The Legendary Watering Holes Have All Dried Up

Back in another mist-shrouded time when I was single, I always took dates to Bistro 990 in downtown Toronto.

With its arched ceilings and pale gold walls, you could believe for a few hours (aided by a glass of wine) that it was the Mediterranean Sea you were hearing outside, not Bay Street traffic.

The food was good, the waiters tended to know me by name, and there was always a star or two seated at the next table, present, I’m sure, to impress my date (hello, Liza Minnelli).

My friend David Haslam, the publisher of Marquee Magazine, once hosted the launch of a coffee table book we did together, The Movies of the Eighties, upstairs at the Bistro. As I left the party, I remember looking back and seeing a young woman, her skirt hiked around her hips, dancing on a table.

That was a book launch.

Across the street was the Sutton Place Hotel, run by the legendary hotelier, Hans Gerhardt. Anyone who was a star in those days stayed at the Sutton Place. Hans used to say there were more stars staying at his hotel than there were living in Hollywood. He wasn’t far wrong.

One night I was in the dining room, and I noticed a very large guy seated at the table next to me. He was dressed just like Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in The Godfather. I couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone come to the dining room at the Sutton Place dressed like that?

My date informed me that the guy looked like Marlon Brando because he was Marlon Brando. Turned out a very fleshy Brando was in town making a movie comedy titled The Freshman in which he played a gangster who dressed like Don Corleone.

I have endlessly fond memories of the Sutton Place and Bistro 990 . Soon, however, both will be no more, legend making way for still more condominiums– and we all know how many legendary condominiums there are.

Practically all the great watering holes of my (extended) youth have disappeared. I used to love to go into famous, glamorous places, order a drink and be part, however briefly, of the mise-en-scène .

The first time I was ever in New York, I took a cab to the Upper East Side and went into Elaine’s, the hangout of choice for stars and writers and journalists (say isn’t that Bob Woodward over there with Nora Ephron?).

As I approached the entrance that first night, a long black limousine pulled up, and the writer Lillian Hellman got out, her diminutive figure lost in a floor-length mink coat.

This is my kind of place, I thought.

I hung out in Elaine’s quite a bit during its heyday in the 1970s. One night I got into a conversation with Bobby Morse, the actor who had become a star on Broadway in the musical  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and in film in The Loved One (at the age of 80, his career recently has been reinvigorated by his role as Bertram Cooper in TV’s Mad Men).

As we talked, Morse waved hello to Robert Loggia,  an actor dining with a lovely blond-haired woman who turned out to be his fiancé. I told Morse I grew up watching Loggia play Spanish-American lawman Elfego Baca in The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1959 and 1960.

Morse laughed and called Loggia over. Loggia couldn’t believe anyone even remembered the series, let alone recalled it on a winter’s night in Elaine’s. It was his first break, he said, an Italian-American kid from Staten Island playing a Spanish gunman in the old Southwest.

The four of us sat together, and we talked and drank and laughed until the owner, Elaine Kaufman, finally threw us out.

I loved the Oak Bar at the Park Plaza Hotel. On a winter’s evening the frost on the windows  obscured the view of Central Park, dark wood paneling reflected the burnished light setting off sleek women and elegantly-dressed men, the place alive with conversation and the clink of cocktail glasses. This was the New York I always imagined as a boy growing up in a small, Eastern Ontario town; the New York right out of an Irwin Shaw short story.

For me, the most welcoming watering hole in Hollywood was the El Padrino restaurant in the basement of the old Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The decor was Spanish in that clichéd way the movies always imagined Spanish, complete with crimson walls, and  a huge oil painting of the hotel’s owner, Hernando Courtright, in full vaquero regalia mounted atop a white horse.

I once spent a week in the penthouse suite where Elvis Presley stayed and where Warren Beatty had lived. You could look down on the Beverly Hills Brown Derby across Wilshire Boulevard from my penthouse window. Elvis and Warren must have had the same view.

I would get on the elevator and there would be the band leader Count Basie. Wandering into the El Padrino I would encounter Van Johnson chatting in the entranceway.

In Toronto, the place to see and be seen was the Courtyard Cafe at the Windsor Arms Hotel. Pierre Trudeau used to drop by when he was prime minister. I had dinner at the Courtyard with the novelist Jerzy Kosinski and his wife, Kiki. The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors, and I used to hang out into the wee small hours with his then-girlfriend, Karen Kain.

If you just wanted a drink–or a lot of drinks–the best thing was to go next door to the Club 22, or the two-two as the regulars called it. Everyone in Toronto show business and journalism came to the two-two.

Paul Drake played the piano in the bar at night, so it was a great place to take a date for a nightcap. Bill Marshall, the co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, had a regular booth where he entertained the likes of Richard Burton and James Coburn. Actress Elizabeth Ashley would be seated at one table; the actor Bruce Dern at another with Donald Sutherland drifting through.

All these places are gone now–either renovated beyond recognition (the Beverly Wilshire, the Windsor Arms) or closed for good (Elaine’s). Soon the Sutton Place and the Bistro 990 will join them.

What’s even sadder, nothing has come along to replace the great watering holes of my past. Maybe that’s because the culture of drinking has changed since the days when I was leaning an elbow against bars in Los Angeles and New York and Toronto. Or maybe I have simply gotten older and no longer know–or care–where the great watering holes of today are located.

But I will live in memory one last time and revisit the Sutton Place and Bistro 990 before they are gone for good, these places of another era, where it was always night, and the wine was poured, the banter was smart, the possibilities endless, and Marlon Brando was at the next table, and Liza Minnelli’s presence could impress a date.

And the dream would go on forever.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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6 comments on “The Legendary Watering Holes Have All Dried Up
  1. What a fun stroll down memory lane! I love Robert Morse and his character on Mad Men. We talked with him recently at the ACE Eddie Awards. Did you know he used to golf with Clint Eastwood before they were famous? Watch our Robert Morse interview here! Thanks!

  2. wdampier says:

    Hi Ron. Nice piece. Had lunch at the Windsor Arms couple of weeks ago, at what used to be Three Small Rooms.. Don’t go back; you’ll be disappointed.

    Bill Dampier

  3. Tom Alderman says:

    Enjoyed your stroll down memory lane. I’ve also been to many of the joints you mentioned and, if memory serves (if often doesn’t nowadays), remember them almost exactly as you did.

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