Arcadian Court History
1929 - PRESENT
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, public lectures and fine dining. Large restaurants with multi-functional space became a standard feature of such stores, and few were as well known as Simpsons Arcadian Court.
Located in the heart of downtown Toronto in the Bay, Queen Street, 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 pastel colours of turquoise and beige.
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, now known as the Gallery, was for a long time reserved exclusively for men, a custom that persisted until the 1950s and 1960s. In 1989 about half of the mezzanine space was converted into a gallery, which housed the HBC Gallery - featuring the Canadian art collection of Ken Thomson.
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: "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 can now be found on the menu at Bannock on the ground level.
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."
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 to talk at the Arcadian Court (admission $2.20, tax included) But 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 an auction in the Arcadian Court. It was the first-ever auction Sotheby's held outside Great Britain in its 233 year history. 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.
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 1980's. The Arcadian Court is a perfect venue for social events, conferences and weddings. In fact, weddings are a specialty and on-site wedding services are available.
For over 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.