Brown Derby Tavern – Hats Off to the Landmark Once at Yonge & Dundas

1950 - Brown Derby Tavern at 311-313 Yonge St, looking north
1950 – Brown Derby Tavern at 311-313 Yonge St, looking north (City of Toronto Archives, Series 381, File 210, ID 9820-2)

The Brown Derby Tavern was located at 311-313 Yonge St (at Dundas St E on the northeast corner) in downtown Toronto.

Its Early Days

Opening in 1949, the swank Brown Derby was a popular tavern that featured live jazz and swing entertainment and a small restaurant. A revolving stage in the centre of the main floor bar ensured everyone in the audience had a great seat. In 1950, the tavern opened its dining lounge in the basement called Tin Pan Alley.

A local newspaper mentioned in an article – the quartet’s “clamorous routine ending triumphantly we suppose, with a rendition of Choo, Choo Choo-boogie with the pianist playing with his hands, feet, nose and (so help us) his seat.”

The Derby’s Transition

Amongst the other popular venues on the Yonge Street Strip, the Brown Derby adapted to keep up with the times. Dubbed the “world’s fair of entertainment” the tavern had rooms that specialized in different genres including rock ’n roll, country, jazz and more.

One of The Derby’s longtime entertainers was Joe King and the Zaniaks. They packed the rough-around-the-edges main barroom with their musical madcap (and crude) comedy routine.

From 1959 to 1967, the lounge in the basement was the Gay Nineties Room (that’s the 1890s). Attracting the quieter crowd, it was an old-time, sing-a-long room with a “straw hat and striped blazer atmosphere.” A separate entrance was added so its patrons didn’t need to mix with the raucous main floor crowd. One of its mainstay acts was Georgina Rogers and Jimmy White who performed ragtime and honky-tonk songs.

1971 - Brown Derby Tavern at Yonge St and Dundas St E, northeast corner
1971 – Brown Derby Tavern at Yonge St and Dundas St E, northeast corner (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 1)

A New Facade

In the summer of 1969, The Derby underwent $100,000 in alterations. The exterior had a whole new look, adding a bit of fun to the already lively intersection. Above the barn-board siding were huge signs featuring Ben Turpin, Laurel & Hardy, Toulouse-Lautrec, Roscoe Arbuckle (possibly) and Charlie Chaplin all wearing derbies. The signs made the Brown Derby Tavern a definite landmark.

The Brown Derby Hangs Up Its Hat

In 1974, The Derby closed. After 25 years in business, rising costs and the changing character of hardened Yonge St forced the boisterous watering hole to turn off the taps. The property sold for $1.5 million and became home to Mr Submarine along with other restaurants and retail shops. In the late 1990s, the building was demolished.

2021 - The Brown Derby Tavern once occupied the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E - now home to the shopping mall, 10 Dundas East
2021 – The Brown Derby Tavern once occupied the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E – now home to the shopping mall, 10 Dundas East

The Site Today

In 2007, the present-day building, grey and adorned with advertising, was completed. It was originally called Toronto Life Square (this building is not to be confused with Yonge-Dundas Square). Called 10 Dundas East, it’s home to Winners, Cineplex and Adidas plus over 25 more stores and restaurants. Now mainly a tourist spot, the intersection is one of the busiest in Canada.

Did You Know?

  • Other musicians that performed at the famous tavern included the Rhythm Rascals, Jimmy Cavello and his House Rocker Quintet, Lou Snider, Paula Watson and many more.
  • The Brown Derby was said to have Canada’s longest bar with 114 seats.
  • Music and comedy started at 2 pm daily, the earliest in town. By the mid-1960s, go-go girls were added to the entertainment line-up.
  • In 1969, once the updates to The Derby were completed, the drinkery debuted folk-blues entertainment. The rowdy crowd ruined the opening night.
  • The Brown Derby was in the heart of the Yonge Street Strip amongst other famous long-gone taverns including The Colonial, Steele’s, Le Coq d’Or, Club Bluenote, Friar’s, Bermuda and the Town.
  • The term Tin Pan Alley is a genre of music that originated in a New York City neighbourhood with that nickname. It refers to the sound of pianos being feverishly played by those who were introducing songs to publishers.
  • Prior to becoming the Brown Derby Tavern, the building had been home to offices, a drug store and clothing shops. Completed in the late 1920s at a cost of $60,000, the long and narrow building was designed by Toronto’s renown theatre architects, Kaplan and Sprachman.

