The stories of 3 Stratford establishments: The Old Prune, Rundles & The Jester Arms
The Old Prune
Set in a Victorian house on a Stratford side street, in 2010 The Old Prune Restaurant was quiet and genteel. Broad new steps leading to the porch extended the entire width of the building. The tiny pebbled garden, Japanese in style, featured circles of green growth, a low bench and a modernist stone water sculpture. Columns and railings of brushed metal and glass added a modern feel to the old building. Inside, a narrow hallway, with the original staircase on the left, led to the front dining area. Mottled walls in cappuccino tones created a sense of warmth and calm; round café-style tables with black-and-white striped tablecloths were lit by suspended cone lights. Beyond the reception bar, the restaurant opened up to a large back room. Original paintings by Marion Isherwood adorned the pale grey-green walls; white linen topped the banquette tables. The room exuded peace and quiet elegance, allowing the diners to focus on the exquisite flavours and delicate textures of the food.
Thirty-odd years ago, 151 Albert Street stood empty. The owners-to-be, Marion Isherwood and Eleanor Kane, knew nothing about the restaurant industry. Neither had ever dreamed of re-locating to Stratford, let alone opening a culinary establishment. They both held interesting jobs, in quite different fields, in Montreal. They also had different personalities, backgrounds and visions of the future. However, they shared a love of food, good company and culture.
Born in Alberta, the second oldest of six children, Eleanor took to responsibility early. Her father, the successful branch manager of an insurance company, raised Eleanor in a well-to-do manner. The family traveled and dined out frequently; eventually they loved to Montreal. Eleanor took her degree in child psychology. By the time she and Marion met, she was in charge of a multi-disciplinary program for children with developmental disorders. It was “fascinating, groundbreaking work,” but by the late 1970s, when she was thirty-five, it had become quite stressful.
Marion immigrated to Canada from England in 1966 with one of her two older brothers. Although originally planning to move to Toronto, she fell in love with Montreal and decided to stay, one of her many spontaneous life decisions. She administered the Canadian office of the American Management Association, “a fabulous company” for ten years. However, with the election of the Parti Quebecois, the situation in Montreal became increasingly uncertain for people not born French, and Marion’s boss wanted her to relocate to the Toronto office. She was not at all keen on the idea.
Marion and Eleanor met singing in a choir and became friends, not just with each other, but with five other lively choristers. The Grope of Seven, as they called themselves, rented a cottage in the Laurentians for several magical summers and spent almost all their spare time together. They became like family; all of them loved to cook and eat. Apart from the pressures of work, both women adored Montreal. They had full interesting lives there and wonderful friendships.
So why did they move to Stratford and embark on as risky a venture as opening a restaurant?
Theatre aficionados, they visited Stratford during Robin Phillips’ tenure as artistic director. Lured by exciting press coverage of Stratford productions, they would take the train to Toronto, rent a car and drive to Stratford. They enjoyed the experience immensely, but never stayed overnight because Stratford boasted no appealing eateries or accommodation. It was a pretty little town, quiet and leafy green, only notable for its exceptional theatre.
In 1976, on the train home after being dazzled by Philips’ production of The Guardsman, Marion said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Stratford had a coffee bar or tea shop, where people could congregate after the theatre and talk about the plays before going home?”
Eleanor agreed that it would be a tremendous addition to the town; they mulled upon the notion in a playful manner. Marion reminisced about the cozy little tea houses in England and her brother’s unfulfilled dream of opening a coffee bar in Birmingham. Neither took the idea very seriously.
They returned, not too happily, to their various workplaces. Eleanor’s organization had undergone significant change and she suspected she would soon lose her position as department head, given the negative attitude towards those not born French-Canadian.
That very morning, after a stressful board meeting, the usually careful Eleanor grabbed the phone and called Marion. “Were you serious?” she asked.
Caught up in her own challenges, Marion said “About what?”
“A tea house in Stratford.”
Marion took one look around the office. “Yeah,” she said firmly. “I was very serious.”
Two weeks later, they returned to Stratford to explore the idea. Neither of them knew a thing about how to run even as modest an establishment as a tea room. As they looked around the town with new eyes, Marion’s thoughts wandered back to those English tea houses.
“We’re not going to rent a shop front. We’re going to buy a house,” she announced.
Eleanor gaped. “Buy? A house? Now, Marion…” The thought had not even crossed her mind. She’d never owned property; it seemed too extreme a step.
But Marion, filled with her characteristic enthusiasm, insisted they contact a real estate agent. Although anxious, Eleanor decided there could be no harm in seeing what might be available. The perfect little place in downtown Stratford would never materialize, she thought, and if it did, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.
The real estate agent took them to 151 Albert Street. The quaint Victorian house was exactly what Marion had in mind and Eleanor could see its potential. It was going for a song (although an expensive one for two women who had no savings.) They debated briefly and decided to put in an offer. They would try it for a year, insisted Eleanor. If they didn’t like it, they could resell, possibly at a profit. Marion agreed.
They returned to Montreal and the next day received a call: the offer had been accepted. They stared at each other.
“There’s no turning back now,” said Eleanor. “We’re in it up to our eyeballs.”
They rummaged up the money.
“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” cried Eleanor’s father.
They did not, but forged ahead, excited and apprehensive in equal parts. That winter they arrived to take possession of the property in the midst of a massive snowstorm. Taking charge, Eleanor set off to buy a shovel and they dug their way through the drifts. By the time the movers from Montreal arrived the next day, they’d cleared the driveway, but the storm continued so fiercely that the movers had to spend the night.
Marion’s brother persuaded two architects who owed him favours to look over the property and give them ideas about how they might transform it. Eleanor’s lawyer brother helped them incorporate. Eleanor also had him draw up a contract stipulating that if, after a year, either of them wanted out of the venture, she’d be free to withdraw. They approached Stratford banks and obtained a line of credit from the CIBC, the only bank who thought their notion worthy. At the Chamber of Commerce, they were told, “What Stratford really needs is a pancake house.” They rolled their eyes. A pancake house indeed! No, 151 Albert Street was destined to be a tea house and only a tea house. Or so they thought.
