Toronto Then & Now: Riverboat Coffee House to the Hazelton Hotel

Riverboat Cafe Plaque in Toronto

Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood is known for its elegant shopping and dining scene, attracting tourists and visiting celebrities with its upscale stores, galleries, restaurants, and bars, many of which are housed in quaint Victorian buildings. However, in the 1960s, the neighbourhood had a different identity as Toronto’s bohemian cultural hotspot, often compared to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury or New York’s Greenwich Village. It was much more than a hippie haven though. The area was bursting with clubs, coffeehouses, experimental art galleries, and bohemian boutiques, creating an internationally recognized community that attracted artists and musicians. Yorkville became a vibrant village known for its artsy and free-spirited atmosphere along with the counterculture.

Arlo Guthrie at the Riverboat. Photo: Philp, Barry, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

The Riverboat Coffee House opened in 1964 in the basement of a Victorian row house in Yorkville. It became a prominent venue for folk and blues singer-songwriter including John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, and Arlo Guthrie. Major Canadian acts performed there as well like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, and Dan Hill. Neil Young even wrote about it in the song “Ambulance Blues.” The Riverboat operated until 1978 and was one of the most famous coffee houses around.

21-year-old singer-guitarist Dan Hill at the Riverboat in Yorkville, 1975: Photo: Innell, Reg, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Yorkville underwent a multi-million dollar makeover in the 1970s transforming into a home for posh restaurants and expensive boutiques. In 2007 the Hazelton Hotel, one of Toronto’s most prestigious luxury hotels, opened at 118 Yorkville Avenue. It replaced a series of rowhouses in the area, including the one that once housed the legendary Riverboat. In 2009, Heritage Toronto honoured the Riverboat’s significance by dedicating a historic plaque at the site with the unveiling attended by singers Dan Hill, Murray McLauchlan, and Gordon Lightfoot.

The Riverboat’s former location is now part of the Hazelton, on the west side, but it’s a long way from the protest songs and counterculture of its past.

Sidewalk cafe in Yorkville, 1963. Photo: Harold Whyte, Toronto Star Photograph Archive, Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Your Turn: What do you think? Leave a comment here…