Last April 16 seemed like any other perfect 20-degree day in Toronto.
With spring several weeks old, people had felt optimistic enough to pack away their down-filled parkas, and Yonge-Dundas Square was not yet beset by tour reps accosting locals with maps of their own city.
It was a Friday, and the Ryerson students who usually packed Gould Street, one block north, were writing exams.
Only a handful of construction workers were clustered closer to Yonge. They were renovating the Empress Hotel building — home of a new sushi restaurant named Tatami and the downtown institution, Salad King. Around 12:30 pm, one of those men removed a doorway support and part of the north wall crumbled, showering bricks onto the sidewalk.
“That’s the time they called me. ‘Oh, something happened,’” said Salad King owner Ernest Liu.
“My head cashier called me and was very nervous. Then my manager called me afterwards. He said, ‘No, no. Don’t worry. Everything under control.’ In another two minutes they called me back. ‘Oh, the police came in, got everybody out of the door.’”
Responding officers were worried the rest of the building would come down. So diners left their plates of mee krob, staff dropped half-assembled takeout orders and everyone cleared out of the restaurant.
The food sits there today, but with power cut to the fridges and air conditioning, it had already started rotting by the next evening when the city engineer escorted Liu in to remove cash from his safe.
“It smelled like hell,” he said.
“If you walk to the back there’s [still] a very strong smell, not only from me — also from Tatami, because Tatami had a lot of raw fish.”
But nothing can be removed until two things are settled: outstanding insurance claims and the future of the 19th-century building, which was damaged even more when workers tried to remove equipment from the roof.
Lalani Group, which owns 335 Yonge St. through a numbered Ontario company, had applied to demolish the structure. But city councillors voted to designate it a heritage site and are unlikely to budge unless their own engineers declare it unstable.
Liu and his wife, Linda Fung, arrived in Toronto from Hong Kong two decades ago. A professional engineer, he knew a lot about semiconductor circuit assembly, the aircraft industry and everything in between.
But the couple decided to try something new and bought their first restaurant, a student lunch spot on the fringes of the Ryerson campus. They soon did away with the salad, sandwiches and fried rice after meeting a chef who could recreate the dishes they enjoyed while living in Malaysia, not far from the Thai border.
“It’s very contradictory because Salad King doesn’t sell salad,” Liu said.
“But after a while, everybody knew we sold Thai food. It sticks in their minds. And we stayed true to Thai taste. Rather than telling people to put a little bit of chili, this is Thai. From that day until now we are still following the same recipe. We didn’t change it.”
The restaurant’s thriving business and award-winning redesign caught Ken Rutherford’s eye and he proposed Liu move into the second floor of his commercial property around the corner — the Thornton-Smith Building at 340 Yonge St., which houses a Foot Locker on the ground floor.
Rutherford approached Liu again in June, two months after the collapse, and the two soon met and began planning the new Salad King.
Rutherford offered to build an elevator to make the restaurant wheelchair-accessible and also clear the debris from now-defunct Reilly’s, the watering hole of choice for many at Ryerson in the middle of the last decade.
Liu hired designers Munge Leung to replace the wood panelling and sports pennants with the clean, modern look they created for the old Gould Street location.
“We will maintain the same tradition we had at Salad King before, doing the same type of food, same menu and same atmosphere,” Liu said.
“When we had two floors, sometimes we sent customers upstairs, and they came back and said, ‘No, no, no. I want more noise than that.’ We do want to create an ambiance so they feel the energy, the power, and the movement there.”
Rutherford and Liu have talked about using the third floor as a live music venue or even planting an indoor herb garden there to supply the restaurant. Both, Liu admits, are pipe dreams for now.
Salad King is his priority and, barring delays, will open in December. Liu has sent letters to his kitchen and wait staff to let them know. Many have been on employment insurance since the collapse. A few have been helping out at Linda Restaurant, a Salad King offshoot in the Shops at Don Mills.
“I have people who have been working with me since 1991,” Liu said. “Most of the kitchen staff have been with me for five to six years. Even the servers, quite a few of them have been with me for seven years. So they know what to do and they want to come back.”
Liu is eager to have them back too. He estimates he has lost well over $1 million so far in sales and the value of the old restaurant.
If he has his way, Salad King will reopen right when Ryerson students are once again in exams. They will no doubt give thanks for the return of the cheap and tasty grub.