Today, Friday, October 26, join the birthday festivities, including surprise “loot bags” and a birthday cake made for the occasion by the master pastry chefs at Dufflet Pastries (who have been looking after diner’s desserts since they opened.) From now until then the Queen Mother Café is running a contest with four chances to win a dinner for two with a bottle of house wine. Enter by sharing a memory or photo on social media and tagging @queenmothercafe; or participate by dropping a ballot at the restaurant.
In 1978, “the pill” was 18 years old; flared leg jeans were the fashion du jour; Marijuana cigarettes were handy in an ornate box on the coffee table and friends would light up and pass it around. The Vietnam War had been over for three years, but there was still fallout. In Yorkville, The Riverboat (where Joanie Mitchell and others got their start) closed; the Four Seasons Hotel opened and King of Kensington was the hottest show on TV.
The coolest restaurant on Toronto’s coolest street, was the Queen Mother on Queen St. West. I had my first vegetarian Cosmic Burger and my first Pad Thai at the Queen Mother. Cool.That year, 1978, Andre Rosenbaum, David Stearn, and Anique Rosenbaum opened a small 18 seat café as a home away from home for the bohemian community that lived in and frequented their neighborhood. It has since expanded threefold and added a garden patio out back. Andre and Kelly St. John (life partners) took over sole ownership of the restaurant in 2017, and together are continuing the Queen Mother’s enduring legacy as a Queen West fixture and destination. When it opened as an artsy hole in the wall café, it relied on a limited menu featuring the famous vegetarian “Cosmic Burger” (still on the menu) and the irresistible Dufflet cakes. It has since evolved into a much larger full-service restaurant showcasing an internationally inspired menu under the able leadership, for over 20 years, of Chef Noy Phangnanouvong. Along the way, the Queen Mother Café can be credited as being one of the first restaurants, as early as 1980, to introduce Thai cuisine to Torontonians at a time when even Pad Thai was generally unknown.
“40 years in the restaurant business is really pretty amazing and hard to believe. We benefited from the good fortune of opening in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. Once on our feet, it was thanks to the hard work and dedication of generations of staff and the loyalty and support of generations of patrons that enabled us to grow and remain popular and relevant. We are a trusted and comforting constant in an ever changing Toronto. Long live the Queen Mum!” said owners, Andre and Kelly.
In the early 90s I wrote this review in the 2nd edition of my Toronto’s Cheaper Eats books: “God save the Queen,” the Queen Mother café, that is. Still going strong after all these years. What started as a Queen St. pun has become one of the best Lao-Thai eateries around. But if you fear fiery flavors don’t turn away. Blander heroes are still going strong: quiche with tossed salad, tortellini and veggies with tomato cream sauce, and chicken salad sandwich with fruit.
Under the benevolent gaze of Charles Pachter’s now famous artwork, Queen on a Moose, and the aging photo of the Royals of the 40s, this 60 seat café, with a funky, tufted, leather banquette and cozy window nooks facing the street, plays host to girls in purple shoes and matching hair, fresh faces in black clothes, stressed-out students, and middle-aged middle-class. Mostly they come for the stir-fry’s that are combinations of shrimp, chicken and veggies. Laotian style is a mix of greens, herbs, boiled eggs, veggies and ground peanuts. Shrimp Curry sauce with steamed rice is a playground of flavors: coriander, pepper, basil, lime leaves, hot chilies and coconut milk. Fantasy foods at very respectable prices. Long live our noble Queen.”
Queen Mother Café, 208 Queen St. West, at McCaul
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.