Norm’s Open Kitchen

Norm’s Open Kitchen in 1973. Image: Keith Beaty / Toronto Star / Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Collection Item TSPA 0114771f.

We’ve seen it happen a few times recently here in Ottawa. A business attracts a clientele that the neighbourhood feels is a threat and works to have the business removed through regulatory measures. In Toronto, Norm’s Open Kitchen was one of those establishments.

The battle had already been raging for more than a decade in 1973. Norm’s Open Kitchen at the corner of Dundas East and Pembroke was well-known as a “centre of crime and vice” and locals pressured the city to shut it down. The Star’s Bob Strupat illustrated the scene at Norm’s:

The grimy red stool keeps spinning every time the desperate youth clutches at in in agonizing, useless attempts to haul himself up from the floor. It spins every time his head smashes against it, every time his shoulders heave into it.

Time after time he falls back on the floor.

‘Leave the garbage there,’ Leslie Den spits out, looking down with disgust at the writhing youth on the flood. ‘I’ll call the garbage truck.’

Leslie Den, operator at Norm’s Open Kitchen, calls an ambulance.

‘Pigs,’ he says. ‘A country like Canada, and it’s full of pigs.’

Leslie Den did not appear concerned while the youth was being propped up on the stool by his buddies or when they wandered away and let him fall on the floor, or even during his pitiful attempts to climb back up to the counter.

But now the youth has urinated in his pants and Leslie Den is upset.

Strupat’s scene-setting, however dramatic, did not represent anything new. Norm’s neighbours were very nearly successful in 1959 at driving it out. Metro Toronto’s licensing commission revoked the restaurant’s license but that decision was later overturned by the Supreme [Superior] Court of Ontario because only two of the three commissioners were present for some of the hearings. With new licensing hearings in 1973, Norm’s opposition sensed blood.

Norm’s Open in 1972. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 18, Item 26

On March 14, the Metro Licensing Commission sat down to decide whether or not to hold public hearings concerning Norm’s license. Even with all of the concerns expressed and stories told (both colourful and tragic, but mostly tragic), it was not even clear that the Commission had any real power to implement the neighbourhood’s demands.1Bob Strupat, “Neighbors organize again to refight the Battle of Norm’s Open Kitchen,” Toronto Star, March 14, 1973, 9.

Telephoto Norm in 1973. Image: Keith Beaty / Toronto Star / Toronto Public Library, Baldwin Collection, Item TSPA 0114770f.

The result of the meeting was that the Commission decided to go ahead with the hearings in spite of its legal team’s advice that it could do no such thing. Commission chair Donald Graham, looking to find some way to make it happen, suggested the broad rationale of Norm’s being “adverse to the public interest.” Without a catch-all like that, it was not certain that the hearings could go ahead as there were no links to be made between Leslie Den2The Star appears to alternate between “Dan” and “Den” to spell his family name over the years. and the illegal activities that took place in and around his restaurant.3”Public may decide fate of Norm’s Kitchen,” Toronto Star, March 15, 1973, 32.

While it was being determined whether or not public hearings were legally passable, the neighbourhood opponents invited members of the Commission down to Norm’s so they could witness the situation for themselves. Perhaps seeing it all firsthand would be enough to motivate them to take a legal chance.4”Citizens ask public hearings on operation of restaurant,” Toronto Star, March 26, 1973, 25. The neighbours would not get their answer until August 1, when the Commission agreed to hold public hearings and scheduled them to begin on September 10. At least one of the lessons of 1959 was remembered: Graham warned his fellow members to appear through the entire process.5”Dundas St. cafe to be probed,” Toronto Star, August 2, 1973, A4.

After some additional delay, the hearings were finally opened on November 7. As was the case with the 1959 hearings, Metro Licensing Commission was regaled with tales of everything from “murders to common drunks” all tied up in the overarching claim that if Norm’s were able to remain open, it would be “contrary to the public interest.” That the activity in and around Norm’s had been virtually a full-time job for police was already known: in a 10 month period, there were 264 offences under the Criminal Code and drug and liquor offences.6”Norm’s Open Kitchen called criminal ‘hangout’,” Toronto Star, November 8, 1973, B1.

After extensive hearings, the Commission decided to revoke the license. Source: Toronto Star, March 7, 1974, B1.

