How three young women are reinventing a Queen West institution

The Rivoli's three new owners are trying to preserve its iconic status while rebranding it for a new generation.

The bar is older than its owners

Rivoli owners Sarah Henning, left, Jessica McHardy, centre, and Jenna Wood, right. (Dylan McNiven)

Upstairs, Amy Winehouse played pool before her first-ever Toronto show. The back room stage is where Dave Grohl played drums for Iggy Pop. The bar is where Leslie Feist served drinks before her music career took off.

And on the Queen Street West patio is where regulars don't need a menu to order the famous pad Thai.

It was where the Kids In The Hall performed before the CBC. And where a young Drake performed improv before he could grow a beard. 

There are memories that stretch even further back at The Rivoli, the iconic Queen West pool hall, concert venue, bar and restaurant. But the new owners can't remember that far back — they weren't born yet.  

Sarah Henning, Jessica McHardy, both 31, and Jenna Wood, 29, are the three owners of the Rivoli, a Toronto institution that opened in 1982. This month, the three will take their first stab at creating all new memories with a rebranding effort.

"The newer generation doesn't know the Rivoli because they didn't come here in their 20s — they are 20," said Henning. So I want them to know Adele performed here, and Arcade Fire performed here. It's important for us."

The relaunch of the classic haunt affectionately known as the Riv is proving to be a delicate operation for the new owners, in which sometimes even the slightest change can inspire a customer revolt.

The Riv, as its clientele calls it, sits among international retail outlets on Queen Street West. The patio will look different on June 14. (CBC)

The Pad Thai effect

Pad Thai has been on the Rivoli menu since 1982, and to say it has a following feels like an understatement.

The original owners of the Rivoli — David Stearn, Andre Rosenbaum, Kelly St. John, and Jeffrey Strasburg — always had a flair for South Asian cuisine, which can also be seen on the menu of their sister restaurant, The Queen Mother, also on Queen West.

In the 1980s, the Rivoli was next to a bar and restaurant called Bam Boo. It too had a pad Thai on the menu, and even claimed to be the first restaurant in Toronto to serve it. So competition for the better noodle dish along that particular stretch of Queen West was fierce.

Henning, who worked at the Rivoli for 10 years before becoming a part-owner, said she knows regulars who have never tried any other menu item.

"If we ever took the pad Thai off the menu there would be a riot," said Wood.

"Don't touch the pad Thai," added Henning.

But to reinvigorate the restaurant, McHardy, who runs the kitchen, had to take some chances. One such chance was with the sweet potato fries.

"We took the sweet potato fries off the menu and it was like all hell had broke loose," said Henning.

"Immediate backlash," said McHardy, shaking her head.

The new food items at the Rivoli will include brunch — forever popular in Toronto — along with new locally-themed cocktails, like Champagne Papi, José Blue Jay, Toronto Island Iced Tea and Bellwoods Sangria. And there'll be a new Queen West patio to enjoy it all on.

The Rivoli logo will have slight tweaks, but the handwriting, by singer Mary Margaret O`Hara, will remain. (Rivoli)

A different time

Until recently, the Rivoli was one of many nightspots along Queen Street West. Some of its contemporaries — The Horseshoe Tavern, Cameron House, Black Bull — are still there, but otherwise the neighbourhood is now full of chain retail stores.

The 360, The Big Bop, Spadina Hotel, Beverley Tavern and others in the area are long gone.

But gentrification hasn't changed the competition, only shifted it. "The city is so much different than it was 35 years ago and we have to compete with so much," said Henning.

So the owners feel they must reintroduce the Rivoli using social media, highlighting the newly-felted pool tables in the billiards hall, the refurbished 240-person capacity concert hall and the prime people-watching patio and restaurant.

To add to that, they are bringing in perks like a photo booth and sno-cone machine, and have ideas for parties, such as a laneway festival.

"We've sort of made a slow progression to tweak things, not to change things. The idea is not to make the Rivoli something different, but just to bring in some fresh energy," said McHardy.

Rivoli forever

When the original owners bought the Rivoli, it was a vaudeville and burlesque theatre. It soon became an essential outpost of Toronto music. Even the logo on the Rivoli sign is the handwriting of Mary Margaret O'Hara, an icon of the Queen West 80s.

The star appearances at the Riv are too numerous to mention, but Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips, Handsome Ned, Parachute Club, The Satallites, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, Indigo Girls, 10,000 Maniacs, Stone Temple Pilots, Patti Smith are a select few.

The backstage helped launch the careers of the comedians The Kids In The Hall, Mike Myers and Shaun Majumder. Nicolas Cage, Robin Williams, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Seinfeld and Grace Jones all hung out there. Dave Chapelle was just there. The Drowsy Chaperone premiered at The Rivoli in 1998 before going onto Broadway.

This is all part of the Rivoli that the new owners never want to change.

To remind some and educate others, the Rivoli launched a social media campaign to share classic Rivoli moments. One of Henning's memories is of the late singer Amy Winehouse.

"She loved pool halls, so she came here before her show to play," she said. "I remember seeing this tiny little human with huge hair and just the best look ever going through a crowd of people to shoot pool. I still get goose bumps talking about it."

The new-look Rivoli at 334 Queen Street West will open on June 14 with a party starting at 11:30 a.m. going into the night.


Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea?