Paul Wilson: Crowbar Restaurant on Barton – first stop after jail

The restaurant across from the Barton Street Hilton has been known as the Crowbar ever since the jail was built. There have been many proprietors along the way, and Maria is the latest. She takes no guff, but can show kindness to the men in jailhouse orange.
Maria Carvalho is young, but nobody stays rowdy for long at the Crowbar while she's behind the bar. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Maybe you missed the story, an exclusive from the website Hammer In The News. It revealed that the venerable Crowbar restaurant, on Barton East across from the jail, was changing its name.

Farley Hammerton interviewed Barton Village BIA president Jerry Canelli, who welcomed the change. He said the old Crowbar name has been holding the area back: “You have a restaurant that just screams ‘hug-a-thug.’ That doesn’t belong on trendy Barton Street.”

Fortunately, while the stories at Hammer In The News are always entertaining, they’re never true.  The Crowbar lives on.

We have noticed some changes there. There’s scaffolding up, and the old place is getting a new paint job. We really should stop in. But first, we need a little history.

At the corner of Barton East and Elgin, across from the jail, the old Crowbar gets a new look. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Margaret Houghton, She Who Knows All at the library’s Local History and Archives department, rustles up the past for us. In the 1940s, it was a shoe store there at the corner of Barton and Elgin. In the 1950s, Gioia’s Restaurant. Bette’s Lunch in the 1960s. Marie’s Lunch in the early 1970s.

In 1976, the Crowbar restaurant shows up for the first time in the Vernon’s city directory.   That’s just about the time they were building the new Barton Street Hilton, to replace the old jail.

From Crowbar to cookies

The first proprietor linked to the Crowbar looks to be Albert Lenis. But he didn’t stay long, went off to sell cookies for Voortman’s.

The golden years began in 1980, when a guy from Nairobi named Jim Litt ran the Crowbar with wife Sally. Open 24 hours, green-vinyl booths, jukebox, great toasted westerns, $1.95 breakfast day or night.

The restaurant shared a name with a legendary Hamilton band, the one that scored a big hit in 1971 with “Oh, What a Feeling.” The Spectator interviewed Crowbar frontman Kelly Jay in 1985, and he had something to say about the landmark on Barton:

That's the flag of Portugal at right, but patrons from other places are welcome at the Crowbar – as long as they behave. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

“It’s where all the roadies and all the cabbies and all the movers and shakers, people with mink coats and all the elite go. The food is really good, really cheap and Jim’s a groovy guy and everything is really cozy.”

But by the mid 1990s, Jim was gone. 

Time for us to stop by. We notice, on the way in ,that the sign now says the New Crowbar Restaurant.

Maria came young

The old booths are long gone. Behind the bar, there is a young woman named Maria Carvalho. She is 30 and came to Canada when she was 18.

Home was Sete Cidaades, a village on Portugal’s Azores, a cluster of islands 1,500 kilometres out into the Atlantic. Maria lived in a small stone house with her parents, her grandmother, her sisters and brother.

Maria went to school until she was 14. Then there was an accident. For an annual festival, the pig was roasted. The fat was moved to a large pot, which grandmother placed on the kitchen floor. Maria’s four-year-old sister tumbled into the scalding-hot fat.

Maria Carvalho was 18 when she set out from her hometown of Sete Cidades on Portugal's Azores to come to Hamilton. (Wikimedia Commons)

Maria’s mother had to take the sister to Lisbon for treatment for half a year. And Maria had to quit school and look after the family.

Later she got a job as a bartender in the next town over. And in walked Tony Amaral. He was from there, but had started a new life in Hamilton. He told Maria things were good here.

“So I thought, I’m going to see if he’s right.” After all, she did like Tony. He sent her a plane ticket and she arrived here on Aug. 28, 2002.

No nonsense please 

She and Tony now live in the North End, and have a son and a daughter. Tony is in construction. Maria used to do cleaning at night at the Royal Bank.

But six years ago, they took over the Crowbar. Maria already knew how to cook. She does big stews like they made at home. She already knew how to tend bar too. And, though young, she knew how to handle people.

Most of the customers are Portuguese, who order stew, or an espresso or a shot of Macieira brandy. “But English people can come too, as long as they behave,” Maria says. “I don’t want no fights, no drunks.”

Big beer store with drive-thru, a jail that looks like a hotel, and the vintage Crowbar Restaurant – what a neighbourhood. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Every now and then, she says, somebody who’s been doing time across the street comes through the door in prison orange. An escapee? Maria wasn’t sure what to think.

“One guy said to me, ‘I just got out and I want to have a beer. I’m sorry if I scared you.’”

Another who arrived wearing orange said he really didn’t want to be walking around in that outfit. “Sometimes the breweries drop off T-shirts,” Maria says. “So we gave him one that said Cool Beer. He said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ It was nice.”  |  @PaulWilsonCBC

To read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson, click here.


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