Zanzibar Tavern – A Building in the Body Business Since 1895

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October 4, 2019 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. In 2001, the venue underwent a $300,000 Vegas-inspired update, which included covering the building in gold-glazed tiles
October 4, 2019 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. In 2001, the venue underwent a $300,000 Vegas-inspired update, which included covering the building in gold-glazed tiles

Club Zanzibar is located at 359 Yonge St (just south of Gerrard St E) in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto.

Young & Millard Undertaking House

It’s pretty remarkable to learn that the present-day Club Zanzibar adult entertainment club has a rich history dating back to 1895, when it was built as an undertaker’s business and residence. Designed by the renowned Toronto architects Burke & Horwood for John Young and Alexander Millard Undertakers, the three-story Victorian-era building looked vastly different than it does today.

The front had an impressive appearance. The first storey was faced with brownstone, and the balance was clad with Don Valley purple pressed brick. Between two entrances was an elegant stained glass window. The interior was said to be “splendidly appointed,” with various showrooms and casket displays. The basement housed the morgue, and the upper floors were dedicated to a handsomely decorated residence.

The positioning of the windows on the upper floors hasn’t changed, however their once-unique style has. In particular, the bay window on the second floor has been replaced with a flat window. Other architectural elements that added to the building’s unique character included delicate scalloping over the third-storey windows and decorative brick scallops under the roofline.

Before the building at 359 Yonge St was constructed, John Young occupied a few storefronts along Yonge St since circa 1870 when he was first listed in the Toronto City Directory as an undertaker and cabinet maker – a skill required to make a coffin. Alexander Millard began his career as the manager of Mr Young’s undertaking establishment, which was known as “The Leading Undertaker.” After working for him for some time, Mr Millard took over the business and successfully ran it until his passing in 1910 at the age of 58.

In the year that followed, the building was acquired by the EJ Humphrey Burial Company. An article that appeared in a local newspaper at the time proudly proclaimed that the company’s newest branch on Yonge St boasted first-class goods and services with top-of-the-line equipment, including horses, carriages, and private ambulances. The article also highlighted the latest addition to the company’s fleet – the “casket motor delivery car.” By 1913, the burial company had vacated the building.

After the Funeral Home

1950 – The building at 359 Yonge St was occupied by the Rosticceria Tavern and Hunter’s Studio prior to the Zanzibar. Constructed in 1895, the three-story building was originally home to an undertaker business and residence. The building looked vastly different than it does today, with only the positioning of the windows on the upper floors remaining the same
1950 – The building at 359 Yonge St was occupied by the Rosticceria Tavern and Hunter’s Studio prior to the Zanzibar. Constructed in 1895, the three-story building was originally home to an undertaker business and residence (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 19, Item 49383)

From the mid-1910s to the mid-1940s, the building was home to various residential occupants and businesses, such as a piano company, a photo studio and a cafe.

The Rosticceria opened in 1947, transforming the old funeral home into a dining destination featuring the Elixir Room and Dining Lounge. Four years after opening, the restaurant closed for a complete redesign.

The Zanzibar Tavern

On November 15, 1951, the restaurant reopened under a new name, the Zanzibar Tavern. It was advertised as “Toronto’s Finest Dining Room” and was known to offer reasonably priced meals in an enchanting ambiance for lunch, dinner, or a post-theatre snack. The Zanzibar Tavern featured live entertainment, no cover, and in 1953, a roast chicken dinner cost $1.25.

In 1961, David Cooper, also known as Davey C, purchased the tavern. Mr Cooper came from a family of successful entrepreneurs. His parents owned a dry goods store in Kensington Market, his father operated the Bermuda Tavern (once at 379 Yonge St), and his brother owned the Brass Rail (at 701 Yonge St).

Early on, the Zanzibar was more about live music. The tavern was in the centre of the Yonge Street Strip, a hub of entertainment for locals and visitors alike.

The Circulating Ham Sandwich

Ontario law mandated that food be served with alcoholic beverages. To comply with the law, Zanzibar came up with a unique solution—a single ham sandwich that would accompany every ordered drink. The sandwich, which was never consumed, would circulate from table to table until it was needed by another customer. Authorities were not entirely convinced of Zanzibar’s adherence to the regulations, and in March 1963, the tavern’s liquor license was suspended for two weeks for repeatedly serving liquor without proper meals.

