Sandwiched between two giant record stores, this restaurant-bar would have been overshadowed by its neighbours if it hadn’t played its own pivotal role in music.
Basil Steele was a Toronto entrepreneur of Greek heritage who helped to change the face of Yonge Street with the opening of Steele’s Tavern in 1938. His ground-floor restaurant became one of the city’s most popular dining establishments, frequented by the likes of visiting movie stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose appearance there in 1964 caused pandemonium. Steele’s began featuring live music in the upstairs Venetian Room, where the small stage favoured solo artists. Folk music dominated, with performers such as Alan MacRae, David Wiffen and Jim McCarthy and Chick Roberts, later of the Dirty Shames jug band. But there were also blues singers like Al Cromwell and the legendary Lonnie Johnson. Before he got his start at Yorkville’s Riverboat, Gordon Lightfoot honed his act at Steele’s, where his appearances drew the attention of Ronnie Hawkins, Ian & Sylvia and, significantly, New York impresario Albert Grossman, who became Lightfoot’s manager.