For 75 years, the Trocadero Tavern has fed mobsters both real and imagined, brought history to life for Hollywood and, depending on who you ask, been home to a laughing, gambling ghost.
In all that time, the restaurant’s landmark lava stone facade has been a rock of stability amid the ever-changing landscape of Barton Street.
Today the restaurant still serves up the same homemade, Italian food that has satisfied customers for generations. Despite the passing decades, not much has changed. Walking through the front door is like taking a time machine back to a day when imitation wood-panelled walls and vibrant, patterned carpet were the norm.
But in a way, that consistency has been the secret to the restaurant’s longevity, explains Lois Pantalone, the third in a line of family members running the business, and the reason the Trocadero’s doors are still open.
“It’s like Nonna’s kitchen,” she says.
“The clientele like it because it’s the way it used to be. It reminds them of when they got engaged here, when they had a first date here. It’s generational.”
On Thursday the faithful, who are at this point are closer to family, will slide back into familiar seats to celebrate “the Troc” and all that’s kept it going.
The building’s fortress-like face makes it hard to believe that behind all that stone is a typical Hamilton home.
Pantalone’s grandmother, Maria, had an entrepreneurial spirit and loved to cook, so she came up with the idea of transforming her house into a restaurant to share family recipes.
It opened on June 6, 1944 — a day that would go down in history — but not because of what was on the menu.
The Allies had invaded Normandy, but Maria and her daughters were too busy dealing with an invasion of their own to realize why the streets and their newly-christened eatery were full of people celebrating.
We’re known for the famous and the infamous.– Lois Pantalone
At one point they had to close just to catch up on dishes. Then they ran out of food.
“She was thrilled, she thought it was a great omen,” says Pantalone with a laugh. “Afterwards she was told what was going on in the world.”
There were more changes after Pantalone’s father, Tony, came back from serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Trained as a tailor, he gave the Trocadero its own style by building its cozy booths — still a favourite of customers today — and eventually installing the rocky exterior to combat concerns about pollution.
The fancy Spanish woman whose full-length portrait rests above the crossed swords and big “T” on the sign out front is another one of his flourishes.
A real renaissance man, Tony would sing Happy Birthday to tables of enchanted guests with an operatic vibrato. Many of the pastoral scenes that hang in the restaurant today were painted by his brush.
‘This is the Hamilton scene’
Pantalone remembers Barton Street in those days, closing her eyes and recalling the tailor shop, jeweller and pharmacy that used to fill the storefronts surrounding the bustling restaurant.
Back then, the Troc was the place to be. Everyone from waitresses to real life mobsters — who her father referred to as “Da boys” — made it their watering hole.
She can point to the corner booth where Johnny (Pops) Papalia, one of Hamilton’s most notorious mob bosses, used to sit with his back to the wall so he could see everyone coming in.
“We’re known for the famous and the infamous,” Pantalone explained. “This is Hamilton and this is the Hamilton scene.”
That’s our goal — to stay the same.-Lois Pantalone
Tony ran the restaurant with the Alfano family for years, but outside, the neighbourhood started to change.
“I saw the crack houses and the prostitution,” recalls Pantalone. Still, the Trocadero stayed the same.
“That’s our goal — to stay the same. Continuity and permanence in a changing world.”
Pantalone was working as a teacher when her father dragged her into the family business.
Over the years, the restaurant known for its lasagna, homemade spaghetti and veal parmesan has gone from being open seven days a week to five, then four and now just two.
Staying in touch with the restaurant’s spirit
But while the hours have been winding down, another type of business has been picking up — show business.
The Trocadero’s untouched look appeals to the appetites of movie and TV show directors who have used it as the setting for scenes featuring the Kennedys, a young Frank Sinatra and, of course, mobsters. (Though this time they were played by actors, not made men.)
In recent years, members of movie crews have told Pantalone about feeling an otherworldly energy or presence in the building. Keys have gone missing and spirits have been spotted.
A medium even darkened the restaurant’s door for an episode of Paranormal Witness. She told Pantalone about feeling a finger run down her back and hearing Tony laughing and playing cards with his friends upstairs.
If her father’s ghost is haunting the building, she’s never seen it.
“He leaves me alone,” Pantalone said. “They say he’s happy.”
Seventy-five years is almost a lifetime and the restaurateur says she’s not sure what the Trocadero’s future holds. One year more. That’s all she’ll guarantee.
On Thursday when the regulars roll in they’ll be dressed up like the old days — suits, long dresses and fedoras. Pantalone even has a few hats stacked by the bar, just in case.
There will be live music and dancing. The Trocadero will be the place to be again.
“I’m just carrying the torch. The important factors are the ones who started it and all the people that put their sweat and tears into it over the years,” said Pantalone.
“It means something to them. I think that’s why I love it so much and I carry on.”