The history of the first Swiss Chalet in Toronto
The first Swiss Chalet opened in 1954 at 234 Bloor Street West, near the northeast corner of Bloor and Bedford Road. It was the beginning of a restaurant chain that was to become an icon of Canadian family-style dining.
It became so popular that it was reported that a Canadian once jokingly quipped, “If America is such a great country, why don’t they have a Swiss Chalet?” This was prior to the chain opening outlets in the United States.
The founder of the chain of restaurants was Maurice Mauran of Montreal, in partnership with another businessman.
In 1948, before opening in Toronto, Mauran introduced his barbequed-style chicken in Montreal, in his Chalet-Bar-B-Q restaurants.
Apparently he was inspired by the Swiss method of cooking chickens, which consisted of skewering the birds on a spit and roasting them over an open flame. Because the birds rotated on the spit, they cooked in their own juices.
The first Swiss Chalet was located on busy Bloor Street, in close proximity to Varsity Stadium and Varsity Arena. As it was an instant success, two more restaurants were opened.
One of them was at 362 Yonge Street and another one was on Yonge Street south of St. Clair.
The decor in the dining room of the restaurant on Bloor Street contained carved dark-wood panelling, dark ceiling beams, and small fake windows with frilly cotton curtains. It was an attempt to create the appearance of a Swiss mountain hideaway, such as in the children’s story, Heidi, by Joanna Spyn.
As a teenager in the 1950s, I dined in all three of these sites, mainly when attending movie theatres located within walking distance of them.
The chickens were barbequed in an oven containing glowing charcoal, which imparted their unique taste. The prices were reasonable, and being a teenager with a bottomless gut, I always ordered the half-chicken dinner.
The restaurant on Bloor Street also had a banquet room in the basement level, for private functions. I was in this space on one occasion, with a group that performed in Varsity Arena, later in the evening. There were about 35 of us, and we enjoyed the meal immensely.
Before cooking, the chicken were rubbed with salt, and then, roasted for an hour and fifteen minutes. At the Bloor Street site, in the 1950s, the chicken was served with fries or a baked potato, the fries cut daily rather than previously frozen.
The meal also included dipping sauce and half of a toasted hamburger bun.
A small bowl of water, with pieces of lemon in it, allowed a patron to rinse the fingers after eating. There were no ribs or other items on the menu; these were added during the years ahead.
I enjoyed the chicken immensely. However, I recently read some online reviews, and although there were many who enjoyed the meals, there were some that did not. However, I did not read any comments that indicated that the reviewers were aware that the chicken was roasted over real charcoal.
Some compared it with St. Hubert chicken, which was roasted, not barbequed, and the sauce was more like home-style chicken gravy. I enjoyed it as well, but I preferred the chicken at Swiss Chalet.
I found it interesting that Maurice Mauran was also the creator of Harvey's Hamburgers. His first location opened in 1959, on the southeast corner of Yonge and Observatory Lane in Richmond Hill.
Similar to his Swiss Chalet, the burgers were flame grilled, and said to be the first in Toronto to employ this method.
An article in the Telegram newspaper reported that Mauren had intended to name his hamburger restaurant "Henry’s." However, while flipping through the telephone directory, he noticed an ad for John Harvey Motors at 2300 Danforth Avenue, known as Harvey’s. He liked the sound of the name, and decided to call his restaurant "Harvey’s."
In 1963, Mauran opened a Harvey's on Bloor Street, a few doors west of his Swiss Chalet. In 1977, the chain was bought by Cara Foods (now Recipe), and was operated by Toronto-based Foodcorp Limited, a subsidiary of the parent company.
In 2021, there were more than 220 outlets in Canada.
Mauran later became a highly successful mutual funds manager, possessing residences in England, Monaco, and Ft. Lauderdale.
The entire block of buildings where the first Swiss Chalet was located was demolished in 2010 to erect a 32-storey condominium named One Bedford. It overlooks the rebuilt Varsity Stadium.
As a footnote, Cara Foods purchased St. Hubert Chicken in 2016 for $577 million. That was certainly not "chicken feed."
Doug Taylor was a teacher, historian, author and artist who wrote extensively about Toronto history on tayloronhistory.com. This article first appeared on his site on October 28, 2016 and has been republished here with the permission of his estate. The article has been modified slightly.
Toronto Archives of the first Swiss Chalet on Bloor St. The entire block of buildings in the photo were demolished in 2002.
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