For more than half a century, the House of Chan, a steakhouse and Chinese restaurant near the corner of Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue West in Forest Hill, has stood as a de facto living room for the neighbourhood and a beacon to the city’s ruling class. Nightly, families that in many cases have been coming here for four generations gather together for rib-eyes and lobster and authentically inauthentic Canadian-Chinese chow mein. But most of all, “the Chan,” as its regulars call it, is beloved because while the world has changed all around it, in 50-odd years, the restaurant has hardly changed: The food is the same, the decor is the same, and the bow-tied staff here always seem to know your name. This past fall, the Toronto Transit Commission announced that it will need to demolish the House of Chan to make way for a new LRT station in 2014. Management is uncertain whether the restaurant will relocate or just close. The Globe and Mail spoke with the restaurant’s staff and regulars – including some of Toronto’s biggest names in business, entertainment, politics and sports – about the history of one of the city’s prime cultural landmarks, and what the city will lose when the Chan falls.
In 1957 or '58 – nobody seems entirely sure any more – a pharmacist and former Fargo truck dealer named Irv Howard opened House of Chan Tavern near the corner of Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue West, aiming to cater to the area's moneyed Jewish population. He sold egg rolls for 15 cents, subgum chicken liver chop suey for $1.30, and T-bone steaks for $3.25. Though Mr. Howard didn't have a restaurant background, the man knew how to run a room.
I moved into the Forest Hill neighbourhood in 1962, so the House of Chan became kind of a neighbourhood restaurant. It was a place that you’d go and you’d see your friends. It was a pretty dingy room, but you didn’t go there for the decor.
– Lionel Schipper, lawyer, corporate director, former chairman, Toronto Sun Publishing Corp.
Irv was always in the restaurant. It was always open just for dinner. Irv was the host, and he always bought any regular customer an after drink. I believe he used to drive a Rolls Royce, which he used to park outside the restaurant, and get a ticket every day, because there was no parking then outside.
– Gerald Sheff, wealth manager, Gluskin Sheff + Associates Inc.
It’s always been in my life since 1970. I’m from Niagara Falls. My mother lives in Niagara Falls. Friday night has always been an evening when we would eat at home. When I moved to Toronto she stayed in Niagara Falls, and I would tell her every Friday – because I never lie to my mother – ‘We’re eating at the house.’ And it was always the House of Chan. She never caught on, and she thought, ‘what a wonderfully traditional, feet-on-the-ground, solid guy.’ And I never lied.
– Eddie Greenspan, lawyer
Everybody who came in you knew, or you knew of. The place did well because it was a New York type of place. It was sort of Toronto’s answer to 21, in New York. Not as classy, believe me. But it was Toronto’s answer to 21, or to Ruby Foo’s in Montreal. It was the hangout. You’d see people pull up in Bentleys and shiny suits, and then you’d see the high WASPs from Rosedale. They all knew each other. In many ways it became what Toronto became.
– Allan Offman, co-owner, The Art Shoppe