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
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.
I don’t think she’s changed a damned thing. The menu’s the same, the curtains are the same, the carpet’s the same, the pretzels that are sitting on the bar are the same. It’s completely old-school, and that’s a great thing. I think the water in the lobster tank’s the same.
– Barry Avrich, film producer and director
Most people call it “The Chan,” or “Chan.” But nobody has ever asked me who Chan was. Who was Chan? Nobody! Chan really isn’t a person. It just sounded Chinese.
– Penny Lyons, current owner
Never mind the expression “comfort food.” This was a comfort place. This was a comfortable place. And it was always like that. The place was always like it is.
– Eddie Greenspan
We have great-grandparents coming in with their great-grandchildren, and they’ve been coming into Chan for years and years, their grandparents would bring them in. It’s a huge following of many of the same people, and then a lot of professionals, sports people. There was a big retirement party for Richard Peddie [the outgoing MLSE chairman]there last night: Brian Burke, Bryan Colangelo. Oh, it was fabulous!
– Penny Lyons
At a public meeting on Nov. 28, a TTC official announced that several businesses near Bathurst and Eglinton, including the House of Chan, would need to be demolished in 2014 to make way for a station for the new crosstown Eglinton-Scarborough line. The land where the Chan stands is slated to become a secondary entrance and substation for the Bathurst stop.
I heard it from a customer of ours. He was in the public meeting that night. Halfway through the meeting, he called me – he was shocked. I got the news on Monday, and Tuesday was my day off. And Wednesday I saw Penny, I told her. She said, “That’s why I’m standing at the bar, drinking.” She was a little upset then.
– Peter Pau, House of Chan manager, employee since 1981
I read it in a community newspaper. I read it and the bottom of my heart fell out. I couldn’t believe it. Somebody couldn’t even send us a notice at the restaurant that they were thinking about demolishing us?
I made a few phone calls. I’m in the middle of something right now so I don’t want to say too much about it, but we’ll either close shop or we’ll relocate. But it looks for sure as though Chan will be demolished to make way for the new exit. The entrance is going to be on the northeast corner where the doughnut shop is. I get the exit.
So many customers have been coming in now, they say, “You’ve got to move, it doesn’t matter where, we’ll follow you.” You know?
I personally think that it should look as similar as possible, especially the red booths down both sides, people just love that. Plus the tables down the middle. I would like to see it look very, very similar. I know the food’s going to be the same, and the waiters will be the same, so all of that will be very, very helpful. But if it also looks the same I think people are going to like it. It’ll feel like a new Chan.
– Penny Lyons
I started going there when I was, oh man, after school, in high school. I only ever wanted to go to the House of Chan after school, and the poison of choice was egg-drop soup and egg rolls. We could never have afforded a dish, and it wasn’t dinner so you didn’t need a dish anyway. It was a snack. Chan was a nasty, slightly mildewy, cheap, crappy Chinese restaurant. No one with any kind of food taste went there for dinner. Going to Chan for dinner was something that people who didn’t know anything about food did.
– Joanne Kates, restaurant critic
I will not say a bad word about the House of Chan. Because it’s like home for me. It is the house. It’s the place I’ve spent a lot of comfortable and good time. If I want the best food in the world, I’ll usually do it on a trip. If I’m in Toronto, I want a comfortable place, good food, and I’m never disappointed at this place: I know it.
– Eddie Greenspan
I think it’s the best wonton soup in the world, and I generally will have the steamed chicken chop suey. I’m on a new health kick. I won’t eat the steak there.
– Barry Avrich
I hadn't even been to Hollywood yet, and I walked in and it felt like it had the old Hollywood feel to it: the red carpet, the drapes, the booths. I was a struggling, poor student in Toronto in the eighties and I had a close family friend, an uncle, who would come to Toronto on business from Montreal and that was my once-a-month, you know, unbelievable food experience – a meat orgy – going there.
– Barry Avrich, film producer and director
It's an absolute classic, a true “joint,” if you will. The dark room, red pleather booths and the glow of the lobster tank at the back remind me of a great old place in downtown Phoenix named Durant's or even the Hollywood power spot Dan Tana's. I have to say the conundrum of going to a traditional Chinese restaurant owned by a group of local Jewish businessmen with the intent of eating a classic steak-and-lobster dinner still puzzles me, but somehow it adds to the allure.
– Bryan Colangelo, Toronto Raptors president and general manager
It's a fun place, let's put it that way. And the guys, the greeters, the managers? They knew every person who came in, that was a big feature. You could sit down and they'd start serving you, you didn't have to say anything, they knew what kind of drink you took. You don't find that kind of stuff in Toronto much. Other places have transcended it over the years. I mean, let's face it, this is a fifties-based place.
– Allan Offman
Sylvester Stallone came one night in a limo, and all our regular customers are standing around the bar waiting for a table and he says, “Could I have a table for eight?” And Peter says to him, “Well, I'm sorry, you're going to have to wait about ten minutes,” and he says, “Okay, thank you,” and he left. He went down the street.
– Penny Lyons
You know how men sometimes can't hear women speak? It was kind of like that with the waiters there.
– Joanne Kates
It's a place where, if you wanted to be left alone, they left you alone. Some places you walk into, they stare at you to see when the hell you're getting up! But not there! I don't know – everybody's just terrific!
– Mel Lastman, former mayor of Toronto, businessman
Everyone knew everyone. And you work the booths. You come in, you work the booths, and if you were at a booth you were a player. If you were at a table, you were A-list, and if you were in the back room, you were either with a large group or you were the D-list. Years later, I went there frequently with Dusty Cohl, you know, the founder of the Toronto Film Festival, and we would go there all the time, and knew all the players. They knew me, but I wasn't… you know, I wasn't born here, so I wasn't playing the six degrees of Jewish geography every time I walked in.
– Barry Avrich
All interviews have been condensed and edited