Canada

Queen Mother Cafe turns 42: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the iconic Queen West restaurant keeps dishing out Laotian fare

In August, Toronto photographer Ed Hanley snapped every empty storefront he saw along Queen Street West between University and Strachan Avenues. He counted 60. He did the same thing again in October and counted 72.

The photos went viral on Twitter among Torontonians who saw firsthand the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on the commercial strip that was the host to countless first dates, first downtown excursions, first rock shows and first forays into buying clothing approved by peers but not by mom.

There would be no more smells of crepe batter wafting from the front windows of Cafe Crepe, or dance parties at The Beaver. Torontonians always lamented how Queen West gentrified over the years as more chains moved in and places like the Condom Shack, The Big Bop and MORBA moved out, but COVID-19 hastened the turnover.

So an email from the Queen Mother Cafe proprietor Andre Rosenbaum, not sharing news of an impending closure, but instead its 42nd anniversary on Oct. 26, was comforting. At least for now one of the iconic spots that shaped people’s memories of Queen West is staying put.

For those unfamiliar with the Queen Mother, it might seem weird that a place named after Queen Elizabeth (the mother of Queen Elizabeth II) would serve Southeast Asian dishes, but this was the place where a lot of people had their first pad Thai. And even in a city that has moved light years ahead in showcasing Southeast Asian cooking in the last five years, people still have an appetite for the restaurant’s pad Thai.

“The business is probably 25 per cent of what we’re normally doing, but because of the financial support we can sustain that,” says Rosenbaum, referring to a combination of outdoor patio service, takeout and the landlord applying for government rent subsidies.

“We’re in a position to just stay afloat and hope there’s a vaccine. We’ve been with our landlord and his family for 42 years now, and he understands that if we survive, it’s good for him and the neighbourhood. Queen Street has a lot of empty storefronts and that can’t be good for the landlords.”

Rosenbaum can’t remember another time when the hospitality industry faced any challenge as great as this.

“The irony is that we always said we had the perfect location. We had great lunch business from hospitals, law courts and offices. At night there was Roy Thomson Hall, the movie theatres,” he said.

“But the daytime customers are now working from home and the nighttime cultural events have stopped. Right now we’re relying on the condos in the neighbourhood and a few offices that are still functioning. We brought in heaters for the patios. Normally we close the patio by Thanksgiving weekend, but we’re going as long as people come.”

Many longtime clubs, music venues and restaurants have shuttered on Queen West over the years, but the Queen Mother Cafe remains a constant. It turned 42 on Oct. 26, 2020.

The restaurant shut down for three months and reopened for takeout and outdoor dining in June, but that wasn’t always the plan. While not all of the front-of-house employees returned, Rosenbaum says most of the kitchen staff is back.

“There was a time when we thought we would never reopen because this is a gathering place. We had takeout, but no takeout platform,” he said. “Our business seemed to be over, but our landlord was really supportive and two of our staff were key managers and really wanted to give it a go. Fortunately our food pivots well to takeout.”

Rosenbaum, a lawyer by trade, opened the then 18-seat Queen Mother Cafe on Oct. 26, 1978, with his best friend and fellow lawyer, David Stearn, and his sister, Anique Rosenbaum who was studying photography at Ryerson University.

The building dates back to 1880 and at the entrance is a glass case of artifacts — old booze bottles and signs — that give clues to its previous occupants including a wagon repair shop and a bakery. The reason for the name? The Queen Mother was 78 when the restaurant opened.

“It was a very artsy neighbourhood, very bohemian. I was 29 and the three of us rushed through life and wanted a bit of a break,” Rosenbaum said. “Back then the rent was $375 a month. A lot of people were coming (to Toronto) to try their chops at acting or music. It was like the beginnings of Soho and we thought this would be a good place for people to hang out.”

For the first year, the cafe served coffee, sandwiches and tea. It stayed open until 4 a.m., though sometimes it closed earlier. Rosenbaum remembers on the second day of operations they had to close at noon because they sold out of the six bagels they had.

“We learned at the generosity and patience of our customers. We didn’t even have a stove for a year-and-a-half. We had a toaster oven and a few burners until we expanded to the space next door a year later.”

By 1980, the larger cafe had a proper kitchen setup and served slightly more elaborate fare like quiches, soups and bread.

In the early ’80s, a friend of Rosenbaum’s sponsored a refugee family arriving from Laos. Throughout the late ’70s to ’90s, thousands fled Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia due to political instability and the fallout of the Vietnam War. Rosenbaum gave two of them, Aneck and his wife Viengsouk, jobs in the kitchen as dishwashers.

“We became friends and their family started inviting us to their house for Lao New Year,” Rosenbaum said. “The food they served was out of this world.”

Other members of the family started working in the kitchen, and introduced Laotian dishes on the menu. Rivoli, the music venue down the street that Rosenbaum co-founded with his partners in 1982, also added spring rolls to its menu.

Chef Noy Phangnanouvong has introduced Laotian cuisine to many Torontonians over the decades at the Queen Mother Cafe.

One of the line cooks at Queen Mother Cafe, Noy Phangnanouvong, eventually became the restaurant’s chef and is still working in the kitchen decades later.

“It’s the kind of food people gravitate to: the ping gai, the curry seafood hot pot, the khao soi gai,” Rosenbaum said. “We’re very lucky because it kept us current. Our sous chef Nadarajah is Sri Lankan, so we have samosas and roti as well. We also have burgers. People ask what kind of restaurant we are, and I just say global.”

In 2017 Rosenbaum’s original partners, his sister and his best friend, gave up their ownership. His wife, Kelly St. John, a manager at the restaurant since 1986, became co-owner with Rosenbaum.

Now that he’s in his 70s, Rosenbaum is thinking of the restaurant’s future, even in a time when most food business owners are just trying to get through the week.

Front-of-house manager, Sarah Henning, who also previously ran Rivoli, and Queen Mother sous chef Nadarajah Sivaranjan are in the process of becoming business partners to keep it going.

“Having a legacy is an important aspect. The fact that it’s been there for so many years and people who came as children are now bringing their children. But I also feel a responsibility for the legacy of the staff. It’s their life, too,” Rosenbaum said.

“The place is a symbol of endurance because in the spring I really thought it would be it. I think people want anything that bridges life pre-COVID and post-COVID. So there’s some hope that the Queen Mother of yesterday will still be here.”

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