This 44-year-old Toronto restaurant is what remains from when Queen West was cool
A Toronto restaurant housed in an 1850s building has been run by the same person since it opened in 1978, and while it's not a Thai restaurant it arguably helped popularize pad thai in Toronto.
Queen Mother is truly a family affair. Rosenbaum originally opened it with the help of his sister, Anique Rosenbaum, and friend David Stearn. His wife Kelly St. John became the general manager for both Queen Mother and Rivoli in 1988.
His sister stepped back to change careers in 1992, but her husband Jeff Strasburg joined the team in 1997, and in 2017 Rosenbaum and St. John bought out their partners and became the sole owners of Queen Mother.
They were going to sell the Queen Mother Cafe to two of our longtime staff, Sarah Henning (front of house) and Ranjan Sivaranjan (back of house) in 2020 with a closing date of April 1, 2020, but lockdowns derailed those plans and the deal wasn't finalized.
Instead of a buyout, they made the deal a "buy in" and the staff joined as partners, with Queen Mother now owned by Rosenbaum, St. John, Henning and Sivaranjan.
"The name, Queen Mother Cafe, is a Queen St. pun capturing the sense of a welcoming home away from home for our friends and neighbours who like us lived and worked in the hood," Rosenbaum tells blogTO.
"The restaurant was your cool mother on Queen West. A gelatin print of the actual Queen Mother which we had found and were hanging as part of the boho decor was the inspiration for the play on words."
You can still find the print hanging to this day if you look hard enough, nestled in among the antique bones of the historical 1850s building.
"We have a mural of the site history painted in the front vestibule listing all the businesses that have been in the space, from William Ferguson, a tailor in 1850 to Queen Mother Cafe in 1978. We also have a small display case at the entrance showing artifacts that were found in the lath and plaster walls during our renovations," says Rosenbaum.
The building is made up of three bays (or addresses) at 206, 208 and 210 Queen St. West.
Queen Mother originally opened in 1978 as an 18-seat cafe at 206. Between 1981 and 1996 they took over the other two bays and created a back patio, and now have a capacity of 128 seats inside and out.
"At first, with limited cooking facilities, our menu was primarily one of salads and sandwiches, including our original signature dish, the vegetarian Cosmic Burger and Dufflet desserts... we're her oldest customer! Members of an extended Laotian family joined our team and introduced us to Lao and Thai flavours," says Rosenbaum.
"In 1984 we added a number of their Lao and Thai dishes, like pad thai, ping gai etc, to what we called our global comfort food menu. Chef Noy, still in our kitchen, is a member of the original family. The only restaurant in Toronto serving Thai food around that time, to our knowledge, was the original Young Thailand, the Rivoli and the BamBoo."
He says, "The reception to the new Asian dishes was tentative at first but over time has been enthusiastically embraced."
Introducing Asian food to Toronto was far from the biggest change Queen Mother would see historically, with the business going on hiatus for three months at the beginning of lockdowns in 2020.
"We have always seen ourselves as a meet-up and dining-in venue. We pride ourselves in being welcoming to a broad range of customers in our cozy surroundings. Takeout and delivery was not really on our radar," says Rosenbaum.
"The new partnership's big challenge was reimagining our business in a takeout world. Fortunately for us, our food travels well and our regulars were incredibly supportive. The various government subsidies and programs helped us get through the worst of it."
He says he now finally feels there's a sense of normalcy returning to the restaurant business, but has seen many changes to the Queen West area over time and knows there will be more to come.
"The arrival of the Four Seasons Opera House and Roy Thomson Hall have added a pre-show dining component to our business. Visually the skyline has been impacted by the number of high-rise condos that have cropped up," says Rosenbaum.
"When we first opened this part of Queen West was very bohemian, artsy and low-rise. Over the years the street has become gentrified with more mainstream shops moving in."
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