Go-Go Dancers at the Zanzibar

November 4, 1975 - Looking towards storefronts on the east side of Yonge St, opposite Elm St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The photo shows from left to right Record World, Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Discount Pharmacy, Slack Shack, City & Country Sales, 2 by 4 Posters and Images Fashions. When the Zanzibar opened in 1951, it was a fine dining tavern. By 1973, it was known as Zanzibar Circus Tavern, and today, it's called Club Zanzibar
November 4, 1975 – Looking towards storefronts on the east side of Yonge St, opposite Elm St in Toronto. When the Zanzibar opened in 1951, it was a fine dining tavern. By 1973, it was known as Zanzibar Circus Tavern (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 3, Item 18)

In 1965, the a-go-go craze hit nearby venues like Friar’s Tavern and Le Coq d’Or, and it was good for business. So, to keep up with the times, Mr Cooper added three regular go-go dancers to to accompany the bands on stage. By 1968, the Zanzibar had six go-go dancers—one psychedelic, one regular, and four topless (which in Toronto at the time meant the dancers wore pasties).

Every afternoon, the house trio, led by the talented singer and organist Bobby Dean Blackburn, took the stage, offering a mix of R&B, rock, and jazz. Of course, patrons came to see the go-go girls, but the trio’s great music kept the place filled. Locals and musicians in town for their own shows (like Jimmy McGriff, Taj Mahal, members of James Brown’s band and Rick James, to name a few) would make their way to the Zanzibar for a chance to jam with Mr Blackburn’s band, eagerly unpacking their instruments and waiting their turn to join in on a set.

Inside the Zanzibar Tavern was a neon-lit maze of blinking signs and spinning globes while closed-circuit cameras took photos of the dance floor and projected them on the walls. Mannequins were scattered about, and there were ads for house specialties, like the Zanzibar Zulu, a mix of bourbon, gin, crème de menthe and anisette for $2.65. The drink came with free transportation to St Michael’s Hospital.

David Cooper would leave his office door open to hear the musical talent. If a fight broke out in the club, he wasn’t afraid to break it up and throw unruly patrons out.

The Zanzibar Circus Tavern

In the early 1970s, the venue was renamed the Zanzibar Circus Tavern. Around this time, dancers at the Victory Burlesque Theatre stopped using pasties. This spelled the end of music at the Zanzibar when it transitioned to topless/burlesque entertainment and, in the 1980s, a strip club.

A Glitzy New Exterior for Club Zanzibar

February 10, 2024 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St is one of Toronto's last surviving adult entertainment clubs. When the venue opened in 1951, it was called the Zanzibar Tavern and was advertised as being "Toronto's Finest Dining Room," serving lunch, dinner and post-theatre snacks with live musical entertainment
February 10, 2024 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St is one of Toronto’s last surviving adult entertainment clubs. When the venue opened in 1951, it was called the Zanzibar Tavern and was advertised as being “Toronto’s Finest Dining Room,” serving lunch, dinner and post-theatre snacks with live musical entertainment

While other bars and clubs on Yonge St were closing, Mr Cooper was always trying new ideas to keep things going. In 2001, Club Zanzibar underwent a $300,000 Vegas-style facelift. The building was covered with 10-kt gold glazed tiles, while multicoloured neon and glittering bulb signs illuminate the facade.

Mr Cooper retired around 2009, and his son took over operating the business.

In 2010, dancers and waitstaff who were taking a break on Zanzibar’s rooftop were unaware that someone from a neighbouring tall building was secretly photographing them. To their shock and dismay, these images were then published online without their knowledge or consent, leading to a major privacy debate.

When David Cooper passed away in 2019 at the age of 84, the sign that usually says something about the entertainers temporarily read, “DAVEY C OUR FOUNDER REST IN PEACE.”

The famous Club Zanzibar still draws a crowd and is one of the city’s last surviving strip clubs.

The Century-Old Building

As of writing this article, it should be noted that this building, which is over 125 years old, does not have a heritage designation. Other architectural works by Burke & Horwood include the Robert Simpson Company Limited department store building (today home to The Bay) at the southwest corner of Yonge St and Queen St W, and the Bank of British North America building at the northeast corner of Yonge St and Wellington St E.

