Toronto Star

Barberian builds on his father’s stake

Restaurate­ur is preserving a piece of Toronto’s past, and helping to shape its future


Arron Barberian doesn’t want to be known for his Internet videos. He’s much more than a bat-wielding Blue Jays fan or a rough-and-tumble restaurate­ur who can fight off a mugger — though both of these incidents are only a Google search away.

In his own esteem, Barberian is a city builder.

Whether it’s as host to politician­s, power-brokers and celebritie­s in the massive wine cellar under the steakhouse his father founded, or as a catalyst behind the redevelopm­ent of Yonge-Dundas Square, the secondgene­ration Armenian-Canadian knows he’s had a blessed life and wants to spend it giving back to others.

Yet this philanthro­py isn’t entirely selfless. Barberian likes being acknowledg­ed for his work.

His kids call Dundas Square “Daddy’s square,” and he’s as proud of the popular public space as he is of them. He holds an annual fundraisin­g dinner for Mount Sinai Hospital and boasts that it’s the only day of the year his restaurant is closed to the public. This year’s cheque topped $125,000. His family is also a donor to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilita­tion Hospital.

“The Barberian family impact is more significan­t to the neighbourh­ood than a 120-seat restaurant,” he said this week, sitting in the dining room a few hours before opening.

Barberian’s Steak House shot to prominence in1964 as the location of Richard Burton’s first proposal to Elizabeth Taylor. Over the decades, it became a mainstay for movie stars and athletes alike. Future prime minister John Turner held court there once a week when he worked on Bay St. and, more recently, it was where baseball’s Justin Verlander took out his teammates after pitching a no-hitter in 2011.

“Every prime minister since Diefenbake­r and every mayor I know of has eaten here,” said Barberian. “It’s a private space where people can discuss things. I am privileged to have their ear.

“I walk into city hall and councillor­s listen to me. I’ve got gravitas,” he said. “I’m not afraid to go up the ladder to make this city a better place.”

After more than 55 years in business, Barberian’s has evolved from being the hottest restaurant in town to being one of its legendary institutio­ns. Arron Barberian’s life, like his name, is inextricab­ly linked to the place. “I realized recently that I don’t own a restaurant. I own a piece of the fabric of the city,” he said.

Barberian’s Steak House was already a Toronto mainstay when Arron was born in 1964; he spent his childhood playing the pinball machine his father kept in his office.

As he grew, he worked in the kitchen, peeling garlic for 50 cents an hour. Between the ages of 4 and 8, he would wake up at 2:30 in the morning and sit on the stairs until his father got home.

“We’d talk about how business was that night, which celebritie­s came, the number of customers. I wanted all the details,” he said. “Then we’d have a glass of orange juice in the kitchen and go to bed.”

His father, Harry, liked to keep things simple. After he helped Ed Mirvish set up his pre-theatre restaurant, the impresario and owner of Honest Ed’s sent over a copy of his first menu with a handwritte­n mes- sage: “To Harry Barberian: He taught me the restaurant business in 10 minutes. Best wishes, Ed Mirvish.”

Harry owned his restaurant outright to stay sheltered from the pressures of a landlord. His family, like those of other Yonge St. entreprene­urs, became fixtures of the area.

“I was the kid in the neighbourh­ood. I wandered around the neighbourh­ood. I knew the people. I knew Fran Deck at Fran’s. I knew Sam Sniderman at Sam’s,” said Barberian.

But by 1973, his father was tired. He sold the restaurant and moved the family to Siesta Key, Fla. Yet Harry couldn’t quite get used to retirement. He’d return from time to time to take a floor shift, advise or help out.

In1994, the Barberians bought back a controllin­g share of the restaurant and came home. Arron took over the family business. “The place was in sad shape. It needed pruning and fixing up,” he said.

It wasn’t only the Barberians. Other families with business roots in the neighbourh­ood were doubling down. Bobby Sniderman, the son of Sam the Record Man, bought the Senator restaurant, added the jazz room upstairs and hired Arron to manage the business. It was a generation­al turnover that would breathe new life into the area, which had suffered a long decline. One day, Bobby Sniderman and Barberian were walking around the neighbourh­ood their parents had helped define, and the men remarked on the shabbiness of their legacy.

“It was disgusting,” Barberian said. There were too many drug dealers and people selling stolen goods, too much crime and prostituti­on. They knew that Yonge and Dundas was an important intersecti­on that could be so much more than it was. “We want- ed something special there,” he said.

This stroll was the beginning of a decades-long effort to redevelop the heart of Toronto. With help from local business owners and former mayor David Crombie, Barberian got the ball rolling by cutting the first cheque for $5,000.

Twenty years later, the square has more than fulfilled their dreams as a new centre of civic activity. But Barberian doesn’t think he’s received credit for his years of work through the local business improvemen­t associatio­n.

“I’m now relegated to a single line on a Wikipedia page,” he says. “Someone at Ryerson wrote a book about it and she didn’t even interview me.”

While the square has been derided as ugly and empty, a decade after its inaugurati­on, it has undoubtedl­y become a major gathering place in this city. “We were creating an empty vessel,” he said. “Now the city has filled it up.”

Harry Barberian was quite a talker, and Arron has inherited the trait.

In his steakhouse’s dimly lit dining room on a recent afternoon, wellwisher­s drop by to check in. Barberian, wearing a mustard yellow sweater and his signature black, squarerimm­ed glasses, talks about his life, his restaurant and his city.

“Too many things are sprung upon us by politician­s just because they’re elected to hold temporary office. The true stakeholde­rs are the people who own the land and live in the neighbourh­oods. Their voices must be heard. I’m pretty good at letting the temporary individual­s hear what we think. I’ve got street credibilit­y,” he says.

He has now run the restaurant for longer than his dad did, and he’s added his own touches, including the highly acclaimed sandwich shop, TLP, a few doors down. But his real accomplish­ment is hidden in the basement.

Beneath the white linen, down a windy staircase and through a door unlocked by a thumbprint scan lies Barberian’s homage to his father.

It’s a huge wine cellar, with 30-foot tall stacks of bottles and gilded chandelier­s rescued from the old Toronto General Hospital. There’s a table here for the high rollers that reportedly brings in $1 million in business on its own each year.

When Harry was in hospital for the surgery that would lead to his death, Arron came for a visit and they planned to start constructi­on as soon as his father was healthy. “Let’s go ahead and build your dream cellar” were Harry’s last words to his son.

Upstairs, Bobby Sniderman pops in, wanting to make sure Barberian hadn’t been hurt in his scuffle with the mugger. Barberian shows him the Batman pin his wife, Linda, brought him as a wink to his crimefight­ing ways.

“Your dad is up in heaven smiling,” Sniderman says. To which Arron responds: “He’d be proud of me.”

“I realized recently that I don’t own a restaurant. I own a piece of the fabric of the city.” ARRON BARBERIAN ON HIS RESTAURANT, BARBERIAN’S STEAK HOUSE

 ?? RANDY RISLING/TORONTO STAR ?? The impressive wine cellar at Barberian’s Steak House is Arron Barberian’s homage to his late father, Harry.
RANDY RISLING/TORONTO STAR The impressive wine cellar at Barberian’s Steak House is Arron Barberian’s homage to his late father, Harry.
 ?? MARIO GEO/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? Actor Robert Morley pours wine for ballet star Rudolf Nureyev as Harry Barberian looks on at his steakhouse on Elm St. in 1972.
MARIO GEO/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO Actor Robert Morley pours wine for ballet star Rudolf Nureyev as Harry Barberian looks on at his steakhouse on Elm St. in 1972.

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