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Ann Dunn, seen in 2007, owned The Matador until it was bought by Paul McCaughey six years ago. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)

Many people who came of age in Toronto in recent decades have memories – maybe hazy memories – of the Matador. Until it closed about 10 years ago, this west-end dive was the city’s worst-kept secret after-hours booze can. It got going as the other bars closed, and you could slip cash to a woman at a table in the corner in exchange for a mickey.

As for legally served intoxicants, the Matador’s primary offering in its glory days was country music, with surprisingly big names gracing its old cowboy-boot-lined stage or sitting in on legendary early-morning jam sessions, among them Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty. In years past, it was stompin’ grounds for the late Stompin’ Tom Connors and countless other musicians, who came to unwind after their gigs on Toronto’s once-thriving Queen Street West country music strip.

For almost a decade, it went dark. Many who live nearby were relieved: The Matador sits awkwardly on residential Dovercourt Road, just north of College Street, literally right up against the sturdy brick homes of the gentrifying neighbourhood around it, an anomaly left over from the days before modern zoning rules. Locals can tell stories about all kinds of early-morning drunken bad behaviour, sometimes happening right outside their bedroom windows.

That’s why plans to revive the Matador, this time as a legal, licensed and much larger venue with a capacity of up to 800 people, have kicked up such a fuss.

It’s a battle that has seen the club’s new owner run into a series of seemingly Kafkaesque obstacles in his bid to win the grandfathered zoning status from the city that would allow him to open, despite the existence of an internal city memo from last March that appears to support his case.

It’s also a battle that pits neighbour against neighbour. Some actually support the Matador’s return, and say Toronto needs more venues like it to live up to its pledge to become a “Music City” that nurtures local talent. Some even see it as a fight over Toronto’s soul, as new wealthier families increasingly move into central neighbourhoods: Will the place be a noisy, vibrant, big city, or a quiet, orderly, suburban one? Those fighting the Matador hate being portrayed as the fun police: They say they relish big-city life, but that nobody wants a new mega-nightclub right next door.

Six years ago, Annex tai chi master Paul McCaughey bought the crumbling Matador from the club’s long-time proprietress, Ann Dunn. A single mother, she took over the building in 1964 and raised five children in an apartment upstairs. She died at 81, just months after the deal closed. The place had been closed since around 2007, when it narrowly avoided a city move to expropriate it and turn it into a parking lot. Mr. McCaughey paid $1.535-million.

Since then, he has stripped off the Matador’s old barnboard walls, trashed the “Cowgirls” and “Cowboys” signs labelling the stairs to the washrooms and uncovered remnants of the place’s origins as a First World War-era ballroom.

With his brother Gerald, the recently retired Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce boss, as his partner, he says he has spent $2-million fixing the place up and fighting battle after battle, facing off with city building department officials and local city councillors and residents who oppose his plans. And there is no end in sight.

“There were some traumatized neighbours,” he said of the record of the old Matador. “… I understand that. It’s our job to work with people and try to heal that by being what we’re going to be, which is not that.”

Mr. McCaughey says he has faced six years of hassles at the hands of the building department. Twice over the years, he says, he was told by city officials if he reduced the footprint of the part of the building to be used as a dance hall, he would win zoning approval. So he did – only to be rejected. He also maintains that the building permits he obtained in 2012 to make initial alterations to parts of his building gave the green light to his zoning as a nightclub, something city officials say is incorrect.

He points to internal e-mails, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, that say his nightclub licence application would “hot-listed” for extra scrutiny by city staff. A report from city inspectors erroneously suggests that he might actually be operating a “booze can,” even though the venue has been closed and under construction for years. Other e-mails suggest that staff were concerned he might get a restaurant licence and then operate an illegal nightclub, a common scenario in Toronto but a strategy Mr. McCaughey says he has no plans to pursue.

He hired a lobbyist and was able to fend off a push by local city councillor Ana Bailao to have the Matador designated as a heritage building, which would have frozen his renovation plans.

“It does not feel like it’s a level playing field,” Mr. McCaughey said. “I just don’t see where the fair shake is, in the bureaucracy or in the political process, for us. And that bothers me.”

Paul McCaughey, seen in March, 2016, has been trying to reopen the Matador nightclub for several years. (Kevin Van Paassen/For The Globe and Mail)

He scored one major victory last year. After what was called the most contested liquor-licence hearing in the province in recent memory, he won the right to serve alcohol. He agreed to a reduced capacity of 650, although he says he will reapply for 800 once he proves himself to be a responsible operator. Other licence conditions, such as midnight drink-sales cutoffs Sundays through Wednesday, were also imposed on him. And he pledged to hire extra security and engaged a crowd-flow consultant to devise plans to minimize lineups and noise.

Part of his problem is that many in the neighbourhood, including Ms. Bailao, say his plans for a large nightclub took them by surprise. Back when he first bought the place, a sign that read “Wellspace, Coming Soon” was posted on the hoarding out front, and his announced plans included turning the Matador into a place for tai chi, with a restaurant and a performance space for music or private events. It wasn’t until January, 2015, at a public meeting, that his plans for a liquor licence with an 800-patron capacity were clearly spelled out.

“It just puts seeds of doubt into people in the community as to what this place is going to be and how it is going to be run,” said Jeffrey Barrett, who lives nearby and is president of the recently formed Dovercourt and College Area Residents Association, which mounted a campaign against the liquor-licence application and warned in an e-mail sent to parents at a local school that it could mean finding needles and condoms in the playground.

Mr. McCaughey acknowledges that his plans evolved over time, as he learned more about the musical heritage of the Matador. He also acknowledges that when he told Ms. Bailao about his original vision for the site in 2010, he stressed the “wellness” initiatives and was not “explicit” about the notion of also using it primarily as a nightclub or music venue.