Zanzibar Photos

1899 - Architectural drawings by Burke & Horwood, the designers of 359 Yonge St in downtown Toronto. The building was constructed in 1895 for John Young & Alexander Millard Undertaker business. It has been home to the Zanzibar since 1951
1899 – Architectural drawings by Burke & Horwood, the designers of 359 Yonge St in downtown Toronto. The building was constructed in 1895 for John Young & Alexander Millard Undertaker business. It has been home to the Zanzibar since 1951 (Canadian Architect and Builder, Vol. 12, No. 6, June 1899, pg 115 – Canadiana)
1950 – The building at 359 Yonge St was occupied by the Rosticceria Tavern and Hunter’s Studio prior to the Zanzibar. Constructed in 1895, the three-story building was originally home to an undertaker business and residence. The building looked vastly different than it does today, with only the positioning of the windows on the upper floors remaining the same
1950 – The building at 359 Yonge St was occupied by the Rosticceria Tavern and Hunter’s Studio prior to the Zanzibar. Constructed in 1895, the three-story building was originally home to an undertaker business and residence. The building looked vastly different than it does today, with only the positioning of the windows on the upper floors remaining the same (City of Toronto Archives, Series 574, File 19, Item 49383)
Between 1986 and 1992 - The Zanzibar Circus Tavern was owned by David Cooper. He purchased the property in the early 1960s. Initially, the Zanzibar was more about live music. Go-go dancers began accompanying the bands on stage in 1965. The club slowly transitioned to topless/burlesque and, by the 1980s, was a strip club
Between 1986 and 1992 – The Zanzibar Circus Tavern was owned by David Cooper. He purchased the property in the early 1960s. Initially, the Zanzibar was more about live music. Go-go dancers began accompanying the bands on stage in 1965. The club slowly transitioned to topless/burlesque and, by the 1980s, was a strip club (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 618, Item 41)
February 10, 2024 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St is one of Toronto's last surviving adult entertainment clubs. When the venue opened in 1951, it was called the Zanzibar Tavern and was advertised as being "Toronto's Finest Dining Room," serving lunch, dinner and post-theatre snacks with live musical entertainment
February 10, 2024 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St is one of Toronto’s last surviving adult entertainment clubs. When the venue opened in 1951, it was called the Zanzibar Tavern and was advertised as being “Toronto’s Finest Dining Room,” serving lunch, dinner and post-theatre snacks with live musical entertainment
1970 - Spectators waiting for the Santa Claus Parade on Yonge St in front of the Zanzibar Tavern
1970 – Spectators waiting for the Santa Claus Parade on Yonge St in front of the Zanzibar Tavern (Toronto Public Library 2021-25-1-4, Peter MacCallum – photographer)
November 4, 1975 - Looking towards storefronts on the east side of Yonge St, opposite Elm St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The photo shows from left to right Record World, Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Discount Pharmacy, Slack Shack, City & Country Sales, 2 by 4 Posters and Images Fashions. When the Zanzibar opened in 1951, it was a fine dining tavern. By 1973, it was known as Zanzibar Circus Tavern, and today, it's called Club Zanzibar
November 4, 1975 – Looking towards storefronts on the east side of Yonge St, opposite Elm St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The photo shows from left to right Record World, Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Discount Pharmacy, Slack Shack, City & Country Sales, 2 by 4 Posters and Images Fashions. When the Zanzibar opened in 1951, it was a fine dining tavern. By 1973, it was known as Zanzibar Circus Tavern, and today, it’s called Club Zanzibar (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 3, Item 18)
1970s - Zanzibar Circus Tavern entrance at 359 Yonge Street. The circus-themed awning and signs were added in 1973. Male dancers performed downstairs in Zanzibar's Circus Cellar
1970s – Zanzibar Circus Tavern entrance at 359 Yonge Street. The circus-themed awning and signs were added in 1973. Male dancers performed downstairs in Zanzibar’s Circus Cellar (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 615, Item 17)
1982 – Looking southeast along Yonge St towards the Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Drugs, John Anderson Hamburgers, Falafel Burger, Vacant, Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum, A&A Records & Tapes, Sam the Record Man, CIBC and across Gould St, Music World
1982 – Looking southeast along Yonge St towards the Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Drugs, John Anderson Hamburgers, Falafel Burger, Vacant, Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum, A & A Records & Tapes, Sam the Record Man, CIBC and across Gould St, Music World (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 620, Item 575)