Brown Derby Tavern Photos

1971 - Brown Derby Tavern at Yonge St and Dundas St E, northeast corner
1971 – Brown Derby Tavern at Yonge St and Dundas St E, northeast corner (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 1)
1950 - Brown Derby Tavern at 311-313 Yonge St, looking north
1950 – Brown Derby Tavern at 311-313 Yonge St, looking north (City of Toronto Archives, Series 381, File 210, ID 9820-2)
1950 - Looking north up Yonge St from Dundas St
1950 – Looking north up Yonge St from Dundas St (Brigdens Limited Photography & City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 29, ID 49507)
1971 - The Brown Derby Tavern sign, looking southeast from Yonge St and Dundas St
1971 – The Brown Derby Tavern sign, looking southeast from Yonge St and Dundas St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 2)
1973 - Looking north up Yonge St from south of Dundas St
1973 – Looking north up Yonge St from south of Dundas St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 3)
1970/72 - Looking east towards the Brown Derby Tavern and Yonge St, from Dundas St W
1970/72 – Looking east towards the Brown Derby Tavern and Yonge St, from Dundas St W (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 312, Item 41)
1950 - Looking north along Yonge St towards Dundas St and the Brown Derby Tavern
1950 – Looking north along Yonge St towards Dundas St and the Brown Derby Tavern (Brigdens Limited Photography & City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 30, ID 49514)
1952 - Construction of the Yonge St subway beside the Brown Derby Tavern, looking west
1952 – Construction of the Yonge St subway beside the Brown Derby Tavern, looking west (Brigdens Limited Photography & City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 94, ID 491151)
2021 - The Brown Derby Tavern once occupied the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E - now home to the shopping mall, 10 Dundas East
2021 – The Brown Derby Tavern once occupied the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E – now home to the shopping mall, 10 Dundas East
2006 - Looking east from Dundas St W towards Yonge St and the construction of 10 Dundas East
2006 – Looking east from Dundas St W towards Yonge St and the construction of 10 Dundas East (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1581, Series 2196, Item 42, Peter MacCallum – photographer)
1994 - Looking southeast from Yonge St towards Dundas St E
1994 – Looking southeast from Yonge St towards Dundas St E (Peter MacCallum – photographer)
1984 - The northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E became the home of Mr Submarine and shops - notice the Biltmore Theatre
1984 – The northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E became the home of Mr Submarine and shops – notice the Biltmore Theatre (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, ID 124)
1979 - An aerial view of the Yonge St and Dundas St intersection, once the site of the Brown Derby Tavern on the northeast corner
1979 – An aerial view of the Yonge St and Dundas St intersection, once the site of the Brown Derby Tavern on the northeast corner (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 92, Item 49)
Brown Derby Tavern cocktail menu
Brown Derby Tavern cocktail menu (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
The Yonge Street Strip map displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
The Yonge Street Strip Music map (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
1929/30 - The building at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E became home to the Brown Derby Tavern
1929/30 – The building at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E became home to the Brown Derby Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1797)
1928/29 - Looking northeast towards the construction of the building that would become home to the Brown Derby Tavern - O'Keefe's Brewery is in the background
1928/29 – Looking northeast towards the construction of the building that would become home to the Brown Derby Tavern – O’Keefe’s Brewery is in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1719)
1972 - Dundas St E and Victoria St, looking northwest towards the Brown Derby Tavern
1972 – Dundas St E and Victoria St, looking northwest towards the Brown Derby Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 73, Item 5)
1928/29 - Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St towards the building that would eventually house the Brown Derby Tavern - the large building centre-right is O'Keefe's Brewer
1928/29 – Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St towards the building that would eventually house the Brown Derby Tavern – the large building centre-right is O’Keefe’s Brewery (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1716)
1923 - Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St prior to the construction of the Brown Derby Tavern building - O'Keefe's Brewery is on the right
1923 – Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St prior to the construction of the Brown Derby Tavern building – O’Keefe’s Brewery is on the right (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1573)
1951 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address and phone number of the Brown Derby Tavern
1951 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address and phone number of the Brown Derby Tavern (Toronto Public Library)
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