Dinner in a Building With a History and a Personal Mystery Solved

My friend Andrea let me choose the restaurant for a dinner out last week and it took me no time at all to pick La Carnita located on John Street, between Adelaide and King Streets West. She’d been there before, so it didn’t take any convincing for her to agree on the place.

While I was eager to try their delicious sounding tacos, I must admit that I was particularly interested in seeing inside the historic building in which the restaurant resides.

We’ll begin with dinner and then talk about the building, which has a unique story to go with it …

We arrived to a bustling place, where all the two-person tables were occupied, so we got a spot at a communal counter area in the middle of the main floor.

We started with drinks, a Margarita for A and a locally brewed citrus lager called Dagger for me.

The server recommended a serving size of three tacos each : Andrea had sweet potato, mushroom, and crispy cod and I had a mushroom and a chicken taco and a grilled fish tostada. Everything tasted very good, however, in hindsight, I felt I made an ordering mistake in having the grilled fish tostada and should have had the crispy cod one instead.

After our meal, we hung out and had another drink.

I took a quick trip upstairs to have a look …

When they began their renovation a few years ago, the building was just a shell consisting of thick brick walls and windows, as all the interior walls had been removed years prior, when it had been used as a pub. That being the case, it’s beautiful how they kept the exposed brick and bits of the original walls.

There are a few La Carnita locations in the city and their site states that they have local artists help with their interior designs.

In all, we had a really good time at La Carnita. The servers were very friendly and the setting was great. We’ve decided that we’ll definitely be going back, next time with the guys.

Now, about the building : It’s named The Richard West Building and was built a block away from where it is today, on the south-west corner of John and Adelaide Street 150 years ago, in 1869, by a local contractor named Richard West, who lived there with his family. The style is called Gothic Revival.

At the time it was built, the whole block bordered by John Street and Spadina and Adelaide and King, was filled with residential properties. Today, few of those former houses remain in the area, this being one of them. In order to preserve it, the Richard West House was declared an important historic site and added to the list of Protected Heritage Properties in 2010. You can read about the attributes that made it of particular interest for preservation on the City of Toronto site here.

You might remember the building, located on the south-west corner, back when it was the Fox and Fiddle Pub, which I believe it had been from the mid 1980s, so for about 35 years. So, basically, that corner had a pub on it for as long as most can remember, covered with pub-like posters, awnings and a large front porch, hiding the building.

I took a walk around there in September 2011, and found a huge construction site, and then lost my bearings when I noticed the old building had been moved across the street from where it had originally been. It turned out that, because the building was protected, the developers were not allowed to tear it down in order to make room for the new condo towers they were building. So, they hoisted it up on a massive truck-bed and moved the structure to an empty lot across the street, where it sat temporarily while the condo was being built.

↑ In September, 2011 when temporarily parked in a lot across the street. ↑

I don’t want to give you the impression that this was a casual affair and that huge old buildings are regularly picked up and moved to new locations in Toronto. I believe this has only occurred a couple of times before, once on Sherbourne when a historic mansion was moved 60 feet, and another time, back in 1972, when The Campbell House (which is now a museum at Queen Street West, near University Ave) was moved 1.5 kilometres.

Back to The Richard West Building, it stayed in its temporary location for 13 months, while the condo towers were constructed. Then, in September 2012, they moved it again, this time placing it in its new permanent location, half a block to the south of where it had been originally built. There’s a video describing this impressive achievement here, with some footage of the move in progress, if you’d like to see.

The construction job on this site was massive, so it took a long time. When I went by the historic building three years later, in June, 2015, it was still empty and propped up on wood.

↑ September, 2012 – That the nice looking old building to the left of it had a sold sign when I took this photo but today it is no longer there. I guess it wasn’t protected by the Heritage Properties Act. ↑

Since one of the doors was open in the above photos, I assume they were were working on the interior of La Carnita at that point. The restaurant opened a few months later in September 2015.

Here’s what the original location of the building looks like today …

↑ The Richard West Building is there, on the left. Interestingly, there’s a Fox and Fiddle Pub in the base of the new building, so the same company must be involved in both restaurants. ↑

And, in case I’ve made it seem like there are no cars on John Street, I waited for the clear moments when taking all these pictures. This is what it really looks like …

I searched the Toronto Archives for historic photographs of the grand old place, to see what I could find. The pickings were very slim, and I found only two photographs, neither of which are particularly old.

(About the archives, found here — they are fascinating to explore, as they contain thousands of scanned old photographs of the city. However, it’s sometimes hard to find old photos of particular buildings because cameras were mostly used back then to document specific occurrences. So, for example, you might find a building you’re interested in, in the background of a shot that was documenting construction of a streetcar track, or something like that.)

Anyway, here’s what I found that include The Richard West House. The first is of the house in 1972, when it was 103 years old. It appears to be unoccupied and taking up space in a parking lot …

The second is of John Street, showing the strip from King Street up to The Art Gallery of Ontario (which hadn’t been expanded yet). The photo was undated, however I estimate it’s from 1991 because Metro Hall was in the process of being built (bottom right) and it opened in 1992. “Our” building is on the left (west) side of the street, marked with an arrow. It is one of two places with a mural painted on the side.

↑ Oops, I meant “Adelaide and John” ↑

It was seeing the old picture above, that finally shone light on something I’ve wondered about for years.

I’ve been into photography since I got my first film camera as a teen. As a young adult, I was too broke to do much, so I entertained myself by walking all over downtown, taking pictures. That was before digital cameras and film and developing were expensive, so I was careful about what I shot. I mention that because, nowadays, I tend to take series of shots, so I always have others for reference when figuring out exactly where I was and what exactly I was trying to capture. But, back then, it was one shot at a time, with no extras to give context.

An ex liked a particular shot I’d taken and thoughtfully had it enlarged and framed, giving it to me as a gift (and keeping/losing the negatives in the process). It’s a picture of the side of a building with a mural painted on the side, depicting a vintage artwork for Campari by Italian French poster art designer Leonetto Cappiello.

That framed photograph has been with me for my entire adult life. My husband Nick chose to hang it in our current living room, where it has been for the last 18 years.

While I’ve always known it was taken somewhere around King Street West, I simply could not remember exactly where. Subsequent walks around the area never revealed the locale, since that neighbourhood has been in constant flux and changed dramatically over time. Now, I think that the mural was probably painted over shortly after I took the picture. Google searches had also turned up empty.

Anyway, I imagine you can guess where this is going. Here’s a look at my framed print on our living room wall, which I quickly snapped this morning.

Indeed, it is the very same building!

And, now this personal mystery has been solved.

Thanks for reading,
xo loulou