Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
One example of how far Winston’s restaurant went to please their clientele of entertainers and business establishment figures: when comedian/musician Jimmy Durante’s manager contacted the restaurant prior to a visit in 1946, he noted that the entertainer was on a strict diet of unseasoned charcoal-broiled steak. Owner Oscar Berceller had never served a slab of meat cooked via that method, which was all but unknown in Toronto at the time. Many inquiries ensued before a suitable filet was found in Kingston, but the search and shipping costs proved pricier than anticipated. When Durante, pleased with his meal, requested the bill, Berceller indicated there wasn’t one. “Mr. Durante, the steak you just enjoyed cost me a little over $400,” said Berceller. “How could I present you with a bill that big?” The restaurateur told Durante about the province-wide search for a steak worthy of a beloved entertainer. Durante thanked the effort that went into the meal by dedicating the last song of his next performance to Berceller.
For half a century in two downtown locations, Winston’s prided itself on providing superior service and, as Gourmet magazine put it, “the most superb food on the North American continent” to well-heeled patrons. Whether it was the theatrical crowd favoured by Berceller in the 1940s and 1950s or the power elite catered to by John Arena in the 1970s and 1980s, the critical factor in Winston’s success was making its patrons feel comfortable.
The high degree of customer care helped when mistakes were made, such as the time Sarah Churchill, daughter of the restaurant’s British prime ministerial namesake, almost didn’t make it past the front door. Staff knew that Churchill would enjoy a meal while in Toronto to perform in The Philadelphia Story at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in December 1949. Upon arrival at Winston’s, the maître d’ not only failed to recognize her, but tried to turn her away for the sin of wearing slacks on an evening a special guest was expected. When Churchill asked who the dignitary was and discovered it was her, she replied “Really! Well, I happen to be Sarah Churchill.” Berceller stepped in and smoothed the situation. “Miss Churchill couldn’t have been more generous about it,” he recalled. “In fact, she embarrassed me with her humility… it took a really big person to tolerate a misunderstanding of that kind.” On future visits to Winston’s, Churchill arrived in an evening dress.
Enforcing a dress code was a long way from Winston’s origins as a greasy spoon purchased by Hungarian émigrés Oscar and Cornelia Berceller around 1940. Initially specializing in hamburgers, the diner at 120 King Street West was named after Winston Churchill to appeal to diners who barely trusted anything that wasn’t British. The restaurant quickly attracted customers from the theatrical world passing through the Royal Alex and from next-door neighbour/landlord the Globe and Mail. The newspaper’s publisher, George McCullagh, encouraged the Bercellers to expand their menu and establish a fancier restaurant that would counter raucous, prostitute-riddled nearby bars like the Metropole and Prince George hotels. McCullagh provided funding for renovations, the results of which were described by Globe and Mail columnist Dofy Skaith in 1946:
The light-hearted little restaurant of Oscar and Cornelia Berceller has blossomed into a beautiful, grown-up “glamour job” that would make New York look several times. It has a trim, white, modern facade with a massive, but tempting, door opened by a huge brass knob in the centre. Plump evergreens in tubs march across the front. Inside, what used to be one narrow room warmed into being by Oscar and Cornelia’s hospitality, is now two gracious rooms divided by a half-way up wall—the rest open, supported by stylized pinkish white columns. The walls are a delicious crushed strawberry pink-red you could eat with a spoon.
McCullagh may have inspired one of Berceller’s most successful gimmicks: key access. One possible origin of the keys was McCullagh’s desire to keep the public away from his private parties. Another was a complaint to Berceller after being approached inside Winston’s by a prostitute who had wandered in after the bars closed. Regular customers and celebrities received keys that were technically useless—because Winston’s didn’t qualify as a private club in the city’s eyes, the restaurant couldn’t place a special lock on the door to control access—but had great symbolic value as a gateway to an increasingly exclusive establishment. More than 1,000 keys, some gold-plated, were handed out over a 15-year period. The keys proved handy to doormen who easily turned away undesirable diners who lacked them (prior to the key system, Winston’s showed off its snobbier side by serving punier portions).
Serving a theatrical crowd, Berceller couldn’t resist being a showman, to the point of composing a Winston’s theme song. Opinions about his musical abilities were mixed—when he asked composer Moss Hart to evaluate an after-dinner original tune, Hart replied “Oscar, I must tell you that the results are much better with your composed food than with your composed music.” Less humorously, in October 1960 Pierre Berton accused Berceller of trying to buy him off when the Toronto Star columnist received an unmarked envelope containing six $20 bills after Berton criticized a fellow restaurateur on a recent radio broadcast. Berton was disgusted by the possibility of received a payoff and wondered if all the positive press Winston’s had received was spurred by similar envelopes. “To what depths,” Berton wrote in an “open letter” to Berceller, “has the noble calling of journalism sunk when the town’s leading restaurateur blandly assumes that a columnist—any columnist—will cheerfully pocket $120 cash as a result of giving his restaurant a free mention?”