Through that first winter, electricians, carpenters and plumbers hammered away at renovations downstairs while Marion and Eleanor escaped the dust in their living quarters on the upper floor. They were desperately lonely. Their friends from Montreal came up for odd week-ends.
“We cooked and ate and sang and laughed while they were there,” said Eleanor.
“And when they left, we cried,” added Marion.
They felt cut off from their former lives. They’d spent almost all their free time in Montreal with their close friends. In fact, the name The Old Prune came from a comical event at the cottage the friends shared north of Montreal. Early on, they had agreed upon a single rule for the cottage: no children allowed. It was to be an adult playground. One week-end, driving up, Marion and Eleanor shared their lists of planned visitors and realized, with horror, that both had invited siblings with children. How could they explain this to the others?
The group held a court case. Marion and Eleanor went down on their knees and pleaded with their friends.
“Just because we’re old prunes with no husbands and families, must we be denied the occasional presence of children in our lives?” they begged.
The group relented and permitted the siblings, nieces and nephews to visit, but forever after called Eleanor and Marion the “old prunes.” The description seems laughable. The two had movie star glamour: Eleanor tall and dark with bedroom eyes, Marion a beautiful, vivacious blonde.
When they took possession of 151 Albert Street, Marion looked through the driving snow at the old building and declared, “Well, there she is. The Old Prune.” The name stuck.
They passed a long, uneasy winter, but finally the theatre season began and they prepared for their grand opening. They’d become friends with actor Eric Donkin, who lived down the street. Trying to keep their hopes from getting too high, he advised them not to make too much food for opening day. “This is Stratford, not Montreal,” he warned. They nodded at this sage advice.
On May 10, 1977, when they opened the doors, people lined up along the walkway and down the street. They slaved in the kitchen and raced across the street to the Loblaws store over and over again to buy more supplies, quietly cursing Mr. Donkin. Cheered but exhausted, they stocked the larder more fully for the rest of the summer.
For the first few years, The Old Prune opened at 11:30 a.m. for lunch and stayed open through teatime, closing at 7:00 p.m. They served magnificent cream teas, with sandwiches, salads, scones and cakes that Marion baked. They hired a few young people, but shouldered the bulk of the work themselves. They were literally run off their feet.
The tea house was a success, but it made no money. The average bill was $3.25. The customers lingered over their tea and sandwiches for hours. Something had to change.
Being such affable souls, Marion and Eleanor quickly befriended people in Stratford, particularly those in the budding restaurant business. Like everyone else serious about good food, they dined at the Church Restaurant and made the acquaintance of its successful owner. When The Old Prune opened, Joe Mandel declared, “God bless you girls. This is just what Stratford needed!”
The trio who would open Rundles Restaurant a few months later came to The Old Prune and soon became fast friends with the Prunes. At this stage, there was little competition among the new restaurateurs. Instead, they supported and encouraged each other, all involved in the same exciting new venture.
The Prunes struggled on, figuring out not just how to run a restaurant but how to do the hands-on work. Initially they shared all the tasks. They alternated roles, cooking one week and serving the next. This system had the advantage of giving them some variety but proved inefficient since neither had control of any specific area. They decided to divide and conquer. The efficient Eleanor took over all the cooking and bubbly Marion ran the front of house. They had no professional staff.
Since the teas turned no profit, they expanded and started to serve one-pot suppers as well. The chef at The Church, Jean-Marie LaCroix, and his wife Vivienne offered them invaluable advice and support. Jean-Marie would call Eleanor and say “Come over today. We’re doing lobster. You can learn how to cook it” or “Eleanor, we’ve got racks of lamb today. Come down and I’ll show you.”
Meanwhile Vivienne had a myriad of ideas for the front of house, and after a year of wheedling, she persuaded the Prunes to let her help Marion in the dining room.
“It was a riot,” said Eleanor, “These two English broads out there greeting and entertaining people. The guests loved them.”
They expanded their repertoire and added staff. When Jim Morris hired a Scottish chef at Rundles, he suggested the Prunes might hire the chef’s wife. Sue Anderson became the first professional chef at The Old Prune. Initially, she worked with Eleanor in the kitchen, but soon became sole chef. She took The Old Prune from one-pot dinners to a full-fledged restaurant. They now opened for lunch, dinner and after theatre. Business boomed, as not only theatre-goers but the theatre community itself became loyal patrons. People would arrive post-theatre at 11 p.m. and eat full course meals. This continued for years. They started to make money, but, in Eleanor’s words, “It was lethal for the staff.” Often the restaurant didn’t close until 2 a.m.
In the early days, “we used to get up and go down to the old kitchen in our nightgowns to start preparing food,” Marion recalls. “Sometimes we’d still be in the kitchen when the doorbell rang.” Since they had to pass through the front hallway to reach the upper level, they would slither on their bellies to get to the stairs, not wanting guests to see them in their dressing gowns. In 1979, they bought another house and moved their living quarters out of the building. It was clear they were in for the long haul.
Sue Anderson stayed as chef for seven years, years of whimsy and daring, during which the Prunes poured their youthful energy into finding different ways to attract customers. Given their by-now close affiliation with the theatre community, it’s not surprising that many of their strategies had a theatrical flair.
They hosted themes nights two or three times a year. Sue would create ethnic menus; the Prunes would send out invitations and go wild decorating the restaurant. They developed a strong following, particularly among actors. The theme nights became more elaborate. They staged an Italian wedding, complete with unlikely bride and groom, and guests brought “”awful tacky gifts.” At a Russian night, actors Jeffrey Prentice and Don Adams took the roles of a ballerina and her manager, refugees from Russia, and Don Adams regaled one gullible individual with outrageous stories, told in a strong Russian accent.