1982 - A view looking east on Yonge St, between Gerrard St and Gould St, towards Mr. Surplus, Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Drugs, John Anderson Hamburgers and Goldie’s Falafel Burger. It was during the 1980s that the Zanzibar transitioned from topless/burlesque to a strip club
1982 – A view looking east on Yonge St, between Gerrard St and Gould St, towards Mr. Surplus, Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Drugs, John Anderson Hamburgers and Goldie’s Falafel Burger. It was during the 1980s that the Zanzibar transitioned from topless/burlesque to a strip club (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 620, 573)
March 1991 – Looking southeast along Yonge St between Gerrard St and Gould St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The photo shows the Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Discount Pharmacy, Star House Chinese Restaurant, Panzerotto & Pizza Original, Caribbean Roti Delight, Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum, A & A Records & Tapes, and Sam the Record Man. The tavern was in the centre of the Yonge Street Strip, a hub of entertainment for locals and visitors alike
March 1991 – Looking southeast along Yonge St between Gerrard St and Gould St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. The photo shows the Zanzibar Circus Tavern, Ford Discount Pharmacy, Star House Chinese Restaurant, Panzerotto & Pizza Original, Caribbean Roti Delight, Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum, A & A Records & Tapes, and Sam the Record Man. The tavern was in the centre of the Yonge Street Strip, a hub of entertainment for locals and visitors alike (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, ID 197)
2007 - Looking east on Yonge St, between Gerrard St E and Gould St, in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. From left to right are Club Zanzibar, Play de Record, Cash Money, The Little House of Kebobs, Maniko Japanese Restaurant and World of Poster
2007 – Looking east on Yonge St, between Gerrard St E and Gould St, in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. From left to right are Club Zanzibar, Play de Record, Cash Money, The Little House of Kebobs, Maniko Japanese Restaurant and World of Poster (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1581, Series 2196, Item 32, Peter MacCallum – photographer)
October 4, 2019 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. In 2001, the venue underwent a $300,000 Vegas-inspired update, which included covering the building in gold-glazed tiles
October 4, 2019 – Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto. In 2001, the venue underwent a $300,000 Vegas-inspired update, which included covering the building in gold-glazed tiles
2019 - Yonge St looking south at Elm St. In the foreground is the exoskeleton supporting two heritage-designated facades at 363-367 Yonge St. Next to it are several businesses, including the Zanzibar. The tall building in the background is Ryerson University's Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre
2019 – Yonge St looking south at Elm St. In the foreground is the exoskeleton supporting two heritage-designated facades at 363-367 Yonge St. Next to it are several businesses, including the Zanzibar. The tall building in the background is Ryerson University’s Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre (Peter MacCallum photographer)
May 7, 2022 – Looking southeast along Yonge St, between Gerrard St and Gould St, in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto
May 7, 2022 – Looking southeast along Yonge St, between Gerrard St and Gould St, in the Downtown Yonge area of Toronto
December 24, 2019 – The glittering Club Zanzibar sign at 359 Yonge St in downtown Toronto. The glitzy Vegas-style sign was added in 2001 when the building's exterior underwent a major update
December 24, 2019 – The glittering Club Zanzibar sign at 359 Yonge St in downtown Toronto. The glitzy Vegas-style sign was added in 2001 when the building’s exterior underwent a major update
April 4, 2021 – Club Zanzibar is located on the east side of Yonge St, opposite Elm St in downtown Toronto. In the early 1960s, when the venue was a live music club, the Zanzibar had a to serve food with alcoholic beverages, in accordance to Ontario laws. To comply, the Zanzibar had a single ham sandwich that would accompany every ordered drink. The sandwich, which was never consumed, would circulate from table to table until it was needed by another patron
April 4, 2021 – Club Zanzibar is located on the east side of Yonge St, opposite Elm St in downtown Toronto. In the early 1960s, when the venue was a live music club, the Zanzibar had a to serve food with alcoholic beverages, in accordance to Ontario laws. To comply, the Zanzibar had a single ham sandwich that would accompany every ordered drink. The sandwich, which was never consumed, would circulate from table to table until it was needed by another patron
