlashan Silverware.
Guests entered the restaurant through a large lobby from the main entrance on Davenport Road. The floor of the lobby was terrazzo inlaid with green marble, and the four walls were decorated with cedar panels, brick, cork, and turquoise grass cloth. Heavy draperies with a rendering of a double motif (consisting of a steer and a lobster) accompanied the overall design of the foyer.
The Sign of the Steer was a considerable in size—open twelve hours a day from noon to midnight, the interior incorporated two separate dining rooms on the main floor and Balinese Room, a combined cocktail lounge / banquet hall on the second floor.
The Sign of the Steer
Sign of the Steer was located on the ground floor (on the left side of the main lobby), with a seating capacity for four hundred guests, and a bar. The interior walls and the bar were constructed of split fieldstone (also visible in the bottom of the façade), cedar, and charcoal brick. Three leather panels depicting sculptures of steers hung on the walls. The far wall of the dining room, built from brick, featured Egyptian-inspired inlaid artwork on charcoal cork tiles, showing a hand-tooled herd of stampeding steer. The dining room also had a dropped ceiling with concealed lighting.
The dining room was windowless, with the blank, brick wall of the restaurant overlooking the intersection. The design had the effect of creating a sharp separation between the immediate vicinity of the restaurant and the interior of the dining room, encouraging guests to disregard the outside and indulge in the atmosphere of the restaurant. Otherwise, their vantage point would have been a gas station as well as an endless procession of streetcars and cars (not exactly glamorous, picturesque landscape to show fashionable diners, dressed in their finest, chomping on expensive steaks, and sipping fancy cocktails).
The Sign of the Seas
The Sign of the Seas was located on the same floor as the dining room for the steakhouse. The tables were situated on a raised platform encircled with a railing. Guests entered the dining room from the right side of the main lobby, marked by a large tank with live lobsters. The aquamarine walls were dotted with carved, colourful tropical fish and lobsters. The interior featured a matching turquoise broadloom woven in wool. Both the carpet and the draperies were designed with the same motif depicting ocean life. The menu offered popular sea-food dishes such as oysters, sole, lobster, clam chowder, goldeyes, and “all marine delicacies.”
The Balinese Room
The Balinese Room on the second floor was accessible from the lobby on Dupont Street. The entrance featured a cathedral ceiling, making the interior appear bright and spacious, and this effect was further enhanced by a set of tall, rose-tinted mirrors which run from the floor to the ceiling. The wallpaper featured drawings of Balinese dancers.
The design of the Balinese Room reflected the decade’s fascination with exoticized locales in the Pacific and other warm climates and the overall design of the lobby and the lounge aimed to transport guests to a tropical paradise. As though that wasn’t enough, life-sized plaques of dancers were also placed against cocoa-brown walls. The lounge also had a foldable stage and room dividers set in lime green leather which could be folded into wall recesses as needed for a particular occasion or event. The curtains were made of bouclé sheer fabric and the draperies were brown, coral, and lime. The Gold Lurex thread that was used to construct the window dressings added sparkle to the row of the small windows.
An adjacent bride’s dressing room set in deep grey and pink (with a wallpaper depicting roses and butterflies and a pink formica dressing table), completed the venue. The Room hosted an assortment of special events and social occasions: wedding receptions, banquets, and food tastings.
The design of the restaurant and its succulent menu attracted many positive reviews from the press in the months following its opening. To Bruce West, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, the opening of the Sign of the Steer signalled that Toronto was becoming a cosmopolitan, world-class city, writing that “we have taken another step toward real bigness in this city.”
Fread offered a diverse range of dining experiences and events to appeal to a wide range of affluent clientele, including couples and families. Classic “dinner and dance” nights took place on Fridays Saturdays, accompanied by live music. “Complete,” multi-course dinners ranged from $2.50 to $3.95 in 1959 (approximately $24 to $38 today). Sunday family dinners, featuring children’s menu, were scheduled from 3:00 pm to 9:30 pm. In addition, the restaurant hosted Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day dinners.
Sign of the Steer also served an event venue, hosting weddings, social engagements, and special events. During the 1955 Christmas season, the restaurant aimed to attract “downtown and uptown” women shoppers and their friends with a luncheon and live holiday music (however, it is unlikely that tired shoppers ventured to the restaurant’s inaccessible location after enduring the shopping crowds). “Royal Smorgasbord,” a cold and hot buffet was accompanied by a fashion show on Sundays, beginning in late 1956. The variety of special dining experiences and events, although both traditional and innovative, suggests that the restaurant was not the success that Fread had envisioned it to be.
