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

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1950s - Looking north towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E
1950s – Looking north towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E (City of Toronto Archives, Strathy Smith fonds, Fonds 1128, Series 381, File 210, Item 9820-2)

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

It’s Early Days

Opening in 1949, the swank Brown Derby was a popular tavern featuring live jazz, 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 venues on the Yonge Street Strip, the Brown Derby adapted to keep up with the times. It was dubbed the “World’s Fair of Entertainment,” with rooms specializing 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.

June 23, 1971 – Looking northeast towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E
June 23, 1971 – Looking northeast towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E (City of Toronto Archives, Harvey R. Naylor fonds, 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 and other restaurants and retail shops. In the late 1990s, the building was demolished.

April 4, 2021 - The Brown Derby Tavern once stood on the bustling corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E. Nowadays, a shopping mall occupies the site at 10 Dundas St E. Despite its absence, the Brown Derby Tavern remains a piece of Toronto's music history
April 4, 2021 – The Brown Derby Tavern once stood on the bustling corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E. Nowadays, a shopping mall occupies the site at 10 Dundas St E. Despite its absence, the Brown Derby Tavern remains a piece of Toronto’s music history

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/Sankofa Square). Called The Tenor, 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 who performed at the famous tavern included the Rhythm Rascals, Jimmy Cavallo 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 lineup.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Before 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 renowned theatre architects Kaplan and Sprachman.

