Sam Taylor

Toronto café reveals secrets of former rock ‘n’ roll mecca

The Hard Rock Café Toronto has always had employees fall in love with its rock history. Some waited tables while singing and dancing to Britney Spears’ songs, others remembering Led Zeppelin. Three years ago, Sam Taylor, 20, was waiting for his job interview at The Hard Rock Café while discreetly playing Gov’t Mule’s Soulshine with an imaginary guitar.

The Friar's Tavern plaque inside the Hard Rock Café
From 1963 to 1976, the Friar’s Tavern was one of the most popular nightclubs on Yonge Street. Its stages featured many jazz and rock legends, including Bob Dylan. The current occupant of the storied spot on Yonge, the Hard Rock Café, honours the club’s legacy with a plaque. (Amanda Osiecki/Toronto Observer)

“I was on my way out of the restaurant when I saw this plaque on the wall, right beside the door,” he said. “This place used to be the old Friar’s Tavern. I was hired, and I knew it was just the beginning of an amazing job.”

The Friar’s Tavern, between 1963 and 1976, was one of the most popular nightclubs on Yonge Street. For more than 10 years, its stages featured many rock and jazz legends.

Perhaps most famously, the Friar’s Tavern brought Bob Dylan to Toronto. The performances of the band, Levon and the Hawks, at the Friar’s Tavern had charmed Dylan’s manager’s assistant; she urged Dylan to watch them play. Eventually the partnership between Dylan and that hard-edged Toronto rock band, in 1965, would create the famous group The Band.

Music journalist Nicholas Jennings
Music journalist Nicholas Jennings (Amanda Osiecki/Observer)

Nicholas Jennings, a music journalist, has written about this period in Toronto’s music history and the formation of The Band.

“It was that combination of great musical backing with poetry that took Bob Dylan into the next phase of his career, basically one of the most influential chapters in music,” Jennings said.

The southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas streets, in Toronto, has seen a lot of rock and roll. Two years after the Friar’s Tavern closed its doors, in 1978, it became a rock restaurant.

Taylor today is a “vibe host” at the Hard Rock Café. He tours visitors around the restaurant showing plaques, guitars, clothes and objects, which were used, donated by famous artists and then displayed on the walls. Among Taylor’s favourites is a collection of Dylan clothes and harmonicas.

“The Friar’s Tavern held some very memorable shows from some big stars, including Bob Dylan and Oscar Peterson long before it was a Hard Rock,” Taylor said. “Plaques to commemorate the venue can be seen on the restaurant walls today, and the building itself has remained kept up.”

The Hard Rock Café's collection of Bob Dylan clothes and harmonicas
‘The Friar’s Tavern held some very memorable shows from some big stars, including Bob Dylan and Oscar Peterson long before it was a Hard Rock,’ says Hard Rock Café vibe host Sam Taylor, who counts the restaurant’s collection of Bob Dylan clothes and harmonicas among his favourite displays. (Amanda Osiecki/Observer)

Taylor points out that the window side of the restaurant used to be the stage used by Bob Dylan and Levon and the Hawks for rehearsals.

During its years of operation, the Friar’s Tavern attracted a great deal of attention, including a curious Charles Rockwell, who was too young to get into the venue.

“When I was still under-aged for the tavern, I used to go to the restaurant part of it. I would seat there alone, have a burger and a coke and a side of life-changing tunes coming through the wall,” Rockwell said.

Back to mid ’60s, Rockwell remembers one of his first nights inside the Friar’s Tavern, in particular, a performance by John and Lee and the Checkmates.

“I was mesmerized with the atmosphere. The stage used to have big billboard letters that said ‘Friar’s-a-go-go,’ and girls dancing inside cages on each extremity of it,” Rockwell said. “That place has defined my music predilection. I had the time of my life, I guess I live up to my last name.”

Jennings had a history in the area and the era. He said he was a journalism student at Ryerson University, in Toronto; meanwhile, he worked as a dishwasher at the Riverboat coffeehouse in Yorkville.

“My very first experience with music was when I saw The Beatles at Maple Leafs Gardens. That opened my world to music,” Jennings said. “I also had a part-time job at the Riverboat coffeehouse where I got exposed to huge talents. I, then, became convinced that music was always going to be part of my life.”

Today, the Hard Rock Café entertains people who used to play or visit it as the Friar’s Tavern. The restaurant holds events every month when old classics are played in open jam sessions.

“279 Yonge St. is still alive, still rocking, only this time you can bring your kids,” Taylor said.