“Just a Few Minutes from Down-town”
Fread expanded his restaurant in the northeast corner of Dupont Street and Davenport Road as he most likely wanted to remain close to his established clientele and the corner of the city that brought him culinary fame. Jukes (who was invited to tour the new restaurant before its official launch in November 1955), was under the impression that the building served as an advertisement for the restaurant’s food offerings to drivers waiting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, the location (and the chef’s dedication to it) proved to be unfortunate and unsuited for an expensive, high-end steakhouse.
Although it was located on the northern edge of downtown within a walkable residential neighbourhood, the intersection had been for many years known for its never-ending traffic jams (which consisted of both streetcars and cars, travelling at considerable volume and speed). The restaurant did enough business for the first two years. Fread, perhaps suspecting that it was not successful as he had hoped it to be, advertised his eatery to tourists visiting the Canadian National Exhibition, placing advertisements in The Globe and Mail:
“Visitors: At a loss where to dine? Join the many who visit SIGN OF THE STEER regularly to enjoy delicious charcoal broiled steaks or any of the delightful marine delicacies always available for your dining pleasure.”
Given the abundance of dining options of all types in the main tourist areas of the city, it is not likely that many tourists would have taken the time to visit Sign of the Steer, unless they were visiting Casa Loma, the only attraction in the vicinity of the establishment.
In addition, the restaurant was flanked by the busy Canadian Pacific Railway corridor immediately to the north, a gas station to the west, and a small, unappealing commercial strip to the south. Dupont Street, an established industrial area of the city (in fact, the next-door neighbour was Lake Simcoe Ice, a company that harvested ice and supplied it to Toronto-area homes).
Overall, the isolated location, combined with a lack of ample onsite parking, contributed to the demise of the restaurant, which brought considerable financial losses to its owner in the last three years of the operation. Its failure would later be branded, although not quite fairly, as “Hans Fread’s Folly.” Fread’s restaurant assets, valued at $300,000, were parcelled out by a bailiff and sold at an auction on 21 July, 1960.
A succession of restaurants occupied the former location of the Sign of the Steer in the fifties and sixties. Peppio’s Spaghetti House, an Italian restaurant, retained most of the original design elements of the Sign of the Steer. The converted Balinese Room was renamed “Never a Friday Club,” hosting singles’ nights in the late sixties on Friday nights. A number of other mediocre eateries followed Peppio’s as well, and none of them were successful or as memorable as Fread’s Folly.
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“Christmas Shoppers.” The Globe and Mail, 12 Dec. 1955, p. 3.
“Hans Fread’s Balinese Room.” Toronto Daily Star, 17 Nov. 1959, p. 31.
“Hans Fread’s Beautiful the Sign of the Steer and the Sign of the Seas.” The Globe and Mail, 24 Nov. 1955, p. 7.
“Hans Fread’s Sign of the Steer.” Toronto Daily Star, 6 Nov. 1959, p. 25.
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Jukes, Mary. “A Strong Conviction: Fine Food Brings Finer Location.” The Globe and Mail, 17 Nov. 1955, p. 23.
—. “Home Economists Wined, Dined: 37 New Food Products Tasted.” The Globe and Mail, 16 Feb. 1956, p. 24.
Lautens, Gary. “Setback Fail to Faze Fread.” Toronto Daily Star, 28 Feb. 1964, p. 29.
Rasky, Frank. “Impressario’s Betting His Cabaret Changes Jinxed Restaurant’s Luck.” The Toronto Daily Star, 1 Nov. 1975, p. H3.
“Royal Smorgasbord.” The Globe and Mail, 10 Nov. 1956, p. 3.
“Sign of the Seas.” The Globe and Mail, 9 Dec. 1955, p. 3.
“Single Girls & Guys.” Toronto Daily Star, 1 Mar. 1968, p. 24.
“Sunday Dinners.” The Globe and Mail, 7 Apr. 1956, p. 3.
“V.I.P.s” The Globe and Mail, 7 Dec. 1955, p. 3.
“Visitors.” The Globe and Mail, 6 Sept. 1956, p. 6.
West, Bruce. “Toronto Diary: Building, Barbering, Beefeating.” The Globe and Mail, 25 Nov. 1955, p. 25.