A trio of actresses, including Goldie Semple and Kim Horsman, worked the crowd as courtesans on Club 151 night. To the Prunes’ horror, at midnight the police showed up and arrested half of those assembled, including Marion. The “policemen” turned out to be actors from the company, who’d borrowed costumes for the occasion.
They held jazz nights, après ski events, Easter and Mother’s Day brunches. Before she’d become famous, Loreena McKennitt would bring her harp over and perform. Actors flocked to the restaurant; the Prunes made more money. They put on a new roof and back deck, expanded the main room, and replaced the prep kitchen, until then a rundown garage. Eventually they closed in the deck to create the second dining area, which looked out on a lovely rear garden.
After seven years of inspiration and “great fun”, Sue Anderson left and the Prunes sought a new chef. By then, Eleanor had launched the Stratford Chefs School with Jim Morris and Joe Mandel. Unable to locate a suitable replacement for Chef Anderson, the Prunes hired a Stratford Chefs School graduate as a stop-gap measure. A few weeks prior to opening for the 1989 season, they received a call from a young man named Bryan Steele, who’d just returned from five years working in European restaurants. Disappointed that the Toronto restaurant scene had changed so little since he left, Bryan had brainstormed options with Chris Macdonald of Avalon Restaurant. Macdonald suggested he try Rundles. Jim Morris had no openings in his kitchen, but told Bryan about the situation at The Old Prune. The Prunes invited him down for an interview.
Steele arrived on a motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, his hair in a ponytail.
“We can’t have him,” said Eleanor, watching through the window.
“Certainly not,” agreed Marion.
Eleanor interviewed him for six hours. Emerging from their meeting, she announced, “We must have him. He’s the chef for us.”
Steele agreed to try working at the Prune for one summer; he wanted to see how he liked it. It was, in his words, “weird stepping into it.” The Prunes had already hired their staff for the season and set the menu. “They had a sous chef who thought we were going to be co-chefs,” recalls Steele, “but I assumed I’d be chef. It took a while to sort things out. Some of the staff were returning, others were students.”
Nonetheless, from the start Steele “liked the restaurant and the fact that I had lots of freedom. I quickly established myself and made changes to the menu. Eleanor immediately stepped back and left me in control. All my staff that first summer were eager and many obviously had some training. I was very happy with that.”
In Eleanor’s words, “The Old Prune made its name through Sue Anderson. Bryan took it to another level.” They eliminated the late night dinners that had been so hard on staff, and the theme nights. Steele wanted a more serious restaurant and, with the culinary expertise he’d developed in Europe, he created menus to rival any in the country. One of the things that appealed to Steele was the ready availability of local produce. “In Toronto,” he said, “one would get on the phone, call suppliers for everything, and they’d deliver one or twice a week. Here, especially in the summer when produce started arriving, the suppliers would just show up at the restaurant. I didn’t even have to phone them. They’d appear with beautiful wild asparagus and say: do you want this?” He’d take it and adapt his menu accordingly. It reminded him of his time in Europe.
What did Steele hope to achieve at The Old Prune? “My techniques were European. So I was envisioning I’d take the restaurant in that direction but using local ingredients. My philosophy has always been simple, local, fresh. Let pure flavours speak for themselves. As soon as I arrived and saw farmers showing up with all these wonderful things – local bounty – I knew it would be a local cuisine.” Over the years, he built strong relationships with local suppliers, who’d often tailor their gardens to his needs.
By the end of Bryan’s first summer at The Old Prune, Eleanor had persuaded him to stay the winter and teach at the Stratford Chefs School. Although hesitant, Steele quickly saw the value of training the people who would ultimately work in his kitchen. “I was used to working with more skilled staff, but I would much rather start with kids who had no skills and teach them good habits. I was never once tempted to test the waters by hiring outside the school. There was a wealth of willing, passionate kids to work with.”
A few years later Steele married a Chefs School graduate. Like the Prunes, he never left Stratford and is still chef de cuisine at the slightly renamed Prune Restaurant.
When Marion and Eleanor finally decided to retire in 2010, The Old Prune was one of the top restaurants in Stratford: elegant, inviting, scrumptious. Its loyal customers from across the continent returned annually to enjoy the delights of the kitchen and the warmth and sparkle of its hostesses. Few could imagine the Prunes once slaved over cakes and scones in nightgowns by morning and churned out lunches and teas for the rest of the day.
Marion said, “We were only going to do it for a year.” They lasted thirty-three.
All information and quotations in this article are taken from the following interviews:
Marion Isherwood and Eleanor Kane, Stratford, July 6, 2009 & November 6, 2009
Bryan Steele, Stratford, February 10, 2010
The individuals who founded Rundles had explored a variety of options before finally opening their restaurant in June 1977. James (Jim) Morris, Billy Munnelly and Marie (pronounced Mari) Workman all lived together in Toronto. Jim and Billy had attended catering school together in Ireland; they met Marie, a native of the emerald isle, in Toronto. Jim and Marie shared a passion for the theatre and frequently visited Stratford.
All three were bored in their current jobs. Marie worked nine-to-five for the Irish Trade Board, Jim as a waiter at Winston’s and Billy as a Gilbey’s representative. They wanted to do something new and spent many an evening brainstorming over glasses of wine. They decided on a restaurant because, according to Marie, “we thought we should do something that at least two of us knew something about.” They came up with the idea of launching a restaurant and bar with a theatrical flare. Marie and Jim envisioned a large medieval-style dining hall with “wenches, jugglers, waiters who would sing and play tricks on clients, bawdy, lively stuff… serving good plain fare.” Billy saw himself presiding over a huge bar that would complement the restaurant.
Both Jim and Marie hailed from small towns and fell in love with Stratford. Jim recalls coming in 1974 and being “just enchanted by it. It was a lovely summer’s day …and I thought I’d like to live here.” The following year, Robin Phillips took over as artistic director of the Stratford Festival, raising the theatre’s profile with productions that drew international acclaim. In Jim’s words, “suddenly we were coming up constantly and there was absolutely nowhere to eat until Joe Mandel opened the Church. It was just a wasteland.” Though less drawn to Stratford, Billy also recognized, “the lack of restaurants in Stratford. There was a big red light on saying ‘opportunity’.”
The city struck all three as a perfect place to open a restaurant that would appeal to both the theatrical and culinary interests of visitors. They dreamt that, if it succeeded, they would work hard during the summers and travel in the winter months. Once they’d gathered some financial resources, they started looking for real estate in Stratford.
Almost immediately, they found a suitable location: a large bowling alley on the main street, the rear of which faced the Avon River. It had plenty of space for a banquet hall downstairs and a long bar upstairs for Billy. However, the owner wanted $150,000 for the place. According to Jim, “People kept telling us, it was only worth about $50,000, and it would have required a huge amount of renovation.” They placed several offers on the building, but when the owner refused to lower his asking price, they looked elsewhere. They had viewed a dilapidated property on Cobourg Street early in their search and liked its riverside location, but had dismissed it as too small for their grand dreams. Once they abandoned the idea of the bowling alley, they turned back to the Cobourg Street building.
Looking back, Jim said, “It was a bit of luck, really, that we didn’t get the bowling alley. We’d never have been able to make it work in such a huge place, though we didn’t see that at the time.” Billy agreed: “Afterwards, we all said Thank God that didn’t happen. You’d need to be in a major city [to make something like that work].”
Luck stayed with them. In exchange for agreeing to do all the renovations on the Cobourg Street property themselves, in late 1976 they rented it at a modest price with the option to buy later. In addition to their own investments, the three partners obtained a loan from Federal Business Development Bank.
Initially they hoped to rent an adjacent piece of land as well, so they could set up an enormous tent to extend the restaurant. In January 1977, due to a falling out between the owners of the building and that piece of land, they learned they would not get the additional property. Again, Jim felt this was fortunate. “Had we ended up with the tent, it would have been a disaster. People might have come once but probably wouldn’t have come back.” An establishment on that scale would have been too challenging.
The tiny, rundown Cobourg Street property could not accommodate a medieval-style banquet hall. Overnight, they changed their concept and decided to open a small French restaurant with an artsy flair, in Marie’s words, “very much a summer restaurant – light and bright and airy.” Since the building had little in the way of architectural interest, they would create something streamlined, clean and modern in feel. The minimalist approach suited their limited financial resources; it also meant Rundles would stand in sharp contrast to the historical ambiance of The Church and The Old Prune.
They hired an architect to put in windows looking out on the Avon River. He also created an interlocking stone deck around the building for outdoors tables. Jim wanted the interior to resemble an art gallery. To this end, he connected with a gallery in Toronto and rented art to put on the otherwise bare white walls.
On Rundles’ opening week-end, the owners faced an unexpected challenge. “We hadn’t got the permit to sell anything,” said Marie. “The man who was to issue it was away for the week-end. We had bookings on Saturday and Sunday, so we just gave everything away for free. But it was great! And over half the people who ate there that week-end became regular customers. We served our full menu (game pie, French onion tart, sweetbreads, salmon, fish, steak, chicken tarragon.) Everyone ordered whatever they wanted and it gave the kitchen staff a chance to practice. And nearly everyone left us money. It was quite exhilarating.”
Operating with a minimal kitchen staff, that first summer chef John Walker offered à la carte menus for each meal. Jim acted as host, with assistance from Billy, who ordered the wine for their ambitious wine list, picking it up in Toronto. Marie acted as administrator and bookkeeper, but also spent time on the floor. “On a summer’s evening,” wrote Joanne Kates in Fanfare,” the three owners are reigning over their creation in splendid style: on a terrace overlooking Lake Victoria, the woman partner is being herself (large, friendly and Irish) before dinner. Inside, the partner who looks like Uriah Heep with a grand smile [Jim] is scurrying to and fro, bony hands sticking out of his perfect gray tweed suit. Order reigns. And the third member of the Rundles trio [Billy] is pouring white wine (with a flourish, of course, into beautiful crystal flutes) while managing to look like Warren Beatty in Shampoo.”
The three recall that first summer somewhat differently. Billy loved the outdoor patio and spent much of his time out there. “We used to greet people out on the patio and give them a little drink so we could stagger entrance to the restaurant, because they’d all arrive together. We’d give them a little dry sherry, which they’d never had before, so it would amuse them.”
Marie enjoyed the challenges. “We flew by the seat of our pants. We’d no pattern in mind, we bounced ideas off each other. My favourite part of the whole experience was adapting, thinking up new things, figuring it out as we went. We had no major disagreements. It was very exciting and nerve-wracking, very tense financially.”
While Jim shared their excitement, from the start he had serious ambitions for the restaurant. More of a perfectionist and perhaps more concerned about the finances than the others, Jim remembers the first summer as “a nightmare. Business was bad. We were all trying to learn how to run a restaurant, fighting with each other.”
They attracted largely American tourists. “There were a lot of theatre and food-savvy people in Detroit,” said Billy. “They were probably more sophisticated than Toronto people at that time. There was a lot of money in Detroit. They’d been to Europe, been to 3 Star restaurants. They were in the majority and were really big spenders. The Stratford restaurant scene owes a huge debt to Detroit.”
Rundles got going, but didn’t have sufficient time to establish itself or make any money before the theatre season ended. The first winter they tried to survive by offering cooking classes, wine tastings and private parties, but it was hard work, especially as the three owners dashed back and forth to Toronto to their “day jobs.”
Deep in debt, they couldn’t afford to pay the contractors who’d worked on the renovations. They took another mortgage for $30,000, but according to Jim it was a “big and rather worrying mess.” Then luck came their way again. The Federal Business Development Bank grew anxious that if they couldn’t cover the rent, the owner would take over the building and the Bank would lose its investment. Just as the three partners were wracking their brains about how to make ends meet, the Bank announced it would give them the money to buy the building. Weak with relief, they accepted and hobbled on to the next season.
Rundles fared better during the next three seasons, receiving positive notice from the press and building their clientele. In 1978, Jim hired a quartet of student musicians to serve tables during the pre-theatre rush and then perform for those dining during theatre hours. The restaurant did twice as much business in 1978 as 1977, and continued to garner interest through 1980. They offered a wide range of meals: lunch, gourmet picnics, and three dinner sittings: pre-theatre, during theatre and post-theatre. Each offered a limited but elegant menu and Chef Walker impressed critics and diners alike, despite prices that struck critics as high. After the first year, they closed during the winter months.
The trio of owners bonded with the other early restaurateurs. According to Marie, “One of the joys about it was how well we all got on. There was no rivalry at all; we all helped each other out. On a Saturday night, you’d get a booking for a table for six. When tourists arrived in Stratford, they’d go to all the restaurants where they’d reserved, check the menu and decide, so some of us would end up with empty tables. So we’d phone each other. Marion [Isherwood] would call and say, ‘Have you got a table of six there in such-and-such a name?’ And yes, we probably would – so she’d know they could free the table up at the Prune.”
At the end of the third season, Billy sold out his share of the business. “It wasn’t working for me,” he said. “I thought something else would be more fun – so I came back to Toronto and opened the Rosedale Diner, something smaller, more everyday – more like what I was looking for.” However, he continued to work as a wine consultant for restaurants in the Stratford region for some time.
After Billy left, Marie and Jim ran Rundles alone. Both were strong-minded individuals with distinct ideas. Marie recalls, “Billy kept both of us sane. He was very good at sensing what was going on in people’s heads.” After he left, she said “it was still fine, but not quite as much fun.” She and Jim began to bump heads. However, such struggles were the least of their worries.
In 1981, Rundles’ fortunes took a serious downturn. Robin Phillips had departed as artistic director of the Stratford Festival, leaving the Group of Four in charge. Disputes between the quartet of artistic directors and the board resulted in a less than auspicious theatrical season, with fewer visitors coming to Stratford. Much worse for Rundles, John Walker departed to teach at a school for the deaf, leaving them without a chef. Jim looked for a replacement in England and settled on “the best of a bad lot.” This decision had disastrous results. As Jim said, shaking his head ruefully, “The food just wasn’t good. It set us back probably five years. People were disappointed and refused to come back to the restaurant.” Partway through the season, Jim found the offending chef a position elsewhere. “The guy was hopeless, an incompetent. I got so exasperated with the fact that the food wasn’t consistent – it depended entirely on who was in kitchen any given day.” He had to let him go.
That season a 22-year-old Brit named Neil Baxter had started work in the Rundles kitchen as saucier. At a loss, Jim asked Baxter if he could take over as chef for the rest of the season. “Neil thought that would be no problem at all,” said Jim. Baxter remains chef at Rundles to this day, and much of the restaurant’s success is the result of his skill.
Jim saw the relative fiasco of the 1981 as an opportunity to work with a promising young chef and support his development. With Walker, Jim had taken a lead role in menu planning. Now he decided to let Baxter take charge of the menu. However, he knew the young chef lacked experience. “I got a chance to start training Neil that first winter after he took over, doing some consulting work in London. Then I took him on a tour of France. He’d never been there before and was struck by some of the things they were doing.”
In 1981, Jim had offered only a single prix fixé menu, not trusting the chef to manage anything more. In 1982, Baxter expanded it to several offerings. However, he did not really hit his stride as a top chef until a couple of years later. He worked at the Quilted Giraffe in New York for parts of the next two winters and spent four months on a stage in France. By 1984, Baxter had developed into an exceptional chef and Rundles was on its way to becoming one of Stratford’s top restaurants.
Meanwhile, Jim had made changes to Rundles’ décor. He’d rented art from Toronto for about three years, but the process became too complicated. Through his connections with gallery owners, he met Viktor Tinkl and hired him to do some work to help soundproof the restaurant. The main room, with its multiple windows, bare walls and hard chairs, was so noisy that patrons told Jim they loved the food, but would not return because of the din. Tinkl put in baffles, gondolier-like structures that came out of the walls. Fascinated by the work of this unusual artist, who created art out of found materials, Jim asked him to redecorate. The décor in the restaurant became increasingly whimsical and imaginative, with Tinkl’s trophy pieces – animal heads made of tree stumps and birds of tin – adorning the walls. By the mid eighties, Rundles had adopted their signature bit of service protocol. Tinkl designed elaborate tin plate covers with sculptured handles, which to this day are whisked off the plate once all dishes have been placed before the diners.
As Rundles found its niche, drawing back customers who’d left during the catastrophic 1981 season and attracting new ones, they finally began to make money and attract high-brow clientele. Robertson Davies, a regular, declared it to be his favourite restaurant in the world. Other luminaries, including Margaret Atwood, Peter Hall, Patrick Macnee, Christopher Plummer and Alice Munro, also chose to dine at Rundles. Marie recalls one well-known figure whose behaviour astonished her. “New York Times critic Clive Barnes would come in, have an aperitif, a bottle of wine to himself and a brandy and then he’d go off to review the show. I thought it was disgraceful.”
They experienced some unexpected front-of-house challenges, like people arriving, claiming to have reservations. “You knew darn well they hadn’t made a reservation,” said Marie. “I’d ask them for their reservation number. Nine times out of ten they’d say ‘we left it at home’, but you knew they hadn’t.” Returning forgotten credit cards to customers sometimes proved tricky too. “We always had their phone numbers,” said Marie. “But once I called to tell the gentleman he’d left his credit card and obviously he wasn’t there with his wife, he was with somebody else. That was really bad, so after that I just returned the card to whatever bank had issued it.”
In 1987, Jim bought out Marie and the other remaining partners and became sole owner. Marie felt the time had come to move on. Rundles had become “too chi-chi” for her. Her health had also suffered as a result of the long hours and irregular meal times. Besides, Rundles was Jim’s baby. “I’m not an entrepreneur,” said Marie. “I get terrified about losing money. I was becoming more and more scared about doing what Jim wanted to do. So I sold and he didn’t have me nagging him about spending money.”
Looking back on it, Marie felt that over time, Rundles “became more refined. And it worked beautifully that way. I just preferred the little hole-in-the-wall kind of place.” When she left, Jim finally got to run the place solo. “He designed the place he liked,” said Billy, “which is what you should do.”
Jim wasted no time at the helm. In 1988, he re-mortgaged and used the money to put an addition on the rear of the building, which included a vastly expanded kitchen. In his words, they built it “Mexican-style”, a bit at a time, over four years. First he enlarged the kitchen and added a basement and an upper storey at the rear of the building, where he would eventually live. The next year the entire building received new, quality cladding for the first time.
Neil Baxter continued to work his magic in the kitchen. He experimented with a variety of special menus: Tasting Dinners, exotic caviars, Voluptuous Cuisine and Gastronomical Menus. He designed preview dinners, ethnic evenings and marriage of food and wine events. In addition to the ever-widening spectrum of gourmet dishes on offer, Rundles boasted an excellent wine list and served a variety of specialty teas and coffees.
By the late 1980s, Jim abandoned the after-theatre dinner seating. A number of bars had opened to serve the late night needs of theatre patrons and artists. As Jim put it, “After Theatre was always a problem. People who would go out after theatre didn’t know what they wanted to eat. We couldn’t afford to have a separate staff, so they worked 8:00 a.m. till 2:00 a.m.” Like the Prunes, Jim decided to spare his staff.
The Stratford Chefs School opened in 1983 and increasingly graduates staffed both the kitchen and front of house at Rundles. Neil and Jim each trained their teams well. Although there was frequent turnover in the kitchen, where students worked as apprentices while at school, many of the front of house staff remained loyal to Rundles for years.
Today Rundles remains a top destination for many visitors to Stratford. Its simple, upscale elegance, fanciful decor and stunning river view soothe the souls of its diners, while the scrumptious menu and excellent service make an evening there truly memorable. It continues to be expensive, but in 2008, responding to the recession, Rundles added a bistro menu at more modest prices to draw back clientele who’d stopped coming because they couldn’t afford the luxury. People flocked back, delighted to be able to afford Baxter’s cooking and the rarified atmosphere of Rundles once more.
Jim is proud of the fact that for over thirty years Rundles has been able to provide consistently excellent service. He’s also proud of the building: once a rundown garage, it is now a lovely, light-filled establishment with a beautiful exterior. The final renovation, undertaken between 1999 and 2002 by the Canadian architectural firm Shim-Sutcliffe, lifted the restaurant’s appearance to a new level. A new entry and entrance ramp, a bay window at the front of the building and changes to both front and rear dining rooms opened the space up; the exterior landscaping, with gardens, arches and a deck out the front, completed the transformation. Although it took two decades for Jim to realize his vision, once the final renovations were complete, the building itself received praise equal to that lavished on the food and service. At that time Jim decided to add a guest house next to the restaurant. Also designed by Shim-Sutcliffe, Rundles Morris House is an extraordinary feat of architecture, a modernist creation of wood and concrete, flooded with light – which won the firm a prestigious architectural award.
Rundles still offers lunch on week-ends and two dinner sittings (pre-theatre and during theatre) but no longer does picnics or teas. The wide range of offerings proved too costly, so Jim adapted, as he’d done from the beginning, because, in his words, “”You have to keep re-inventing yourself.” By so doing, he has created a restaurant to which patrons return year after year, and which one critic dubbed, “arguably the best restaurant in Stratford.”
All information and quotations in this article are taken from the following interviews:
James Morris, Stratford, November 30, 2009
Billy Munnelly, Toronto, May 8, 2010
Marie Workman, Ireland, by Skype, April 24, 2010
The Jester Arms
In 1978, David Lester came to Stratford to audition for the Stratford Festival. Schooled in Switzerland, he’d worked with a small touring company there. People repeatedly told him he was a natural actor and should make a career of it. Certainly he had the looks and personality. An open-faced, auburn-haired young man with a hearty laugh, he was enthusiastic, animated and intense. Having seen some of Robin Phillips’ productions in England, Lester decided to audition for him in Stratford. The audition went well, he thought. “I received callback after callback. They asked me to do dramatic pieces and comedic pieces. I thought, oh wow, I’m going to be in the Stratford Festival company!” He did not get an offer, but during his ten days in Stratford, he fell in love with the theatre and the town.
“I stayed at the Queen’s Inn,” he explained, “and they had a dingy bar with no windows that served roast beef sandwiches and glasses of beer. I thought, boy does this town ever need a good bar – an actors’ bar.” An international traveler, Lester loved pubs like those in London’s West End, where actors congregated after performances and the public came to see the actors. Stratford boasted no such venue. Like the restaurateurs before him, he spied an opportunity.
A few months later, he told his grandparents, “If I had the money I’d go back to that little town of Stratford and open a really great bar.”
His grandmother said, “Well, if you’d like a little bit of money, you do that,” and gave him a quarter of a million dollars.
Lester returned to Stratford, eager to get to work on his project. He befriended Robin Phillips, who remembered him from his auditions, and Joe Mandel. When he talked to them about his idea, Mandel apparently discouraged him, suggesting it would be unwise to open a restaurant in a town of less than a million people. Although Lester did not take Mandel’s advice, he regarded Mandel as a mentor and frequently met with him to ask advice over the next few years.
Lester wanted to create a British-style pub that would serve high quality pub food. “It was the time of the breakthrough of the gastro-pub in England, with pubs being taken over by great chefs. That’s what I wanted,” he said, “a pub with a really good chef.”
In the winter of 1979, he rented a space on Stratford’s main street, a prime location. As he contemplated the renovation, he had a bit of luck. “I discovered an 18th century pub in a little village in Kent, England that was being torn down.” Hearing that the entire place was up for auction, including many of the original contents, he hurried to the village. The weather turned bleak: snow fell and many of the parties interested in bidding did not make it to the auction. “I just bid on everything,” Lester recalls. “I even got the wainscoting off the walls. Then I hired a shipping agent, packed it all in crates and shipped it out to Canada.” The result bore little resemblance to the retro pubs so popular in Toronto at the time, what Lester called “The Duke of Everything.” It had an entirely authentic feel, for good reason: 75% of the interior had come from the pub in Kent, including pictures, millwork and sections of carpeting he’d used as packing material. Only the bar equipment and the kitchen were new.
He called it the Jester Arms. As an obstreperous teenager, he’d been nicknamed “Lester the Jester” and he liked the idea that the pub’s name would have a connection to Shakespeare’s plays, many of which feature jesters or fools. The “Arms”, as in coat of arms, tied into the pub’s British theme.
Lester completed the renovations, but getting the Jester Arms open proved more challenging. Although he’d quickly befriended members of the theatre company, he had no real connections in Stratford. Obtaining all the necessary permits, approvals and licenses turned out to be unduly challenging. A long-standing Stratford establishment was poised to re-open with an apparently similar theme: The Olde English Parlour. Lester wanted to open the Jester Arms before the Olde English Parlour, but the city blocked his every move, finding fault with a multitude of details. Nonetheless, in June 1980, he flung open the doors, undaunted by the fact that he had not yet procured a liquor license.
The Jester Arms had a unique atmosphere. From the street, one entered a low-ceilinged narrow room decorated in deep red. A long bar with beer taps and full mirror ran along one side of the room, facing a dart board and a few tables. Deeper into the room, past the bar, stood booths and the kitchen. The very back housed a small dining room, often inaccessible due to the jolly throng crammed into the bar area. Smoke hung heavy over the crowded space, where company members and tourists alike raised their glasses and bantered with the bar staff.
Lester had hired a chef trained in Europe, from a theatrical family. She cooked excellent pub food: handmade scotch eggs, steak and kidney pie, prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. They served a light menu of pub food in the bar and a full menu in the rear dining room. Like other Stratford restaurants, they did terrific business after theatre, often serving as many as 120 portions of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. They’d have two or three huge racks of beef ready so that at 11:00 p.m. they could start carving. According to Lester, “My biggest money-maker was after theatre. I was ram-jammed.”
He’d brought over many of his experienced Swiss and British cronies to work. Their congenial attitude added to the ambiance. He overcame the small problem of running a pub without a liquor license by serving wine in teapots for the first two months. Not wanting to alert authorities by purchasing all his wine at the Stratford LCBO, he drove to liquor stores all over the area to buy wine. Amazingly, he never got caught. When he finally did get the license, he was the youngest person to do so in the history of the Province of Ontario.
In the early stages of brainstorming, he’d spoken to Maggie Smith about the venture and recalls her saying, “If the actors go, darling, the public will go.”
Fortunately for Lester, “that first summer Maggie Smith came in. So did Robin [Phillips] … Peter Ustinov came practically every night. He had a booth reserved for the whole summer of 1980 for himself and Madame Ustinov – so the pub was popular right away.”
Maggie Smith was right. The actors thronged the place and the public followed. Lester never advertised beyond word of mouth, but like the restaurants, the Jester Arms filled a significant need. Lester served excellent food at reasonable prices. He stocked foreign bottled beers and had two beers on tap, both Canadian. In true British pub tradition, he mostly sold draught beer. The Jester Arms became the place to go for a drink in Stratford, with the Festival company as its regular clientele, showing up night after night, drawn to the cosy atmosphere, quaint setting and good fare.
The staff, many of them good friends, worked happily until one night in September, when RCMP officers stormed the pub, entering from the front and rear simultaneously. Lester recalled the moment: “They wanted to see the papers for everyone working there. I said, Sure. Everyone pulled out their passports. Only about four of the sixteen staff were Canadian. The rest had no working papers. The RCMP deported two immediately, to South Africa and Switzerland. About six were English. They were allowed to stay because there was some sort of reciprocal agreement between Britain and Canada at the time. They let me apply for permission to keep them here. I paid a fine and got slapped on both wrists. The RCMP believed that I didn’t know what I was doing. They couldn’t believe that they believed me, but they did.” It had never occurred to him to obtain working papers for his friends.
The next season, Lester hired mostly Canadian staff and “realized how hard it was to find good staff, and how really hard it was to find good cooks.” It took a little time, but he found “great local people, salt of the earth, quirky local characters. The place was quirky and attracted great people.” It didn’t do any harm that wait staff were taking away as much as $200 a night in tips. That proved a significant incentive to work there, as did the convivial atmosphere. The staff always had a pint together at the end of the night.
The woman who would be chef at the Jester for several years came to him in an unusual manner. In 1982, Reverend Spencer from St. James Anglican Church approached Lester, asking him to sponsor a Vietnamese refugee.
Lester shook his head. “Not me,” he said. “You must think I’m very wealthy, but I’m not. I can’t sponsor anyone.”
According to Lester, the Reverend replied, “It’s not financial support we need. We need them to work. We have one woman who had her baby shot out of her arms in a rice paddy. She’s here with her two surviving infants and her husband.”
“That’s very sad,” said Lester. “But I don’t have any work from her. I own an English pub.”
Spencer replied, “She ran a restaurant.”
Lester refused, unable to imagine a Vietnamese refugee working at the Jester Arms.
Lester says Spencer returned a week later, begging. “I’m on my knees, we have to find places for these people. Could you please just meet her?”
Against his better judgment, Lester agreed. In came Hahn, in Lester’s words, “a limping, terrible-looking woman who spoke no English, with two snotty-nosed kids and her husband. I thought, Oh my God!”
Spencer, perhaps sensing Lester’s unease, persuaded him to let Hahn make him something to eat. She went into the kitchen and rummaged through the fridges. An hour later, she emerged with a carrot-ginger soup and served it to Lester and his mother. He tasted it and thought, “Oh my God, it’s the best soup I’ve ever had in my life.”
He looked at her. She stared back at him. He thought, “I’m going to do it.” Today he says it was the best thing he ever did. Hahn had a magic touch in the kitchen. “She took the wonderful scotch eggs we were famous for – and did something, added a bit of lemongrass or soy and they were better.”
Hahn started as a dishwasher and soup-maker, gradually working her way up to chef of the Jester Arms. Despite her lack of English, she had a significant influence even early on. She’d watch the cooks and through sign language make suggestions to improve the food. “She’d show them little things and the food would just start to sing,” said Lester. She also virtually eliminated kitchen waste.
According to Lester, “Restaurant survival depends on a trilogy of things: waste, breakage and theft. If you can conquer that trilogy, you can make it. Waste is the biggie. Leftover roast beef from Sunday must become Monday’s Shepherd’s pie. Hahn really understood that. She used the carrot peelings, the bits of leek. Unused roast potatoes became a delicious garlic mash the next day. She never threw anything in the garbage. My profit increased dramatically.” Later Hahn attended the Chefs School and went on to open her own restaurant in Stratford, serving Vietnamese food. She never learned to speak English.
From the start, business at the Jester Arms boomed. Within a year, actors began approaching Lester to ask if they could perform at the pub. The multi-talented performers in the company constantly sought opportunities to showcase their talents. Lester happily agreed to let them perform cabaret-style in the back dining room after theatre. The idea took off. “Everyone in the company wanted to do something. Richard March had this show called Four’s Company. Marsha Track and Jimmy White mounted pieces.” Actors practically lined up to perform at the Jester, and of course this drew an even bigger crowd to the pub.
A grand piano stood in the small dining room. People ate at it during the pre-theatre rush. Then they’d raise the lid. Local lawyer and pianist Billy Aitcheson played there regularly. Actor Brent Carver would sing. Loreena McKennitt used to busk outside the Jester. One day, Lester asked, “Would you like the play inside? The weather’s bad. I’ll buy you supper.” She brought in her harp and played.
In 1982, Lester purchased the building next door to the Jester Arms and a couple of months later, the building next to it, creating a cabaret room in the new street-level space. In 1983, it opened with Dinah Christie and Tom Kneebone performing, and again company actors clamoured to book the space. A wide range of performers appeared at the cabaret, including Karen Skidmore and Eric Donkin, who repeatedly performed his Rosalind Drool show. Lester laughed, recalling those days. “Everyone came to me, and they got the cover charge. We had two shows, at 11:15 and 12:30. It was packed.”
Although the new cabaret space was a big hit, Lester bought the two buildings because he’d had requests for overnight accommodation. Starting a trend which many other restaurateurs in Stratford would follow to supplement their income, he decided to create an inn. The top two floors of the buildings housed offices and dingy apartments. “I knocked it all to pieces and built thirteen one-bedroom, bi-level suites.” Spacious and unusual in design, the suites quickly booked up. In keeping with his usual flair for attracting the best, Lester had Governor General Jeanne Sauvé as his first guest. Others followed in short order.
Once launched, the Jester Arms became a key fixture in Stratford. With some relief, other restaurateurs began to give up their after-theatre offerings. The camaraderie among the pioneers expanded to include Lester. Already on good terms with Joe Mandel, Lester befriended the owners of The Old Prune, Rundles, The Waterlot in New Hamburg and The Red Pump in Bayfield. According to Lester, “We had this little dinner club where we’d get together about once a month and moan and groan about the local restaurant business. Mostly about how difficult it was to find chefs, people to cook – and from those conversations the Stratford Chefs School was born.” No rivalry existed; they supported and entertained each other royally. When the Church was full, Joe Mandel would send people to the Jester, telling them it wasn’t the Church, just a little pub, but the food was good.
In the summer of 1985, the Jester Arms was at the height of its popularity. “We had the most amazing summer ever,” recalls Lester. Revenue from the bar alone reached $10,000 a night. Lester now had 71 staff, most of them much older than he was. The bar was packed night after night, loud with revelry.
One morning in August, Lester awoke in a strange bed, with his parents looking down at him. He stared around, disoriented. He was in the Stratford Hospital, having collapsed from exhaustion the night before in the bar.
His father said, “You’re getting out of this business. You’re selling this place.”
Lester objected, but knew his father was right. “I couldn’t keep running it by myself. I didn’t have a partner. It was a busy place,” he said. “It’s the only regret I have in life. I should never have sold it. It was just at the point when it was going great. The Jester was my little pub, it was my baby. I should have put a good manager in and taken a break, gone away for a few months.”
Instead, he sold the business and the two buildings he owned to Breen Bentley, a local man who’d been the manager of the Olde English Parlour. Given the success of the Jester Arms, Lester’s asking price was high, too high for Bentley to pay off at once. They struck a complex deal, in which Bentley could pay Lester off in monthly increments. Knowing Lester’s ability as an entrepreneur, Bentley insisted he sign a contract stipulating that he would not to open another establishment within one hundred miles of Stratford in the next five years. Determined to ensure he received full payment, Lester insisted Bentley not change a thing in the pub until he’d paid his last installment. “He wasn’t allowed to change the name or a single thing about the place until he’d paid me off – not a picture off the wall or the colour of the napkins.”
The Jester Arms remained the same, but people missed David Lester. In 1990, Bentley handed over the final check. The next day, the new owner took down the Jester Arms sign and renamed the place Bentley’s. He then proceeded to gut it and create a new, roadhouse-style restaurant. It was the end of an era, but not the end of David Lester’s success in Stratford.
All material and quotations in this article are taken from an interview with David Lester, Stratford, April 23, 2010.