“He wrote perfect songs”: This restaurateur wants to rename Yonge-Dundas Square in honour of Gordon Lightfoot
As a child, Arron Barberian met the beloved musician at his family’s steakhouse. Now, he hopes the city’s busiest square will honour the troubadour’s legacy
Arron Barberian was barely out of a booster seat when he first met Gordon Lightfoot. The Canadian troubadour from Orillia was a regular at the Barberian family’s eponymous downtown steakhouse (along with other celebs, including Mick Jagger and the members of Nickelback). When Lightfoot died earlier this month, Barberian began wondering how to pay homage to the national treasure. The day after the musician’s passing, he wrote a letter to the mayor’s office suggesting that Yonge-Dundas Square be renamed in Lightfoot’s honour—and, given Barberian’s role in the establishment of “Toronto’s Times Square” in 2002, he has some standing to make the recommendation. Here, the restaurateur explains why his idea is the perfect marriage of legend and landmark.
It didn’t take long after Gordon Lightfoot’s death for you to contact the mayor’s office. Was this something you were already mulling?
Not consciously. After I heard the news, I went to bed thinking about how to honour this giant of Toronto’s arts community. When I woke up, it came to me like a spark. I get those every once in a while, like when I first came up with the idea for Yonge-Dundas Square back in the ’90s. It’s funny—today you have all of this controversy over the name, but it was only ever supposed to be a placeholder. Now, I feel like we finally have an individual with enough gravitas to carry the honour.
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Wait, did you say you came up with the idea for Younge-Dundas Square?
My dad, Harry, opened Barberian’s Steak House on Elm Street, and I took it over in 1993. My friend Bob Sniderman ran The Senator restaurant on Victoria Street. We both thought the area needed improvement. I’d spent some time in Europe and noticed that every city or town had a public square, so that was the idea. We invited a bunch of city councillors to join us on a nighttime walk so they could see how run down everything looked after dark. As we approached Yonge and Dundas, there was a needle on the sidewalk. We were able to say, “This is what tourists are seeing when they come here.” It was almost too perfect, like I’d planted it or something.
No, but it did help us convince them that we needed to revitalize and that a public square would be the perfect centrepiece. We called it Yonge Dundas, but just so people would know the location when we were talking about the project. It was never supposed to be a permanent name.
We’ve lost a lot of great Canadians in the past few years. Why is Lightfoot the right person for this particular honour?
He extolled the virtues of our country: integrity, humility, loyalty and hometown pride. This is a man who chose to live and work in Toronto even when everyone was trying to woo him to the states. I love Neil Young, but he’s an American citizen now. In terms of this particular area, Lightfoot was a regular at places like Friar’s Tavern and The Steeles and, of course, Massey Hall, where I’m pretty sure he played more than any other performer in the venue’s history. In the ’70s, he started coming into Barberian’s for dinner after his gigs. I think I was around 10 when I first met him.
You must have been at the restaurant pretty late for a 10 year old.
It was a different time. I was a downtown rat, and my parents shielded me from the hard partying. I met a lot of people there: the Stones, John Candy—I remember thinking he was so funny. The cast of Godspell would come after their performances, and a lot of them went on to SCTV.
Did Lightfoot have a regular order?
If I remember right, he would order his steak medium rare. He always seemed to enjoy it, though he was not the kind of guy who would send something back. He wasn’t a celebrity with a huge ego. Even when he was telling stories about his career, he was soft-spoken and humble. One thing I remember is that he would always ask about my son, who has cerebral palsy, to see how he was doing. That was incredibly touching.
What’s your all-time favourite Lightfoot track?
Probably “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It’s a good example of how his songs reflect our country’s history. And it’s so beautiful—you can’t get it out of your head once you’ve heard it. Gordon Lightfoot wrote perfect songs. I’m not the first person to say that; it’s actually a quote from Bob Dylan.
The city has already announced plans to rename Dundas based on the problematic legacy of Henry Dundas, a Scottish lawmaker who fought to delay the abolition of slavery. Is this another good reason for renaming?
Changing the name does seem like the right thing to do, but I don’t want to get into that discussion. I’m not a historian, so it’s not my area of expertise. I think the key thing here is that, as you say, the city has already voted to do it. I have heard some complaining about the price tag, which is like five or six million dollars, but the bottom line is that it’s happening.
Can we not just cancel all of the consultations and save a few million? Yonge-Dundas Square is now Gordon Lightfoot Square. Done.
I respect the city’s process—I understand that things take time. But I do worry, because the city is also considering a Gordon Lightfoot statue and making November 17 Gordon Lightfoot Day. If either of those move forward, my idea may seem like overkill.
Why stop at the square? “Lightfoot Street” has a nice ring.
And Lightfoot Station for the subway. But I have a sneaking suspicion that they won’t name it after a person once they’ve gotten rid of Dundas.
You mentioned that the area around Barberian’s used to be the music capital of Canada. Now, most of the old clubs have turned into condos. Does that depress you?
It’s sad to lose an important part of the city’s history. Friar’s Tavern became the Hard Rock Cafe, and now it’s a Shoppers Drug Mart—no offence to Shoppers, but that sort of says it all. The sad truth is that only large corporations can afford to be in this area now, but that’s all the more reason to remember and honour its history.
Are you hopeful that your plan could revive some of that old energy?
Could a new name be a catalyst for change? Absolutely. I would love to see more live music, more events. It’s been over 20 years since the square opened, so it’s time for the next chapter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.