The Arcadian Court
In their heyday large urban department stores were centres for more than just shopping. Natural meeting places, and accessible by public transport, they were venues for art exhibits, trade shows, music recitals, dances, public lectures and fine dining. Large restaurants with multi-functional space became a standard feature of such stores, and few are as well-known as Simpsons Arcadian Court.
Located today in the Bay, Queen Street in the heart of downtown Toronto, the Arcadian Court opened on March 11, 1929 as part of the latest building extension to Simpsons Queen Street store. Art Deco was the governing design influence on this period of renovations and additions to the store, and the two storey arcade on the 8th floor was no exception. Wrought iron railings, large arched windows, plush carpeting and huge chandeliers hanging from forty foot ceilings all served to enhance a majestic space decorated in silver and violet with accents of blue.
At its opening it was the largest restaurant to be found in a department store and could seat up to 1,000 people on its main floor and mezzanine.The mezzanine, today known as the Galleria, was for a long time reserved exclusively for men, a custom that persisted until the 1950s or 1960s. In 1989 about half of the mezzanine space was converted into a gallery space, which housed the Canadian art collection of Ken Thomson until 2004.
Front of Arcadian Court menu, 1929
Intended to compete with the Royal York Hotel, and Eaton’s College Street for the downtown luncheon crowd, the Court was an instant success despite the inauspicious timing of its opening during the depression. By offering quality food at an affordable price, the Court has allowed generations of Torontonians to make dining there a cherished tradition – so much so that in the mid 1990s promotional material styled the restaurant as follows: The Arcadian Court. It’s where Toronto does lunch. And for much of that time the Court’s signature dish has been its famous chicken pot pie. It still holds pride of place on today’s menu.
The Court soon became the crown jewel in a large food operation at Simpson's downtown Toronto. Food operations employed up to 500 people and prepared food for two other restaurants in the Toronto area. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the restaurant is said to have served over 1 million meals a year. In 1962 for example, the kitchen prided itself of being able to roast "six hundred birds ... at one time."
Front of Arcadian Court menu featuring the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, ca 1948
The Arcadian Court has always been a place for special events. One of the earliest, just after the restaurant’s opening, was the first ever auto show to be held in Toronto. Canadian newspaperman and broadcaster Gordon Sinclair also appeared. On a trip to India and Asia in the 1930s, Sinclair sent a postcard to Simpson’s advertising department from North Borneo, which read as follows:
If you’d like to put on a real show in your Arcadian Ball Room, I’ll bring you a few wild men of Borneo and any amount of baboons and orangutans.
On his return to Canada, Sinclair’s appearance at the Court was sold-out – even without the promised wild men and animals!
The Toronto Symphony’s first radio broadcasts issued from the Court. In 1932 Sir Winston Churchill was booked for a talk (admission $2.20, tax included) only there was so much interest that the organizers started to worry about accommodating everyone and moved the speech to Maple Leaf Gardens instead, where the vast space looked woefully empty with only 3,000 people. In the fall of 1967 Sotheby’s held its first-ever auction outside Great Britain in its 233 year history in the Arcadian Court. The Gala Opening night of the five-evening sale saw a Gainsborough portrait sell for $65,000 in front of a capacity crowd of 2,500 people including Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra.
Arcadian Court décor, 1960s
The restaurant has been renovated several times: once in the early fifties, then in 1968-1969, when the mezzanine was re-named the Men's Grill, and again in the late 1980s, when it was "restored to its original Art Deco grandeur." Today’s Court, with its neutral décor, marble floor, palm trees and pianist remains a great lunchtime favourite. Mornings and evenings find the Court reserved to private functions, meetings, and special events. With the Galleria as a separate reception area overlooking the main two-storey ballroom, the Arcadian Court is a perfect venue for dances, conferences and weddings. In fact, weddings are a specialty and on-site wedding services are available
For 80 years the Arcadian Court has been making special events in Toronto that much more special. It is a living link to the days when department stores were much more than a simple shopping experience.