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“I’ve worked at the Black Bull Tavern for 40 years—and I plan to stay until the very end”

The Black Bull is up for sale. Here, bartender Sheldon Chow recalls some of his wildest encounters. He also considers a future Queen West where the bar may be no more

By Sheldon Chow, as told to Maddy Mahoney| Photography by Angel Fonseca
"I’ve worked at the Black Bull Tavern for 40 years—and I plan to stay until the very end"

On October 1, the Georgian building that houses Queen West’s Black Bull Tavern went up for sale. The bar opened its doors in 1833, predating the invention of the telegraph, the electric lamp and the sewing machine. So, while early Torontonians may have been stuck with carrier pigeons, candles and the strain of hand-stitching their garments, they could at least blow off steam with a generous pint of ale. 

Over the next 150 years, the Black Bull underwent multiple expansions and a brief name change before being bought in 1975 by Bobby Taylor, a man with his own long-standing reputation. Taylor had been named pound-for-pound the toughest athlete in the country and played in both the NHL and the CFL. Two months ago, Taylor passed away, at the age of 84, due to colon cancer. His family listed the bar for sale shortly afterward.  

Bartender Sheldon Chow has worked at the Black Bull since the early ’80s. Here, in his own words, he recalls some of his wildest encounters, explains what Taylor was like and considers a future Queen West where the Black Bull may be no more.


 

An illustration of the Black Bull in 1894.
Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto (1894)

I was first hired at the Black Bull as a busboy when I was 18 years old and just finishing high school. Back then, Queen wasn’t hemmed in by high-rises. The buildings near us were a few storeys tall at most, and the bar drew in a cross section of people: blue-collar workers, artists, bikers and the finance guys from down on King. The inside of the place was like a barn, with an unfinished ceiling and clunky wooden furniture.

Everybody who came in would sit either at the bar or at these big communal tables that were shaped like octagons. It may sound odd to people who are used to bar culture in 2023, but strangers would actually talk to one another. Some people had $10 to their name; others had $10 million. But no one really knew or cared who had what. The atmosphere was so friendly. And it was often the toughest-looking guys (the ones in steel-toed boots and head-to-toe leather) who were the nicest of the bunch. 

Along with the gear heads, there were some more eclectic riders. One would always pull up to the bar on his unicycle. He never had a way of locking it up, and he couldn’t bring it inside because it was nine feet tall. Instead, he’d peddle it up to the patio and wait for the server to come over. Then he’d call to her from way up in the air and order his beer.

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The drink menu at the Black Bull Tavern was simple: beer and shots.
Bobby Taylor, centre, holds court. Photos courtesy of the Taylor family

I’d seen Bobby Taylor around the bar in those early days, but I didn’t get to know him until I quit my busboy job to study engineering at the University of Toronto. While enrolled, I joined the Argonaut Rowing Club. Bobby was a member too. We’d lift weights in the same gym. I was the club’s strongest squatter. One day, Bobby came over to me and said, “Kid, let’s go work out.” I didn’t realize then that we’d be bonded for life.

Bobby was gruff. Every other word that came out of his mouth was a curse word. I knew of his reputation for throwing hands in the CFL and NHL. He could be intimidating. But, really, he was one of the most generous people I’d ever met. He ran a rooming house above the bar and used it to help artists and other people who were down on their luck. The folks staying there would have their welfare cheques sent straight to the Black Bull, and we’d cash them right at the bar. Bobby would charge them $50 in rent for the month. He barely broke even, but he didn’t care. He just wanted people to have a safe place to stay. 

After I graduated from U of T in 1984, I went back to the Black Bull to pay off some of my student debt and eventually became a bartender. I had no experience making drinks, but the bar menu was so simple—beer and shots. If someone came in asking for something like a negroni, I’d just tell them we didn’t serve that sort of drink.

Bobby Taylor with his wife Judith Grant
Bobby Taylor and Judith Grant

By the ’90s, I was hanging out with the artists who frequented the bar, some of whom lived upstairs. I remember this Indigenous artist named Gordy McGee who painted a seascape on the walls of his room. One party I went to was hosted by a band living in an old post office in Parkdale. I swear the building was about to be condemned. It was a dump, and there was water leaking in from the roof. But they had a washroom and a hot plate and a barbecue out back. For punk rockers, it was more than enough. 

Some of the other artists lived in a big warehouse down the street off Soho. They would throw massive parties where you had to bring your own cup for beer. Years later, I was sad to see that building torn down and turned into condo towers. 

Then there was the stockbroker crowd: perfect targets for a friendly chirp. One day, a regular came in wearing a full suit and tie. Bobby and I dove right in. Dude, it’s 30 degrees out! You look stupid—you’re going to get punched as soon as you walk out of here! The guy then asked me for a pair of scissors and walked off to the bathroom. Five minutes later, he came back, and he’d cut the arms off his jacket and turned his pants into shorts. He even sliced his tie in half. That got everyone howling.

Bobby’s ties to the CFL kept the bar packed every Sunday well into the 2000s. Everyone would wear their team’s jersey, and it got pretty rowdy. It was normal for Bobby and fellow former players to threaten to punch each other out—but, five minutes later, they’d be cheers-ing at the bar. After some of the games, Bobby would hold court and explain the plays. He’d even kick people off the pool tables so he could line up the balls as if they were players on a field. The Globe and Mail would come and interview him. Not everything he told them was usable, though; one reporter walked away saying he’d have to censor about 30 per cent of Bobby’s quotes to axe all the swearing.

The Black Bull on a wintry day.

Over time, a lot of the neighbourhood’s old buildings turned into condos and parking lots. There used to be a church up on Chestnut that was one of the oldest Black churches in the city, with ties to the Underground Railroad. That’s gone now.  

In 2011, I was at a friend’s house in Kensington when I got the call that the Black Bull was on fire. I had someone drive me there right away. I walked up to the firefighter’s blockade—they told me to leave, but I jingled my keys and said I was the owner. They let me through. On the other side, Bobby took one look at me and started laughing. “Oh, so you own the place now, eh?” he said. Even though it had been a three-alarm fire, the bar was relatively unscathed. It was the rooming house that took the brunt of it. The apartments shuttered after that, but luckily there were no casualties. The Black Bull would reopen within a few weeks.

Today, Queen West is a lot more upscale than it used to be, and there aren’t many spots where you can get a beer at a reasonable price. I’ve also noticed that the younger crowd would rather play on their phones than strike up a conversation. The regulars are preserving the communal atmosphere here, but it’s not what it used to be.

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On game days, Bobby Taylor would explain football plays using the pool table as his field.
The Black Bull, today

In 2017, Bobby’s wife, Judith Grant, passed away. He was devastated—it was just a year shy of their 50th anniversary. We held a wake for her at the bar. I knew then that, on some level, Bobby would never recover. It was incredibly humbling to see this massive marble pillar of a man crying at the bar. I felt like he lost 80 per cent of his will to live. He was functioning, but just barely.

Then, on top of all that, the pandemic hit. While in lockdown, I’d bike over to the Black Bull to check on Bobby. He’d see me and bring a glass of water and some ice cream out onto the patio. We’d sit at separate tables and chat, looking out onto a virtually empty Queen. I know our regulars missed the bar a lot during that time. I’ve been known to call visits to the Black Bull “life diversions.” It was the perfect place to go and hide out for a while. It was never just about having a drink.

Financially, the bar has yet to recover from Covid’s damage. Sales are still down about 30 per cent, which seems in line with other restaurants and bars. A lot of the office towers around here have also been hollowed out.

When Bobby died, in August, all I could think was that he would finally be happy again. I know he’s up in the sky with Judy, going on one of their long walks. His legacy, to me, was how much he helped people—the folks in the rooming house, the people he hired just because they needed some extra cash. When someone was falling down, Bobby was the first guy to stretch out his big hand.

Now the building is up for sale. I’m told that, after it sells, the bar is likely to keep operating for a little while before the new owners get around to renovating or converting it. It’s old—the floors are concrete, about a foot and a half thick. Ripping up that sort of thing takes time. 

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I’ve worked at the Black Bull for four decades. The job helped me pay off my mortgage. I’ve thought every now and then about going back to engineering, but that world is full of people wearing the same black suit, the same white shirt and the same tie. I could never live like that. I loved that the Black Bull embraced all its customers no matter what—it was like a social club. I met some of my closest friends there, and a few women I almost married. I just never wanted to leave, and I plan to stay until the very end. I’ve watched as so many of the neighbourhood’s old spots have been knocked down. But I know every party has to end sometime.

Queen West's the Black Bull Tavern and its famous patio.

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