Every year we continue the tradition of crafting artisanal Gefilte Fish to celebrate the Jewish New Year – the holiday of Rosh Hashana. With every ball, our cooks know that their work will find its way onto one of our dear guest’s plates and, ultimately will become an integral part of a yearly celebration. To all those who pre-ordered, we thank you for your patronage and look forward to seeing you today when you come to UB for pickup. We might still have a few pieces of fish – feel free to stop by and ask. We close today at 3 pm and re-open on September 23rd. L’Shana Tova!
January 30, 2012
By Renee Ghert-Zand
They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s perhaps a cliché, but it is true of Toronto’s United Bakers Dairy Restaurant, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. While the menu of this, the oldest family restaurant in the city, has changed with the times, it has also remained faithful to the dishes that attracted its first customers in 1912.
“Young people like old food,” posited Philip Ladovsky, who co-owns the restaurant with his sister, Ruthie, as a main reason for the restaurant’s longevity. As a reporter for The Jew and the Carrot sat down with the siblings over a bowl of United Bakers’ famous beet borscht and a boiled potato, they recounted how the business got started and reflected on the food that brings approximately 1,000 patrons — many of them regulars — through the door every day. They believe that it is their menu’s balance between traditional “dorfishe cooking” (Middle and Eastern European country cuisine) and current standard family restaurant fare, along with the famous Ladovsky hospitality, that has kept United Bakers going strong for three generations.
Ruthie and Philip’s grandparents, Aaron and Sarah Ladovsky, immigrated to Toronto from Kielce (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1908, and by 1912 they had opened the 25-seat United Bakers on Agnes Street in the crowded inner-city immigrant neighborhood called The Ward. In those early years, it was known as “United Bakers Quick Lunch and Coffee Shop,” and its clientele were mainly workers who stopped in for an inexpensive, hearty midday dairy meal that reminded them of home. Aaron had brought his professional baking skills over from Kielce, and used them to make fresh challah, buns and bagels.
There was no formal menu in those early years, but patrons asked for gefilte fish, lox, herring, baked carp, pickled pike, blintzes, kasha with onion and noodles and cottage cheese. These are all still available today at United Bakers. A bowl of cottage cheese topped with a spoonful of sour cream was also once a favorite dish. This is no longer on the restaurant’s menu, but Phil and Ruthie are happy to oblige particular patrons who still come in asking for it.
In 1920, Aaron and Sarah moved the business to a new 60-seat location on Spadina Avenue, near the newer Jewish neighborhoods of Kensington Market and what is now called The Annex. In their new restaurant, referred to by patrons simply as “Ladovskys,’” they continued to serve the same kind of heimishe foods.
Hearty, thick soups have been a menu staple from the very beginning. While there are no longer any takers for noodle, rice and milk soup (which customers used to season themselves with sugar, salt and cinnamon), United Bakers still sells huge quantities of its famous green split-pea, vegetable, barley bean, and potato soups. Borschts remain popular, with cabbage and beet (hot or cold) varieties still on the menu. A menu saved from 1960 indicates that at that time Ladovskys’ also offered cold cherry borscht and spinach borscht, in season.
In the late 1970s Philip, now 60 and Ruthie, 61, took over the business from their father, Herman, who had succeeded Aaron and Sarah. In 1984, they opened a second restaurant at Bathurst St. and Lawrence Avenue, which by then had become the geographic heart of the Jewish community. Two years later, they closed the downtown Spadina location and concentrated all their efforts on the new spot.
The decision to open for business on weekends (the downtown locations had always been weekday-only restaurants) and the ensuing patronage of families with children dictated a change in the menu. Over the years, standard family restaurant items like grilled cheese sandwiches, Greek salads, omelets, veggie burgers, sweet potato fries, tortilla wraps, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and grilled salmon with sautéed vegetables started to appear.
United Bakers’ top-selling dishes today reflect both the new and the old. “Number one is our soups,” Philip shared. “Then comes our gefilte fish, Greek salad and then our tuna salad.” The front of the 160-seat venue boasts a bakery counter stocked with high quality breads, cakes and cookies. However, very few of those items are still baked on site. “My grandfather was really the one who had the baking skills. The baking stopped in the early 1960s,” Philip explained.
Like any successful restaurateurs, Ruthie and Philip have needed to know when to be sensitive to evolving culinary tastes and trends. But the minute you enter United Bakers, the vinyl banquettes, linoleum tile floor and simple wooden tables signal that respect for the past is integral to their vision as they move into the future. They believe it is consistency that has gotten United Bakers to its 100th year. “You don’t abandon what you do well,” said Philip. “We know where we come from,” Ruthie added definitively.
– From Forward.com
BY LARA RABINOVITCH
The cabbage borscht at United Bakers made me skip school. Served only on Fridays, I routinely dodged my morning classes to savour the sweet-and-sour soup with a hip mother who somehow believed that my grade twelve schedule was “flexible.”
What I didn’t know then, and what most Torontonians don’t realize, is that the rich history of United Bakers Dairy Restaurant offers more than the comforts of potato kreplach and sweet gefilte fish. United Bakers (or United or UB, as it is also affectionately known) is Toronto’s oldest-running Jewish restaurant. A peek into the nearly one-hundred year past tells us as much about labour struggles and the history of Toronto as it does about Jewish immigration to Canada and dietary practices among Jews. From its modest lunch-counter beginnings downtown to its current location at Bathurst and Lawrence, United Bakers is a unique landmark on Toronto’s culinary and historic landscape.
