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Anna and Bill from the Sirloin Cellar 0:27

Restaurants come and go. It’s a tough business – the competition stiff, the hours long, the public fickle.

Then there’s the Sirloin Cellar, James just north of King.

Imagine, a restaurant in a basement. When Rose Bader opened it down there, they said she wouldn’t last six months. That was 1969.

The Bader family ran the Sirloin Cellar for 17 years. Then, for the last 26 years, it’s been Bill Villeneuve and his wife Anna. Bill’s father had managed the place for Rose.

The Sirloin Cellar shut down last September. Not because people didn’t want to eat there anymore. Business was good.

However, after all those years, the restaurant was in some kind of fight with City Hall. And the little guy was losing.

Menu still up

Since then, I’ve walked past the varnished wooden door at 14 1/2 James North dozens of times and wondered. You wouldn’t know anything’s changed. The menu is still up. How about that 16-ounce New York Centre Cut, at $40 a meal to really remember.

I found Bill’s father in the phonebook. He said his son was having a rough go, not talking to many people these days. But he promised to pass on my number.

A couple of weeks later, I did hear from Bill. And this week he and Anna and I descended those 18 storied stairs.

The hydro’s off, but Bill rigged up some construction lighting. There are the red-Naugahyde captain’s chairs, doing duty from day one. And the original glass-beaded chandeliers.

Bill’s been around this place since he was a kid. He washed dishes, he cooked, he was maitre d’.

Never missed a step

He met Anna here. They bought the restaurant and it continued to prosper. "This place has been through what, three or four recessions?" Bill says. "And we never missed a step." Until now.

The Sirloin Cellar is in a long, narrow five-storey structure that years ago was the Tip Top Tailor building. It was built in 1903. The top floors, all empty, are actually connected to the old Mills China edifice around the corner on King.

Running alongside the Sirloin building is an alley. Some would call it scary. Photographers looking for a shadowy shot from olden times love this place.

Not Bill and Anna. Their mechanical room, storage, dishwashing station, fridges are underneath it. The space is about 1,200 square feet, a third of the total size of the Sirloin Cellar.

And that alley, from the horse and carriage days, is in rough shape. For about 15 years, the Villeneuves have had water come into their space under the alley after downpours. They say it’s mostly to do with an old manhole. The area around it had rotted and water leaked through.

About four years ago, the city came in and did a rough patch-up job. That didn’t really solve the problem.

Then a section of the alley further east completely collapsed, at the rear of the old Right House. The city reconstructed that, new blacktop and all.

Order to Comply

In November of 2011, the Villeneuves got an Order to Comply. The city wanted the restaurant to shore up its space under the alley. That was done and passed inspection.

A month later, another Order to Comply. Bill and Anna got the work done, passed inspection again.

They knew, however, that this was not over. That leaking from above had caused rotting of supports below. The alley would need a full reconstruction. It’s a city alley and the city should pay, the Villeneuves say. So far, the city isn’t buying that logic.

The alleyway has been temporarily blocked off – no big garbage trucks moving through there. Things came to a head last August when the Sirloin Cellar’s gas line under that alley was found to be deteriorating. The restaurant would have to close down.

The Villeneuves’ lawyer made a presentation to the General Issues Committee last August. The councillors deemed it a confidential matter and went in camera. There’s been no resolution yet and the city’s not talking.

The Villeneuves say their lawyer has suggested they not talk either, but the frustration grows.

They have had no income since last fall. They had to sell their house. There are suppliers who did not get paid and the couple feels badly about that. They don’t sleep very well anymore.

And now they see the signs go up next door at the city-owned Lister Block for a new grill house. The man opening that restaurant used to operate one just down the street. When he closed the doors in 2004, he publicly dissed the core: "Downtown has deteriorated so much that people don’t come anymore."

Now he’s getting shiny new premises. And Bill and Anna Villeneuve, who never did give up on downtown, are in the fight of their lives.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.