Walking down Spadina Avenue in Toronto, in the heart Chinatown, you might just hear some jazz music drifting out into the street, through the large, ground-level, open windows of Grossman’s Tavern. An unassuming music venue at the corner of Spadina and Cecil Street, if you blink you’ll miss it. However, this building holds the record as Toronto’s longest-running live music venue. Dubbed “Toronto’s Home of the Blues,” Grossman’s Tavern became the home-base for performers like The Downchild Blues Band, Milton Acorn, Robert Priest and Burton Cummings.
The three-storey building originally served as a home and medical office in the 1890s. It became a private residence in the 1930s and in 1943 it became “Grossman’s Cafeteria.” Before gaining a reputation as a live music venue, it was an important spot for the Spadina worker’s who frequented the establishment as a “beverage room.” After prohibition, the government licenced beverage rooms or “beer parlours,” with lounges that offered entertainment.
Al Grossman applied for this licence, and received one five years after opening, allowing the venue to evolve from a cafeteria into an entertainment venue. According to Eric Alper, in an interview with Globe and Mail writer Anthony Reinhart in 2004, his application for the licence was a battle against officials who “thought it [Grossman’s] would go to hell in a handbasket,” gleefully adding that “it turned out to be fairly accurate.”
In the 1970s, the Downchild Blues Band’s run at the tavern inspired Toronto Second City alum Dan Aykroyd. According to Jamie Bradburn of the Torontoist , Aykroyd would pop by Grossman’s Tavern and occasionally played the harmonica, though not very well. Downchild singer Richard Walsh says Aykroyd “couldn’t play harmonica to save his life.” That said, his visits to the blues bar would later inspire The Blues Brothers band, which Akyroyd formed with John Belushi as part of a musical sketch for “Saturday Night Live.”
In 1975, Al Grossman sold the venue to the Louie family, who continue to own and operate Grossman’s Tavern as a live music venue. Daughter Amy Louie says the tavern “just ran itself,” because no one could make a decision which is part of why the tavern “works” as well as it does today.
While you’re more likely to find this spot on a roundup list of must-see Toronto dive bars, some, like Dragon’s Den star Michael Wekerle and Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy, believe Grossman’s Tavern should be commemorated, along with other historic Spadina music hot spots like Hotel Waverly and the Silver Dollar Room, in a “Rock Walk,” similar to a walk-of-fame. Instead of historic plaques, the sidewalk in front of the venues could be embedded with images that tell the story and music history of the venues. In 2017 Cressy put a motion forward to Toronto City Council, even offering to cover some of the expenses of the project himself. According to CBC News, Cressy says that Spadina Avenue’s “unassuming venues have hosted some of the biggest names in rock and blues music, acts like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and U-2.”
Grossman’s Tavern is one of many hidden gems in Toronto’s music history.