In the 28 years after he established the place, Irv Howard’s little restaurant became a North Toronto landmark, and a place where the city’s politicians, lawyers, investment promoters and visiting movie stars could let loose after work. The Chan was so important in the life of the city, in fact, that Peter C. Newman, the journalist and author, went to Mr. Howard to learn about Toronto’s “Jewish establishment.” But Chan’s owner wasn’t well. He drank heavily, spent much of his time gambling on horses, and was so obese he couldn’t sit at the restaurant’s booths. In 1978, an insurance broker and long-time regular at the restaurant named Donald Lyons proposed that he could run the place, and assembled a group of investors to buy Mr. Howard out.
Donny went out to 15 people who were regulars at the restaurant, for $15,000 each. In my case, he came to me, and he came to Eph Diamond, who used to be the head of Cadillac Fairview, and he offered us a $7,500 share. Seventy-five hundred dollars was a lot of money to me in those days, but I wanted to be part of the group. There was Sheldon Gross. Thor Eaton was in the group. Jack Stupp, a colourful character from Consumers Distributing, was in the group. Lionel Schipper was in the group. Eddy Cogan was in the group. Joe Rotman was in the group.
I did it because I was a regular at the restaurant. We wanted it to survive. It was a nice group of people. It was creating a bit of a club.
– Gerald Sheff
You were putting in such a small amount of money, and guys were dividing the shares in thirds. People were putting in $5,000 and they were then restaurant owners. But the beauty of it was they would then go there. It gave them a terrific association with the restaurant, and they would go there to be insulted by Donny. Donny would insult everybody. It didn’t matter how big the guy was. If the premier of the province walked in, he would insult him, he’d say, “Oh, some government you’ve got there.” And he’d do it in a way that the guy would laugh.
– Herb Solway, founding member of Goodmans LLP; chairman, Toronto Blue Jays
[Donny]smoked a lot. And he drank beer. He stood in the same spot every night. His wife is in the same spot now. And you know they don’t take reservations. It’s one of the very few places – maybe the only place in Toronto – that I would go and know they don’t take a reservation.
– Leland Verner, corporate director, business adviser
By 1992, Donny Lyons’s investors had recouped their money many times over, and he now had three young children to care for. He wanted the Chan to himself.
Donny fixed a price and sent a letter to the shareholders. Well, a whole bunch of them said, “Come on, here’s my shares. I paid $5,000, $15,000 and I’ve earned more than that in dividends, and here, you take it, Donny.” And those are the guys whose pictures are put up there. Then some guys sold out to him at the price, and that was fine with him. And then there were one or two guys who refused to sell. Well, one guy finally sold. And the other guy – there’s still a guy who owns a minuscule amount, alright? And, well, you can imagine Donny’s reaction. Donny was wild. Donny was wild! Because what it forced him to do, with one guy, was it forced him to call annual meetings, it forced him to have elaborate financial statements made and everything, because there was another shareholder. And the guy still owns it. It doesn’t matter who. You wouldn’t know the name.
– Herb Solway
Don Lyons died in January, 2009. His wife, Penny, now runs the restaurant, and greets her customers most nights from the same spot at the bar where Donny once stood.