The Arcadian Court in The Bay in 2011, photo taken from the mezzanine level by the author.
The Arcadian Court in the Bay Store at Queen and Yonge still exists, but it is no longer open on a daily basis to the general public. Instead of being “the place where Toronto does lunch,” it is now a private event space, highly sought for wedding receptions, gala dinners, and corporate functions. This is a pity as the venue has been a part of the Toronto scene for over eight decades. I remember when it was a favourite place to enjoy a quiet lunch amid the hustle and bustle of the city’s downtown. For many years, I visited it the week prior to Christmas to partake of its special yuletide buffet.
In the days when the Arcadian Court was open to the public, upon entering the reception area, people were greeted by the sound of a grand piano playing the favourite songs of yesteryear. The music partially obscured the clinking of china and and the tinkle of silverware, as well as the quiet conversations within the cavernous room. A smartly attired hostess escorted all guests to their tables, where the waiters invariably inquired if guests wished to see the menu or would prefer the buffet.
I usually chose the buffet. I particularly enjoyed the roast beef and the chicken pot pies, both available on the menu as well as the buffet. The array of salads, hot dishes, and desserts was on par with the finest restaurants. The attentive service and quiet atmosphere was appealing to diners who were older, but also attracted businessmen seeking a quiet spot to discuss transactions or become more acquainted with clients. Sometimes there were families with young children, especially on Saturdays. However, because many of the clientele were older, attendance slowly declined, which contributed to the restaurant no longer being a public dining place. This was a pity, as the history of the Arcadian Court included many events that were important in the lives of Torontonians.
The story of the Arcadian Court began between the years 1928-1929, when the Robert Simpson’s Company built a nine-storey Art Deco addition to its already enormous department store. The new structure was at the corner of Bay and Richmond Streets, its main entrance located on Bay Street. Included in the new building was a two-storey restaurant, on the eighth and ninth floors. The two floors allowed the restaurant to have a main floor and a mezzanine level. It was said that when it opened, it was the largest restaurant in the world that was located within a retail store. I am not certain how this could be verified, but the facility was indeed expansive as it accommodated almost 1000 diners. It required as many as 500 worker to support the operation of the 8000-foot dining space on the main floor and the 6000 feet of the mezzanine.
The Arcadian Court was created to compete for the lunch crowd with the Royal York Hotel, as well with Simpson’s retail main rival—Eaton’s. The latter was located directly across from Simpson’s, on the north side of Queen Street. Eaton’s had opened its Georgian Room in 1924, and Simpson’s was desirous of luring diners and shoppers away from its competitor. However, the Arcadian Court was different as it more luxurious than the Georgian Room. It aimed to attract more well-to-do patrons, often referred to as the carriage trade.
Designed in the Art Deco style, the Arcadian Court contained 40-foot ceilings, with 16 grand arches. Large arched windows on the west side created panoramic views of Bay Street, the newly-constructed Canada Life Building, and the western skyline. These windows were eventually covered over, and this remain true today. The colour scheme of the Arcadian Court was muted shades of silver and violet, with a hint of blue. The thick carpets and massive chandeliers added a degree of elegance never before seen in the city. The chandeliers were of Sabino glass, manufactured in France by the the famous glassmaker, Rene Lalique. The mezzanine level (9th-floor section) was surrounded by ornate wrought iron railing, and originally was reserved exclusively for men. It remained designated in this manner until around the year 1960.
After the Arcadian Court opened, it was immediately successful, and this continued even during the Great Depression. One reasons was that not only was it a luxury dining room, but it was used for trade, art, automobile, and fashion shows, as well as grand dances, lectures and concerts. Liberace once performed on a grand piano in the Arcadian Court, to an enthralled audience. The Simpson’s venue was also one of the city’s favourite places for dining and dancing on New Year’s Eve.
In 1929, the first radio broadcast of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was held under its high ceiling. The one-hour program was heard across Canada on the CBC. In 1932, Winston Churchill was booked to speak at the Arcadian Court, but due to the demand for tickets, the event was changed to Maple Leaf Gardens. In 1967, the first auction ever held outside Great Britain by Sotheby’s was held in it. Attended by 2500 persons, a Gainsborough painting was sold for $65,000.
The Arcadian Court was renovated four times since it opened in 1929. In 1978, Simpson’s was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but was operated under its former name until 1991. Unfortunately, due to the diminishing number of patrons, the Arcadian Court closed in 2011. It reopened in 2012 under the management of Oliver and Bonacini. Its name was now simply “The Arcadian,” and it operated as a private event venue.
It is interesting to note that when the Arcadian reopened, the original chandeliers were missing. They had been sold in 1968 to a New York antique dealer. He restored them, sold them to a Manhattan company, and they were placed in the firm’s lobby.
The Arcadian Court in 2012, shortly before it closed to the public. View is from the main floor level, looking upward to the mezzanine.
The first radio broadcast of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the Arcadian Court in 1929, under the TSO’s Viennese conductor Luigi von Kuits. Toronto Archives, F1569, Fl 0005, Item 0001.
Sotheby’s first art auction held outside Great Britain, on October 27, 1969, in the Arcadian Court. Toronto Public Library, 0002614.
Pre-1968 photo of the Arcadian Court, before the original chandeliers were sold. It is likely that it was a private banquet being held in the venue. Photos from Urbantoronto.ca
Photo of the Arcadian Court after 1968, as the original chandeliers have been replaced. Photo from Urbantoronto.ca.
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For more information about the topics explored on this blog:
The publication entitled, “Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” was written by the author of this blog. It explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It relates anecdotes and stories by the author and others who experienced these grand old movie houses.
To place an order for this book:
Book also available in Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox Book Shop, and by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791 (ISBN 978.1.62619.450.2)
Another book, published by Dundurn Press, containing 80 of Toronto’s former movie theatres will be released in June, 2016. It is entitled, “Toronto’s Movie Theatres of Yesteryear—Brought Back to Thrill You Again.” It contains over 125 archival photographs and relates interesting anecdotes about these grand old theatres and their fascinating history.
Another publication, “Toronto Then and Now,” published by Pavilion Press (London, England) explores 75 of the city’s heritage sites. This book will be released on June 1, 2016. For further information follow the link to Amazon.com here or to contact the publisher directly: