LUNA'S NEW LEASE ON LIFE

ILLUSTRATION BY  Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

Priced out of its long-time home at Dovercourt and Argyle, the popular café is moving on

Bernie Matos has been operating the Luna Café, at the corner of Argyle and Dovercourt, for the past 21 years. The cozy daytime restaurant has been an affordable neighbourhood brunch spot and frequent film set, sandwiched between the gentrifying Ossington and the West Queen West of the post–Drake Hotel era. And in all that time, she’s never had a lease – by choice, not being happy with any presented to her by her landlord. A tenuous existence turned into a 21-year stay.

This week, she’s out. Her rent was increased by more than 30 per cent in December 2016, which the landlord claimed was still 27 per cent lower than market rent at the time. Yet Matos was told by her real estate agent she was paying almost 50 per cent more in rent, per square foot, than businesses a few blocks away on the prime commercial strip at Queen and Ossington. The final straw was in August 2018, when the building’s fire-code standards came under city investigation. Because she didn’t have proper ventilation in her kitchen, Matos could no longer grill, which affected her menu; her hot food became sous-vide meat and poached eggs only – no more pancakes. The landlord agreed to a temporary rent reduction until June 2019, at which point he wanted to renegotiate. 

Matos and her husband, Tom McMurtry, felt they were being priced out and punished for the café’s success, for taking an off-the-beaten-path property and turning it into a destination. Of course, landlords have every right to raise rents on commercial real estate, which has changed the face of Yonge Street, Queen West, Parkdale and elsewhere. If current market values mean a landlord can find someone new to rent to for twice the price, that’s the way the corporate cookie crumbles.

According to McMurtry, “Other [small-business owners] are saying, ‘I have this fantastic restaurant, I can make payroll, but where’s the money for me?’ You’re essentially working for your landlord.” In 2017, John Kiru, the executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, told CBC News, “We are seeing more vacancies than I’ve seen in years in neighbourhoods all over, and they are not turning over as quickly as we used to see, so they are lingering vacancies.”

The Luna Café’s owners are not being evicted; they’re leaving of their own volition. The café’s last day is this Sunday, Jan. 20. Many former staff and long-time patrons are expected to turn out. There’s a group picture planned for the end of the day. It won’t be totally tearful: Last June, Luna opened a second location at 2800 Dundas St. W., just east of Keele, in a building Matos owns with McMurtry and another business partner.

Not having a lease on Dovercourt meant they were never really sure how long they were going to be there. “We always were able to pay our staff and make a little bit of money for ourselves,” says Matos, a former bartender (Rivoli, Gypsy Co-Op, Sotto Voce) who opened the café in 1997 after having a child. “We’re only open until 5 p.m. It’s a nice lifestyle. It’s social. It’s community. You’re building something.” She’s been touched by the outpouring of memories from patrons through the years.

Not all the memories were good ones. In 2008, a cabbie picked a late-night fight with a cyclist outside Luna; after a brutal scuffle, the cyclist was rammed and run over by the cabbie, who was later sentenced to two years for injuries that caused the cyclist’s leg to be amputated. A signpost three feet away from Luna’s patio was bent and twisted for months afterwards, a gruesome reminder of the incident. Last summer, a six-foot-seven man assaulted staff inside the café, threw one of them – the dishwasher, a new Canadian working his first shift – through the plate glass window, and had to be removed from the scene by six police officers. Traumatized, many staff were unable to return to work.

The staff is important: Some of them have worked there for at least 15 years. One was poised to take over the Dovercourt location while Matos and McMurtry focused on the new Junction locale, where a few of the staff have migrated. “It feels so great here,” she says, looking out at Dundas, where a huge LCBO anchors a condo building – a setting far removed from the lush canopy of her old corner. “We’ve had great feedback, we have regulars already, we’re open in the evening – I love it. It feels very similar. I do feel badly [about Dovercourt]; it’s very upsetting for some of the staff. It’s going to be sad on Sunday. But at the same time, it will be wonderful to see all those people and their children, all the people who were important to the restaurant.”

Soundtrack to this column: “My Little Corner of the World,” by Yo La Tengo; “Like Sugar” by Chaka Khan; “Fade Away,” by New Age Steppers; “Saturday Afternoon” by Outrageous Cherry; “Just Get Here” by Sarah Harmer

This ongoing online column, WEP’s first, will be about those who make it their job to make this city work. I’ll be following not only representatives at City Hall and Queen’s Park, but also the neighbours who run businesses, sit on committees, spearhead projects and light up our lives. Hit me up with tips at michael@westendphoenix.com.