But perhaps Berceller then needed to buy publicity as Winston’s reputation declined in the early 1960s. New theatrical venues elsewhere in the city like the O’Keefe Centre and the Crest Theatre sent patrons and crews to other dining spots. Ed Mirvish bought the Royal Alex and developed his own neighbouring restaurants. Winston’s became shabbier as Berceller, believing change would destroy the room’s charm, resisted renewing the decor and menu. Months after suffering a heart attack in 1962, Berceller sold the restaurant to a consortium of local businessmen. He retained a small interest and stayed at the helm for awhile, but business sank until Winston’s nearly went bankrupt.
Enter John Arena to launch the next phase of the restaurant’s life. A native of Italy, Arena was supervising the food at the Rosedale Golf Club in 1966 when a Winston’s partner asked if he wanted to purchase the restaurant for two dollars. After Arena bought Winston’s and took on its debts, he quickly reshaped the restaurant from an evening destination for the theatre crowd to the lunch spot for Toronto’s business elite. Renovations brought in an Art Nouveau theme, along with red velvet chairs and Tiffany lamps. The menu leaned toward French-inspired fare heavy on the cholesterol. Cards were sent to patrons of Arena’s previous employers and to secretaries at the Toronto-Dominion Centre across the street. Arena’s hustling resulted in a 350 percent jump in sales during his first year. When the block was slated for redevelopment in 1973, Arena moved Winston’s a short distance north to 104 Adelaide Street West, next to the Concourse Building. In an eerie coincidence, the day the wrecking ball went to work on the old location in January 1974, Oscar Berceller died of a heart attack.
By the early 1980s, Winston’s was the dining place for Peter C. Newman’s fabled “Canadian Establishment” of power brokers. Newman gave a sense of the lunchtime crowd served by waiters whose fingernails were inspected by Arena each morning:
The standard Winston’s two-hour lunch is a daily convention of the Establishment’s illuminati (not a high-tech microchip carver in the bunch) who want to remain within frequent sight and range of those who make the decisions that count—in other words, one another…Nodding their heads sagaciously like wise turtles, they sip their Meursault, aware that for them fame and fortune is not a one-night stand. They have chosen this restaurant as a stage on which to parade themselves and their egos.
To satisfy those egos, regulars were welcomed by Arena’s genial presence and remarkable memory. Advertising executive Jerry Goodis felt Arena made people “feel important, very special, and even very loved. He exudes a real joy that you have come to visit him. When you go to Winston’s, it’s like going home.” According to Conrad Black, “John is very astute and certainly takes good care of his clients if he’s of the view that they have some prominence.” Newman believed Arena was a lay therapist, there for his customers to unload their problems onto. Arena also knew how to arrange diners so that those who required privacy were left alone and those with simmering conflicts were kept far apart.
Of Winston’s 23 tables, up to 13 were permanently booked. A select number of patrons, notably politician John Turner, had private phone lines installed at their tables. Next in the pecking order were regulars, then anyone else. Booking a table wasn’t easy, as an average of 50 callers a day were turned away and given recommendations for other high-end eateries. Some patrons were placed in the 45-seat Game Room downstairs, which, despite the high quality farm-raised game birds on Winston’s menu, Newman described as “the Establishment’s gastronomic purgatory, reserved for clubwomen, faceless out-of-towners, and shopping centre developers who wear triple-knits thick enough to stop bullets.”
But as time had passed it by once before, Winston’s fortunes declined after Arena sold the restaurant to a hospitality group in 1989. Nothing worked well during the restaurant’s last decade under various owners who struggled with bankruptcy, departing regulars, lower corporate lunch tabs, and the public’s drift away from heavy, artery-clogging cuisine. Reviews of later incarnations criticized inattentive service that a perfectionist like Arena would have never tolerated. Like its first home, the second site of Winston’s was bulldozed, leaving no trace of the restaurant where theatrical and business stars were treated royally.
Additional material from The Canadian Establishment Volume 2: The Acquisitors by Peter C. Newman (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981), Winston’s: The Life and Times of a Great Restaurant by Herbert Whittaker and Arnold Edinborough (Toronto: Stoddart, 1988), the October 22, 1946 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the October 8, 1960 and October 25, 1960 editions of the Toronto Star.