May 7, 2022 – The glitzy 10 kt gold glazed tiles covering Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St. Multicoloured neon and glittering bulb signs illuminate the building's facade
May 7, 2022 – The glitzy 10 kt gold glazed tiles covering Club Zanzibar at 359 Yonge St. Multicoloured neon and glittering bulb signs illuminate the building’s facade
April 21, 2024 – Club Zanzibar's neon sign and cascading stars on the front of the building at 359 Yonge St in Toronto
April 21, 2024 – Club Zanzibar’s neon sign and cascading stars on the front of the building at 359 Yonge St in Toronto
April 21, 2024 – The entrance floor apron "Welcome world famous Club ZANZIBAR" at 359 Yonge St
April 21, 2024 – The entrance floor apron “Welcome world famous Club ZANZIBAR” at 359 Yonge St
January 2024 – Looking northeast along Yonge St from Elm St towards Club Zanzibar. The building was constructed in 1895 and designed by renowned architects Burke & Horwood for John Young & Alexander Millard Undertakers
January 2024 – Looking northeast along Yonge St from Elm St towards Club Zanzibar. The building was constructed in 1895 and designed by renowned architects Burke & Horwood for John Young & Alexander Millard Undertakers
June 19,  2021 – Menus from Childs Restaurant, Friar’s Tavern and Zanzibar Tavern, displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
June 19, 2021 – Menus from Childs Restaurant, Friar’s Tavern and Zanzibar Tavern, displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
2021 - A matchbook cover from Bassel's and swizzle sticks from the Zanzibar Tavern, Mermaid Restaurant and Colonial Tavern, displayed at the Friar's Music Museum
2021 – A matchbook cover from Bassel’s and swizzle sticks from the Zanzibar Tavern, Mermaid Restaurant and Colonial Tavern, displayed at the Friar’s Music Museum (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
November 12, 2022 – A 1963 ad for The Inspirations and Terry Roberts and the Deans playing at the Zanzibar Tavern
November 12, 2022 – A 1963 ad for The Inspirations and Terry Roberts and the Deans playing at the Zanzibar Tavern (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
November 12, 2022 – An ad for Patty Lewis, Paula Carr, Joy Lowery and the Flying Fingers of Kenny King at the Piano performing at the Zanzibar Tavern
November 12, 2022 – An ad for Patty Lewis, Paula Carr, Joy Lowery and the Flying Fingers of Kenny King at the Piano performing at the Zanzibar Tavern (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
May 12, 2024 – An ad for Miss Zanzibar - The Queen of the Fire -  singing, dancing and eating real fire at the Zanzibar Tavern
May 12, 2024 – An ad for Miss Zanzibar – The Queen of the Fire – singing, dancing and eating real fire at the Zanzibar Tavern (photo taken at Friar’s Music Museum)
1910 - Goads Map showing the location of Young & Millard Undertakers, today home to Club Zanzibar
1910 – Goads Map showing the location of Young & Millard Undertakers, today home to Club Zanzibar (Toronto Public Library)
1961 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address of the Zanzibar Tavern
1961 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address of the Zanzibar Tavern (Toronto Public Library)
1896 - The Toronto City Directory showing the address and phone number of Alexander Millard & John Young Undertakers
1896 – The Toronto City Directory showing the address and phone number of Alexander Millard & John Young Undertakers (Toronto Public Library)
SOURCE
  • Heritage Toronto: The Heart of Music City: Zanzibar & Steele’s Tavern
  • The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 14, 1895, pg 18
  • The Globe Newspaper Archives: Mar 16, 1896, pg 3
  • The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 19, 1902, pg 12
  • The Globe Newspaper Archives: Mar 14, 1910, pg 14
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 10, 1947, pg 9
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 12, 1951, pg 13
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 15, 1951, pg 24
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 31, 1953, pg 13
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 6, 1965, pg 17
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Mar 20, 1963, pg 5
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 13, 1968, pg 11
  • The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Sep 6, 1968, pg 27
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 7, 1970, pg 10
  • The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 21, 1973, pg 15
  • Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 26, 2010, pg GT7
  • Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 19, 2019, pg A19
  • Canadian Architect and Builder, Volume 12, Number 6, June 1899, pg 115
  • Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
  • Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Peter MacCallum & Canadiana
  • Toronto City Directory by Might Directories Ltd 1896 & 1961 courtesy of Toronto Public Library

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