The famed Friar’s Tavern was located at 279 to 283 Yonge St (at Dundas Square on the southeast corner) in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.
Before Friar’s Tavern
The 3-storey building was constructed in 1918 for the American restaurant chain Child’s Restaurants. Designed by the restaurant’s New York City architect, John Chorley Westervelt, the Beaux-Arts Classicism style building was home to the restaurant on the main floor with Karry’s Billiards and Bowling on the upper floors. The brick and steel structure is clad with white-glazed terra cotta. Other architectural elements include several large windows, fluted piers, festoons, a band of rosettes and a cornice.
After Karry’s left the building in the early 1950s, the upper floors were used as office space for several years.
Child’s Restaurant had three locations in Toronto. It was a popular restaurant that appealed to those looking for a nice, reasonably-priced meal, plus it also hosted many parties for Toronto’s who’s who. After more than four decades at this location, the restaurant closed in the early 1960s. The main floor was home to The Stage Restaurant for a few years before Friar’s Tavern took over the building.
New on the Jazz Scene
Opening in 1963, Friar’s featured jazz music during its first year. In that short time as a jazz venue, some notable performers at the tavern included Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, as well as Canada’s own Oscar Peterson.
Rock’ n Roll and the Go-Go Craze
A year later, the music club shifted gears to rock’ n roll, where acts included Bill Haley and the Comets, Robbie Lane and the Disciples, as well as the Silhouettes.
In the summer of 1965, the historic Friar’s Tavern was the first to feature go-go dancers to accompany the bands on stage. On raised platforms or in gilded cages, dancers in short skirts with rows of fringes dazzled spectators. The stage show and fad caught like wildfire at the local clubs, and bands didn’t look complete performing without them. David Clayton-Thomas and the Shays were one of the first groups in Toronto to share the stage with go-go dancers.
Bob Dylan and The Band
In 1965, Bob Dylan was in Toronto. He came to see Levon and the Hawks, who were performers at the tavern. In what TIME magazine called “the most decisive moment in rock history,” Dylan asked the local stars to rehearse with him. They later went on to back Dylan on his first tour with an electric band. Levon and the Hawks later gained international fame as The Band.
Friar’s Tavern closed in 1976, and even though it was short-lived, the venue played a legendary part in Toronto’s music history.
Hard Rock Cafe
From 1978 until 2017, the building was home to the Hard Rock Cafe – a new Yonge Street landmark. Those famous walls were once again filled with music, but this time with an extensive collection of rock’n roll memorabilia, including musical instruments, autographed photos of famous musicians, and even some of their clothing.
Friar’s Music Museum
Since 2018, the century-old building has been a Shoppers Drug Mart. In the summer of that year, Friar’s Music Museum opened on the second floor.
The micro-museum is packed with incredible artifacts from the 1950s and 1970s Yonge Street music scene. Along with an interactive display, visitors to the museum will find a wall of drum kits featuring the names of the musicians that made what’s known today as the “Toronto Sound.” The music time capsule displayed Domenic Troiano’s (from the band Mandala) 1963 Fender Telecaster, his rainbow-striped jacket, reproduced album covers, Sam the Record Man items, and much more. There are also many once-ubiquitous keepsakes like matchbooks, swizzle sticks and coasters from the one-time clubs, taverns and hotels that dotted Yonge St many years ago.
The music lives on at Friar’s Music Museum, and admission is free.
Did You Know?
- David Clayton-Thomas later became the lead singer of the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears.
- Before becoming Levon and the Hawks, they backed Ronnie Hawkins at Le Coq d’Or Tavern, which was located just north of Friar’s.
- A few other taverns along the neon-lit Yonge Street Strip included The Colonial, Steele’s, Club Bluenote, Bermuda, Zanzibar, Brown Derby and the Town. The street had it all – rock’n roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, country, folk, island music and more.
- In 1970, the second floor of Friar’s became the roaring 1920’s-themed, all-ages dance pub called the Nickelodeon. It remained open into the 1980s.
- The building received heritage status from the City in 1990.
Friar’s Tavern Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 279 Yonge St
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 279 Yonge St
- Heritage Toronto: plaque
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 25, 1963, page 14
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 9, 1963, page B1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 6, 1965, page 17
- Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Feb 3, 1970, page 19
- Heritage Toronto: The Heart of Music City: Brown Derby & Friar’s Tavern
- Toronto Star: Above a Shoppers Drug Mart, there’s a shrine to Yonge Street’s musical history
- Vintage Photo 3: David Clayton-Thomas and The Shays performing at Friars ‘a Go Go, July 19, 1965. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC00604.
- Vintage Photo 8: David Clayton-Thomas and The Bossmen performing at Friars ‘a Go Go, August 8, 1966. York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC08132.
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives & Toronto Public Library
- Toronto City Directory by Might Directories Ltd 1964 courtesy of Toronto Public Library