In the end, the Commission found the testimony against the establishment convincing and it ordered the license for Norm’s Open Kitchen revoked. As a “blight on the community” and “a contact point for criminal activity in the vicinity,” it would have been “adverse to the public interest” to allow it to remain open. Owner Leslie Dan argued that he couldn’t be certain that the crime was happening in his establishment, but the Commission argued that as owner he had a duty to be aware and to prevent soliciting on his premises.7”Norm’s Open Kitchen closed, called ‘blight’,” Toronto Star, March 7, 1974, B1.

Although the neighbourhood was pleased with the result, Leslie Dan was not. As a Hungarian immigrant who had invested in a restaurant and signed a 15 year lease with the landlord felt caught in the middle. Moreover, while he acknowledged that he’d prefer a peaceful clientele, it was precisely those the neighbourhood was concerned with who were his bread and butter. Moreover, he felt put upon that police had not arrested the bigger dealers in the neighbourhood or had even treated “the place across the street” like they did him. Although he did operate a small farm outside of the city, Norm’s was his chief source of income and he resolved to appeal, to “that big court up in Ottawa” if he had to.8Peter Armstrong, “Norm’s owner trying for ‘decent living’,” Toronto Star, March 8, 1974, B1.

This is the blog section, so I haven’t gone too deeply into it, but Norm’s did not survive the closure. I think, but have not verified that Leslie Dan went onto own (or be associated with) Goulash Party on Queen West. The corner was later occupied by Chicken Delish, followed by Richard’s, a restaurant that reputedly specialized locally-sourced ingredients. Nowadays the space is home to Piassa Injera.

Once home to Norm’s Open Kitchen, the corner of Dundas E. and Pembroke is now Piassa Injera and Takeout.

In spite of Norm’s long absence from the neighbourhood, it made an impression. When searching for Norm’s Open Kitchen, it has made an appearance in many memoirs,9Danny Brooks, Miracles For Breakfast: How Faith Helped Me Kick My Addictions (Mississauga: John Wiley & Sons, 2008); Peter McSharry, Mean Streets: Confessions of a Nighttime Taxi Driver (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2002); G.B. Joyce, Every Spring A Parade Down Bay Street (Toronto: Penguin, 2013). in fiction,10Eddie Robbert, Heads Win, Tails Lose. in blogs,11Punchy’s Cabbagetown,” Cabbagetown Regent Park Museum; Duncan Fremlin, “Cabbagetown Restaurants of Yesteryear,” Parliament Street News. and has even been recorded in the provincial hansard.12Ontario. Hansard, November 3, 2010 (Peter Kormos, NDP) Its closure was even used as an example in a text book discussion about how municipal regulation has been used as a “supplement to the Criminal Code.”[ref]John Bossons, S.M. Makuch, and John Palmer, Regulation by Municipal Licensing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984).

Notes   [ + ]

1. Bob Strupat, “Neighbors organize again to refight the Battle of Norm’s Open Kitchen,” Toronto Star, March 14, 1973, 9.
2. The Star appears to alternate between “Dan” and “Den” to spell his family name over the years.
3. ”Public may decide fate of Norm’s Kitchen,” Toronto Star, March 15, 1973, 32.
4. ”Citizens ask public hearings on operation of restaurant,” Toronto Star, March 26, 1973, 25.
5. ”Dundas St. cafe to be probed,” Toronto Star, August 2, 1973, A4.
6. ”Norm’s Open Kitchen called criminal ‘hangout’,” Toronto Star, November 8, 1973, B1.
7. ”Norm’s Open Kitchen closed, called ‘blight’,” Toronto Star, March 7, 1974, B1.
8. Peter Armstrong, “Norm’s owner trying for ‘decent living’,” Toronto Star, March 8, 1974, B1.
9. Danny Brooks, Miracles For Breakfast: How Faith Helped Me Kick My Addictions (Mississauga: John Wiley & Sons, 2008); Peter McSharry, Mean Streets: Confessions of a Nighttime Taxi Driver (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2002); G.B. Joyce, Every Spring A Parade Down Bay Street (Toronto: Penguin, 2013).
10. Eddie Robbert, Heads Win, Tails Lose.
11. Punchy’s Cabbagetown,” Cabbagetown Regent Park Museum; Duncan Fremlin, “Cabbagetown Restaurants of Yesteryear,” Parliament Street News.
12. Ontario. Hansard, November 3, 2010 (Peter Kormos, NDP)

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