As a dairy restaurant, United Bakers serves no meat and therefore loosely abides by kosher practices that involve the strict separation of meat and milk. Such dairy restaurants were common in the early- to mid-twentieth century across the Jewish world, and catered to the kosher or kosher-style tastes of immigrant Jews and their offspring.
Many people still tell Ruthie Ladovsky, the third-generation owner along with her brother, Philip, that they had their first meal in Canada at United Bakers. “UB was their link to the new world,” Ruthie explains. That was back when the small coffee shop was located on Dundas Street at the corner of Bay (then known as Agnes and Teraulay Streets, respectively). The original location opened in 1912 – at the height of Jewish immigration to Canada – in the heart of the Ward, the
historic Jewish neighbourhood of Toronto.
In 1920, United Bakers followed the Jewish immigrant community to Spadina Avenue near Dundas. There it quickly became a beacon for fresh bagels and whitefish amidst the numerous Jewish storefronts, delicatessens, schools and synagogues. In the mid-1980s, the restaurant moved to its current midtown location.
But from its perch on Spadina, steps from the all-important Labour Lyceum, the de facto headquarters of the historic Jewish labour movement in Toronto, United Bakers served as a political and social centre for the nascent community while also serving affordable food to workers, artists and businessmen alike. An array of labour movements, from nationalist-oriented to the needle trades, characterized immigrant Jewish life in the first half of the twentieth century, and this no doubt spilled
over at the tables of UB.
Ruthie recalls her father, Herman, a fixture at United Bakers until his death in 2002, telling her stories of heated debates and trade meetings in the early days: “The Labour Lyceum was two doors away from United Bakers, so it was a hub of labour activity. If anything was happening in world events, it was discussed at United Bakers. If you walked into United Bakers at six in the morning on Spadina Avenue, you would have people discussing major political things that [were] happening.”
In fact, Aaron Ladovsky, the original owner of United Bakers with his wife Sarah, in 1912 founded the Toronto chapter (Local 181) of the Bakers and Confectionery Workers International Union of America, an organization that advocated for collective rights among Jewish bakers and provided sick and death benefits. Aaron Ladvosky acted as founding president of this union, which was made up almost entirely of Jewish men.
Ladovsky was also instrumental in founding the Kielcer Society of Toronto in 1913, a community-based immigrant-aid association based on their hometown of Kielce, Poland, about halfway between Warsaw and Krakow. Such aid associations were common among immigrant Jews in the early years of the twentieth century and they provided everything from insurance and loans to burial services. Many Toronto Jews hail from Kielce, a typical feature of chain migration whereby more established friends and family helped facilitate the migration of loved ones to their new homes. Ladovsky remained a lifelong member of this organization, acting as president as late as 1948.
The local Kielce and Polish recipes no doubt add to the allure and popularity of the food at United Bakers. As Maria Balinska points out in her recently published book, The Bagel: A Surprising History of a Modest Bread (Yale: 2008), Poland was the historic bagelbasket of Europe. In fact, Aaron and his brother Lazar had trained as bakers in Poland (and Lazar became the baker at UB), but most of the food served was, and continues to be, based on Sarah’s original recipes. With the
exception of more recent additions to the menu like Greek salad and vegetarian lasagna, dishes such as herring with sour cream and kasha with bowties and onions rest comfortably on the east European palate.
Such food, of course, continues to appeal to many beyond the Jewish community looking for comfort food or a light meal with a dash of cultural exposure. Beginning with the infamous Lawrence Plaza parking lot – where drivers interpret stop signs as a mere suggestion – a meal at United Bakers is like no other. In fact, the Ladovskys are unique in continuing the tradition of their family’s eatery, unlike most historic Jewish dining establishments across North America that have all but disappeared or morphed beyond their humble European origins. For example, United Bakers’ New York City counterpart, Ratner’s, a dairy restaurant known for its legendary cheese blintzes, sadly closed its doors in 2002.
Besides United Bakers, the venerable Harbord Bakery, though not a sit-down eatery, remains an exception to this rule as the owners helm the downtown rugelach realm. Like the Ladovskys, the Kosowers have been following the same family recipes for decades, still churning out their ethereal apple cakes and prize-worthy challahs. These institutions persist and continue to succeed even though their devoted clientele has evolved, and despite the changed interests and demographics of the Jewish
community. On the other hand, Caplansky’s might be bucking this trend with this new deli’s unselfconscious ode to old-fashioned Jewish cuisine in the form of smoked meat, knishes, and even an original take on cabbage borscht.
But nothing beats the daily lunch-rush schmooze-fest of kisses and kreplach at United Bakers. As for me, I’m just glad the cabbage soup is on the menu only on Fridays. Otherwise I would never have graduated high school.
United Bakers Dairy Restaurant
506 Lawrence Ave. West (Lawrence Plaza)
Canadian writer Lara Rabinovitch hails from a long line of foodies. Currently a PhD student at New York University in modern Jewish history, Lara also serves as managing editor of Cuizine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures (www.cuizine.mcgill.ca).
– From Edible Toronto