Monday, October 21, 2013

My Toronto #2 - Mr. Casual

From 1965 to 1968 or so, Mr. Casual was the only place I bought my clothes. Situated on the second floor of the (relatively) new Colonnade, it was an outlying settlement of fashionable London, or so it seemed to me. It was presided over by a fellow I knew simply as "Hank" - a mustachioed friendly, low-pressure, surprisingly hip older guy (i.e probably in his early 30's), who dressed casually, as the store's name implied, and who seemed to be in tune with his younger clients. I thought of him as "Mr. Casual".

In 1965, I think Mr Casual was the only store in town that stocked wide-wale corduroy suits, paisley shirts, wool Nehru-style military jackets (in loden green or burgundy), wide ties, big-collared shirts, bell-bottom pants, Edwardian length jackets - it was if the wardrobe supplier to the mid-60's Rolling Stones and half the bands in London had set up shop in TO. For my taste, it was perfect. 

It may have been casual, but it wasn't Mr Cheap. I had my first experience with the danger of a VISA card there - and it took three or four months to pay off the balance. A valuable lesson learned! In Hank's defence, the quality was top-notch. If Edwardian suits (beige herringbone, knee-length flared jacket, wi-i-ide bell bottom pants) had stayed in fashion, I could've worn mine for years!

As it was, and as fashion does, things changed. I started favouring thrift shop jackets, leather jeans, and rugby sweaters decorated by girlfriends. My "fashionable", beaded and braceleted, long-haired, suede-booted self chose to go way down market. I suppose it was a precursor to the lazy and uninspired sloppiness that passes for casual dress these days (and I include myself in that judgment). 

I didn't go back to Mr. Casual again. I have no idea what happened to the store, or Hank. But for a few years, it was thanks to Mr. Casual that I actually made an effort to express myself through what I was wearing, others' opinions be damned. For those memories, I'll always be grateful.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Toronto #1 - Cake Master

We all have our own versions of the city - the landmarks of childhood, the sites of significant events, the perennially favorite haunts. A recent stroll through our rapidly changing downtown made me reminisce about all the places - many now gone - that fit in the above categories for me.

Cake Master disappeared suddenly one gray winter day back in 2007. I'd gone for lunch, as I'd done off and on for almost 40 years - expecting a bowl of one of their always delicious homemade soups and a freshly made sandwich - and instead saw the darkly empty restaurant with the telltale handwritten sign on the door. No forwarding address or relocation notice. Just gone. I don't usually react to store closings, but this one left me in a state of stunned sadness akin to the sudden death of a friend - I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye.

I can't remember when I first encountered Cake Master.  I think it was when it had a storefront on Bloor Street West, near the Lothian Mews (a picturesque and European walk-through to Cumberland, just east of the University Theater). In those days, I had very little money and spent more of my time at the Coffee Mill, which had a charming, tree-shaded patio within the Mews. It's difficult to believe today, but Toronto didn't really embrace Euro-style cafes until the late 60's. The Cake Master store was a cramped, small rectangle, usually crowded. But since the cost of a piece of cake was more than I could spend for my entire lunch, and there was no space to sit and read some novel for two hours or more, I gave it a pass. Ah, the undergraduate life!

The man who was the actual Cake Master was named Paul Rigor, as mentioned in the comment below, and he was quick to realize that the developing de-hippied Yorkville was going to be a good place to relocate. As I understand it, he owned the building at 128 Cumberland that was built in the late 60's to house the new Cake Master. There was dough in them thar pastries! The store continued to be a relatively small, cramped rectangular space, however, with Mr Rigor in attendance at the cash register or in the kitchen.

We all have our own taste preferences, of course, but I never had anything at Cake Master that I didn't love. The cinnamon, poppy seed, plum or cheese danishes; the homemade cabbage, pea or mushroom soup; the piquant cheesy spread they put on sandwiches or the rye bread served with the soup;  even the slightly bready croissants. The cakes were all magnificent - a whipped cream/strawberry/meringue concoction and a coffee buttercream cake are still two of my all-time faves. And the coffee of course.

But what made it all even more memorable was the staff - many of whom were there for what must have been 30 years or more. Lucy, Irene, Maria - Italian, Hungarian and Spanish respectively. Between them they spoke umpteen languages, often bickered over this or that, and were unfailingly warm and welcoming. Once they knew you - which is to say upon your second visit - you became family. They'd compete to serve you, joked, gossiped, told tales on each other and shared their lives, all while bustling about the crowded, cramped store. Whether it was a sunny August morning on the minuscule patio watching the Yorkville parade pass by, or a cold drizzly November afternoon, warmth was the watchword at Cake Master.

There were eventually signs that all was not well. Mr Rigor was no longer in daily attendance, and wobbly chairs and tables weren't repaired. There was an ownership change. Although I can't prove it, my tastebuds said the new owners tried substituting margarine for butter in the pastry recipes. People stopped coming almost immediately. The butter returned, but the clientele never really did. Lucy, Irene and Maria left the staff, though Irene continued for a while at the Cake Master Express in the new Yorkville Mews. And then... gone.

A day was always better after a visit to Cake Master. In hindsight, I wish I'd thought to ask the chef for the recipes.