Brown Derby Tavern Photos

June 23, 1971 – Looking northeast towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E
June 23, 1971 – Looking northeast towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E (City of Toronto Archives, Harvey R. Naylor fonds, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 1)
1950s - Looking north towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E
1950s – Looking north towards the Brown Derby Tavern once at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E (City of Toronto Archives, Strathy Smith fonds, Fonds 1128, Series 381, File 210, Item 9820-2)
July 11, 1950 - Looking north up Yonge St from Dundas St with the Brown Derby Tavern in the right foreground. The photo also captures the Biltmore Theatre sign and when Yonge St had a streetcar line
July 11, 1950 – Looking north up Yonge St from Dundas St with the Brown Derby Tavern in the right foreground. The photo also captures the Biltmore Theatre sign and when Yonge St had a streetcar line (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 29, ID 49507 – Brigdens Limited photography)
June 23, 1971 - Looking towards the Brown Derby Tavern from Yonge St
June 23, 1971 – Looking towards the Brown Derby Tavern from Yonge St (City of Toronto Archives, Harvey R. Naylor fonds, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 2)
November 22, 1973 - Looking north up Yonge St from south of Dundas St. The photo captures Coles book store in the right foreground. The Brown Derby Tavern with the yellow and orange sign and the Biltmore Theatre are also visible in the background
November 22, 1973 – Looking north up Yonge St from south of Dundas St. The photo captures Coles book store in the right foreground. The Brown Derby Tavern with the yellow and orange sign and the Biltmore Theatre are also visible in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Harvey R. Naylor fonds, Fonds 1526, File 4, Item 3)
Between 1970 and 1972- Looking east on Dundas St towards Yonge St. Notice the TTC Subway entrance in the foreground and the Brown Derby Tavern on the left
Between 1970 and 1972- Looking east on Dundas St towards Yonge St. Notice the TTC Subway entrance in the foreground and the Brown Derby Tavern on the left (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 312, Item 41 – Urban Design photographs)
August 2, 1950 - Looking north up Yonge St during subway construction from south of Dundas St. Notice the Brown Derby Tavern in the distance
August 2, 1950 – Looking north up Yonge St during subway construction from south of Dundas St. Notice the Brown Derby Tavern in the distance (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 30, ID 49514 – Brigdens Limited photography)
August 20, 1952 - The construction of the TTC subway beside the Brown Derby Tavern on Dundas St E just east of  Yonge St  (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 94, ID 491151 - Brigdens Limited photography)
August 20, 1952 – The construction of the TTC subway beside the Brown Derby Tavern on Dundas St E just east of Yonge St (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 94, ID 491151 – Brigdens Limited photography)
April 4, 2021 - The Brown Derby Tavern once stood on the bustling corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E. Nowadays, a shopping mall occupies the site at 10 Dundas St E. Despite its absence, the Brown Derby Tavern remains a piece of Toronto's music history
April 4, 2021 – The Brown Derby Tavern once stood on the bustling corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E. Nowadays, a shopping mall occupies the site at 10 Dundas St E. Despite its absence, the Brown Derby Tavern remains a piece of Toronto’s music history
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)
May 1984 - The northeast towards the corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E
May 1984 – The northeast towards the corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E (City of Toronto Archives, Ellis Wiley fonds, Fonds 124, File 3, ID 124)
August 13, 1979 - An aerial view looking northeast towards the Yonge St and Dundas St intersection from the sixth floor of the Eaton Centre. The Brown Derby Tavern once stood at the northeast corner where Mr. Submarine is shown
August 13, 1979 – An aerial view looking northeast towards the Yonge St and Dundas St intersection from the sixth floor of the Eaton Centre. The Brown Derby Tavern once stood at the northeast corner where Mr. Submarine is shown (City of Toronto Archives, Harvey R. Naylor fonds, Fonds 1526, File 92, Item 49)
2021 - Brown Derby Tavern cocktail menu (photo taken at Friar's Music Museum in 2021)
2021 – Brown Derby Tavern cocktail menu (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum in 2021)
2022 -  A 1962 ad of Joe King and the Zaniaks playing at the Brown Derby Tavern
2022 – A 1962 ad of Joe King and the Zaniaks playing at the Brown Derby Tavern (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum in 2022)
2021 - The Yonge Street Strip map by J Sherman displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum
2021 – The Yonge Street Strip map by J Sherman displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum in 2021)
Circa 1930 – The building at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E became home to the Brown Derby Tavern. Also visible in the image is Boulevard Ladies' Wear at 313 Yonge St
Circa 1930 – The building at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Dundas St E became home to the Brown Derby Tavern. Also visible in the image is Boulevard Ladies’ Wear at 313 Yonge St (City of Toronto Archives, E.L. Ruddy Company fonds, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1797)
Circa 1929 - Looking northeast towards the construction of the building that would become home to the Brown Derby Tavern in 1949. Notice the O'Keefe's Brewery in the background
Circa 1929 – Looking northeast towards the construction of the building that would become home to the Brown Derby Tavern in 1949. Notice the O’Keefe’s Brewery in the background (City of Toronto Archives, E.L. Ruddy Company fonds, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1719)
1972 - Looking northwest on Dundas St E, just east of Victoria St. The Brown Derby Tavern is in the distance on the right
1972 – Looking northwest on Dundas St E, just east of Victoria St. The Brown Derby Tavern is in the distance on the right (City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Planning Board fonds, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 73, Item 5)
Circa 1929 - Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St towards the building that would later house the Brown Derby Tavern in 1949. The large building centre-right is the O'Keefe's Brewery
Circa 1929 – Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St towards the building that would later house the Brown Derby Tavern in 1949. The large building centre-right is the O’Keefe’s Brewery (City of Toronto Archives, E.L. Ruddy Company fonds, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1716)
Circa 1923 - Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St before the construction of the building that later housed the Brown Derby Tavern in 1949. The tall building on the right is O'Keefe's Brewery
Circa 1923 – Looking northwest from Dundas St E and Victoria St before the construction of the building that later housed the Brown Derby Tavern in 1949. The tall building on the right is O’Keefe’s Brewery (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)
SOURCE
  • The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jan 14, 1928, pg 16
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Dec 2, 1949, pg 24
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 14, 1950, pg 8
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 20, 1950, pg 19
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 8, 1957, pg 24
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 24, 1967, pg 10
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 3, 1968, pg 23
  • Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 9, 1969, pg 37
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 2, 1969, pg 15
  • The Windsor Star Archives: Feb 12, 1974, pg 7
  • Heritage Toronto: The Heart of Music City: Brown Derby & Friar’s Tavern
  • Britannica: Tin Pan Alley musical history
  • Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
  • Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Peter MacCallum
  • Toronto City Directory by Might Directories Ltd 1951 courtesy of Toronto Public Library

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