Lights Out for the Green Room?
The Green Room’s façade (top) and food safety inspection notice (bottom), on October 9. Photos by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.
On September 22, Toronto Public Health shut the Green Room down. For the fourth time in two years, the popular Annex hangout had failed its health inspection—two times more than any of the sixteen thousand other restaurants, bars, and “premises” that fall under Toronto Public Health’s purview. It hasn’t reopened since: a sign tucked in the alleyway entrance says that “Green Room is temporarily closed for renovation,” and a manager says they’ll be back on October 15. But they might not, ever. What’s more, the owner (current or former, depending on who you ask) is nowhere to be found—not at the Green Room, and not at any of the other downtown restaurants thought to be associated with him. For now, he’s a ghost, and soon, his restaurant might be too.
Since December 23, 2008, the Green Room has amassed no fewer than eighty-six cited health infractions from Toronto Public Health’s Food Safety Program, all collected in their DineSafe Establishment Inspection Report. Of that staggering number, fifteen infractions are in the “critical” category, the most severe and serious; these cover things like “fail[ing] to ensure food is not contaminated/adulterated” (in the Green Room’s case, twice), “fail[ing] to prevent a rodent infestation” (also twice), and “fail[ing] to wash hands when required” (once). The City of Toronto has taken legal action against the Green Room several times for those violations: the restaurant’s fines since the beginning of 2009 now rest at $6500, a total that’s likely to rise as a result of the September 22 inspection, which resulted in seven court summonses.
Over the last two years, the Green Room’s infractions have netted the restaurant three Conditional Passes (a sort of probation, which sees the restaurant re-inspected shortly thereafter) and four Closed notices by order of Toronto Public Health. One particularly bad four-day stretch, from February 3 to 6 in 2009, saw the Green Room receive a Conditional Pass, fail its subsequent inspection two days later and be forced to close for “fail[ing] to prevent gross unsanitary conditions,” and then, a day after that, while they were closed, fail another follow-up inspection, be issued another Closed notice, and be cited for even more infractions—including one for failing to properly display their food safety inspection notice from the day before.
Mary Margaret Crapper, the manager of media relations for the Food Safety Program, told Torontoist that restaurants are closed only when there’s an “immediate health hazard”; to reopen, they have to be re-inspected and pass.
What Toronto Public Health can’t do by itself, no matter how bad a restaurant gets, is close it forever. But what they can do in the most serious cases is what they’re doing right now: make a request to Municipal Licensing and Standards, and take the restaurant to the Toronto Licensing Tribunal to challenge its licence to serve food. On Thursday, October 14, at some point after 9:30 a.m. at the East York Civic Centre, the Green Room will face that tribunal. It could be re-opened, but with certain conditions—that they must have pest control come in a certain number of times a month, to give one example. It could see its licence suspended. Or it could be permanently shut down.
Jim Chan, a manager of the Food Safety Program, chooses his words carefully when he says that it only came this far because the Green Room “have not changed their attitude towards running a premises to be in compliance.” Usually restaurants that are closed once aren’t closed again; usually they change the way they do things to prevent it. “Very few” close even once, since most people “change their attitude to food safety” if they receive a conditional pass, continues Chan. And of those that close, “very few” ever do a second time.
So before the Green Room faces the tribunal that could end its life, we try to find its owner.
We call the restaurant. No-one picks up, and a voicemail message isn’t returned.
So we try that string of restaurants long thought to be run by the same owner, with similar or identical menus and prices.
We call the Red Room, at 444 Spadina, and ask the young woman who picks up if the owners of that restaurant are the same as those of the Green Room. “Yes and no,” she says, hesitantly. But she can’t give out their phone number, or their name. (“I wouldn’t have any information about that.”)
At Java House, at 537 Queen West, another woman says of the owners that “they don’t let us give out numbers”—especially not to reporters writing stories about them.
At Nirvana, at 434 College, another woman answers the phone. The restaurant’s owners are the same as the Green Room’s, she says, but there’s no phone number she can give out. (“We don’t have access to that information.”) Later, a manager calls back at the number we leave, and she tells us that “I’m not supposed to give out that information.”
At The Last Temptation, the young woman who answers the phone says she recalls hearing something about the Green Room having the same owners, but she isn’t sure. We leave our number. Then she passes the phone to an older woman who doesn’t give her name and says, curtly, that “we don’t know over there and they don’t know over here,” referring to the Green Room. “Don’t call here, because we don’t know anything,” she says, and hangs up. We get a call back a few minutes later from a man who says his name is “Anthony.” (“Do you have a last name?” “No.”) He’s a “friend” of The Last Temptation, and says that sixteen years ago the Kensington Market restaurant was owned by the same person who now owns the Green Room, but that’s that. He hangs up, too.
There’s one name we start to hear when we hear about the owner, though, whether it’s from current employees or ones long-gone, whether it’s from people who’ve worked at Nirvana or at the Green Room: William. And we keep hearing the same thing about him: he won’t talk to us.
The business licence for each of the restaurants is no help: the Green Room, Red Room, Java House, Nirvana, and the Last Temptation are all registered to different people or companies, with no Williams among them. The Last Temptation is registered to a “Hoa Thi Nguyen”; Red Room to “Le Le Cafe and Restaurant LTD”; Java Cafe to a “Anh Ngoc Tran”; Nirvana to a numbered company, “1746438 Ontario LTD”; and Green Room—in a licence issued on the same day it was shut by Toronto Public Health—to a “Dat Nguyen Au.” Over the course of the past year, none of the others have had health infractions on par with the Green Room’s: Nirvana, Java House, and The Last Temptation have each received one recent Conditional Pass from Toronto Public Health, but no worse, and each passed their subsequent inspections. The Red Room, meanwhile, has passed the two inspections this year, on April 29 and August 18, that are listed on DineSafe. (A change in ownership, Jim Chan explains later, is usually the reason why public reports seem to be missing earlier inspections; new owners start with a clean bill of health.)
The Green Room on September 30, one week after being closed by Toronto Public Health. Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.
So we try the Green Room again. This time, a woman picks up. She gives her name as Tina Nguyen, and says she’s the store’s only manager. She gives the details of the renovations: “we just need to fix the floor, do some painting, and some other stuff as well….they close us, so we use this time to do the renovations.” She explains that “mostly, we [are] done right now.” She says renovations would end on October 14 (the day of the tribunal), and the Green Room would be open again on October 15 (the day after).
When we ask to speak to the owner, she refuses. “You will get the same answer if I talk to the owner.” When we ask for the owner’s name, she won’t give it. She says she isn’t able to answer questions about the owners—just for them. “I’m not sure about that,” she says, when we ask if there’s one owner or two. She speaks softly, but she has her orders. “He’s really busy right now. I don’t think he can talk to you.” “At all?” “At all.” Can we meet him? “I don’t think I can arrange a meeting.” Not sounding particularly optimistic, she adds: “maybe after we are open.”
We leave a phone number for him (her? them?). Tina Nguyen takes it down. No one calls.
So on a Saturday afternoon, we try our luck one last time and show up at the Green Room’s door, tucked away in the colourful alley between Brunswick and Borden south of Bloor. It’s the day before Thanksgiving Sunday, and the Tranzac, which the alley runs beside and which has troubles of its own, is as non-descript as ever.
Outside the Green Room’s entrance are all the trimmings of renovations: pieces of concrete, a shovel, mops, buckets full of murky-looking water, a stumpy white refrigerator. It’s quiet, save for the whir of powerful fans pumping air into the other businesses and homes that huddle close together at the southwest corner of Bloor and Brunswick. Small groups of friends sometimes show up in the alley and turn the corner towards the Green Room before they stop, see the sign, and disappointedly head back in the direction they came.
A van’s parked right in front of the entrance when we arrive, with a young, twenty-something Asian woman inside it, clutching her phone. We ask, through the open window, if she has anything to do with the restaurant; she says she doesn’t. But she does, and there’s a reason her voice is familiar: it’s Tina Nguyen. We find that out when, after she makes a few phone calls, two men approach us from the alley to ask who we are and what we’re doing. Neither man gives his name; one, who looks to be in his fifties, will concede only that he’s a “relative.” Both men don’t want their picture taken.
And then, somehow, the relative invites us in.
The Green Room’s the same, but different, as it ever has been inside: there are the same couches, chairs, tables, and patio. Its aesthetic is still the absence of an aesthetic, an effect only heightened by the messiness that’s the result of the work being done. It looks, appropriately, like it’s either on the verge of starting over or in the midst of a slow death. There’s a can of something called “SPRAY KILLER” near the door, but the most conspicuous thing is the new tile floor throughout. It’s different: gray and dull like a cafeteria kitchen. It’s sterile, which is the point; the relative says they had to do it, and doesn’t pretend to be enthusiastic about the change. (Torontoist’s exclusive photos from inside the Green Room, taken that Saturday, are here.)
The relative keeps saying that he’s “afraid of the institution”—by which he means Toronto Public Health—but won’t go further, or say more. He does say, though, that the Green Room is a family business. And Tina says that it’s under new ownership, as of September. Is the owner’s name Dat Nguyen Au—the name on the Green Room’s new business licence? Yes, they both say. Who was the previous owner? A woman named Elissa Pham, Tina says. Was there a William? Yes, William is her father. Was William the owner of the Red Room, Nirvana, Java Cafe…? “We don’t know.”
Eventually, the relative tells us that the new owner wants to meet with us after all. We’ll get a call no later than Tuesday, we’re promised a few times over, so that the whole truth can finally be revealed. We leave a business card. By midnight on Tuesday, no one calls.
At the Thursday tribunal hearing, inside the East York Civic Centre some eight kilometres away from the Annex and the Green Room, someone will have to step forward to defend the Green Room and its dozens of health infractions in less than two years. Someone will have to mention the new floors, and convince the City that that’s only the beginning of the restaurant’s transformation. It might be the new owner who’s there, if there is a new owner. It might be William, or Elissa Pham, or the “relative,” or Anthony, or Anh Ngoc Tran, or someone from 1746438 Ontario LTD. Or it might be no one at all.
STORY CONTINUED, OCT. 15, 2010: How the Green Room Got Closed for Good