But in the years since, he says, she must have known about his clashes with officials over his zoning for a “dance hall and performance space,” as she helped to set up meetings for him with building department staff.

Ms. Bailao says the plans for a nightclub and a liquor licence for 800 people were never mentioned to her until the weeks before the January, 2015, public meeting: “This is a place that had the history that it had and … it had been closed down for years, and somebody wants to put apartments in there, a tai chi wellness centre, artists-in-residence, a restaurant at the front? That sounds great. … How would I ever think that you would have an artist-in-residence inside a nightclub?”

For now, Mr. McCaughey’s plans are in legal limbo, his opening date pushed back again and again. He says he may try to get a licence as a banquet hall or a restaurant, in order to open. But he says he may also have to take the city to court to win the right to open a nightclub.

If it does end up before a judge, the battle will come down to the issue of what planners call a “legal non-conforming use.” This is the principle that allows businesses that predate zoning rules to keep operating, even if they would not be allowed under the current bylaw. To earn this status, a site cannot abandon its grandfathered use.

Mr. McCaughey insists that he qualifies, even though the Matador lay shuttered for almost a decade, because he argues he can show that he always intended to use the building partly as a nightclub.

Using a Freedom of Information request, Mr. McCaughey obtained an internal city briefing note from March, 2015, drafted by Mario Angelucci, the city’s deputy chief building official, that comes to the same conclusion. But Toronto’s building department has since refused to recognize the Matador’s grandfathered status, and demanded that Mr. McCaughey provide proof of the uninterrupted use of the site.

In an interview, Mr. Angelucci said that since drafting the internal memo, city officials have learned more about the site’s recent history: “That was based on information that we had at the time. … There is information, clearly, that there’s been interruption of use.”

Many locals actually support Mr. McCaughey’s vision for a renewed Matador. Former Now Magazine music critic Erella Ganon lives in the neighbourhood, was a regular at the club and knew the family who ran it, the Dunns. She now runs a Facebook page dedicated to the club’s revival. She fears that if Mr. McCaughey’s efforts fail, the site could become yet another condominium complex, resulting in the loss of not just a piece of Toronto’s music history, but a music venue that could be part of its future.

“Honestly, there is no other space that’s that size. There’s nothing. Think of how many buildings have been torn down to become condos in the last 10 years in the city of Toronto,” she says. “How many new music venues have been built?”

The ballad of the Matador

An early poster for the Matador, likely dating from the mid-1960s, boasts that it was “Toronto’s First and Original Home of Country Music After Hours,” and features a smiling picture of “Your Hostess,” Ann Dunn.

Ms. Dunn, who died in 2010 at the age of 81, was the face of the legendary west-end after-hours club on Dovercourt Road for more than 40 years. She was described by some who knew her as tough, perhaps not surprisingly since she ran an after-hours establishment for so many years as a single mother while raising five children in an apartment upstairs. But she was also known as a passionate fan and tireless promoter of country music. Musicians, especially ones she liked, were said to get in free.

She bought the building in 1964. While it had been built in 1915 as a dance hall and was said to have been frequented by First World War soldiers leaving for Europe, by the time Ms. Dunn took it over, it had spent at least a decade as a bowling alley. She ripped out the lanes and found the original dance floor underneath.

The dance hall’s distinctive archways, her daughter Charmaine Dunn said, reminded them of a trip they had taken to Spain, and so they christened the new place the Matador, repainting the bowling-pin sign out front, which still hangs there today.

Charmaine helped her mother run the club over the years and now lives in Bowmanville, Ont. She remembers growing up hearing country artists jam into the wee hours “decked out in their rhinestones and stuff.”

In addition to country greats, such as Johnny Cash and k.d. lang, who shot a video there, the Matador attracted a strange mix of patrons ranging from bikers to Hollywood stars.

One night, the story goes, Harrison Ford showed up, and Ann let him in only when someone told her he was Indiana Jones. Tom Petty’s backing band, the Heartbreakers, dropped in when they were in town.

The famous and not so famous signed one of the Matador’s walls, including Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. (Kevin Van Paassen/For The Globe and Mail)

The old Matador’s musical appeal was broader than pure twang: Joni Mitchell signed its famous wall of artists’ signatures behind the stage, and it was long a favourite spot for Leonard Cohen, who shot his award-winning 1992 video for his song Closing Time there. Charmaine had met Mr. Cohen years earlier while she was travelling in Greece, she said.

Bazil Donovan, the long-time bass player in the country-rock group Blue Rodeo, grew up nearby and started playing country music in his teens in the early 1970s on the Matador’s stage, where he would later add his own late father’s cowboy boots to the club’s collection on display.

The members of Blue Rodeo were regulars there, and held various record-release parties at the old Matador.

In the early days, Mr. Donovan said, it was a more innocent hub for country musicians to wind down after gigs, and it was tolerated by the neighbours and by officialdom. Even off-duty cops were among the customers, he and others said.

By the 2000s, he said, the focus on country music had been lost and new, younger, rowdier crowds from the downtown dance club scene had moved in. That’s when the neighbourhood started to suffer.

“It got out of control,” he said. “The Matador was no longer a place where the musicians went and hung out. That stopped. Because it got taken over by all of the people who were hanging around dance clubs, and doing their designer drugs and that. That crowd infiltrated the place. I would go there and I wouldn’t know anybody.”

Mr. Donovan supports the effort to create a new Matador, but knows that it can never be like the old place: “Something like the Matador, you can’t really plan it … it just happened. You can’t recreate those kinds of things. But the legacy could live on.”

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