The Real McCoy, beloved Scarborough restaurant, forced to close after 53 years

The Real McCoy opened in 1969 and in the decades since the small Scarborough takeout restaurant has become known for its burgers and pizza. But on Christmas Eve its doors will shut for good. Nick Westoll has more on what's behind the closure.

When we think of institutions in Toronto places like the CN Tower or the Ontario Place Cinesphere might quickly come to mind, but The Real McCoy restaurant is arguably an icon in the minds of many in the east end and beyond as it has been serving up food to the masses for years before those other attractions even opened.

However, after an illustrious 53-year run, the beloved burger and pizza staple will shut its doors in Scarborough on Christmas Eve for good.

“Guys, we did the best with what we had. I tried my best… thank you,” George Mihail, the owner of The Real McCoy, said, pausing briefly to collect himself.

“Hopefully we’ll be back with a bang and I’m sure we will.”

CityNews was invited to visit Mihail on Sunday — the one day a week the business is closed. But like so many Sundays before this one, you wouldn’t find him and his wife Sophie at home.

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In fact, since announcing on social media in mid-November the closure of the business, they’re likely working harder than ever. Mihail said he was on track to put in 16 hours for food preparations to accommodate the demand of orders for the upcoming few days.

“Have patience with my guys and myself,” Mihail gently asked, referring to the past few weeks and the final days.

“We’re trying to get the product out as quickly as possible. Yes, we have run out of fish, we have run out of onion rings, and on the first Saturday we even ran out of burgers and that’s never happened here.”

Amid a residential building boom over the past decade, The Real McCoy and a handful of other businesses at the same property are the latest to be displaced. A 38-storey condo is set to rise in its place before the Brimorton Plaza is set to get torn down in 2023.

“The gentrification of Scarborough right now, this is just a product of it, right, they’re putting in all these huge towers with rentals in the back and condos right behind us and now this plaza is going soon,” Mihail said.

“But that’s just evolution if you want to call it or just whatever, but when it comes to something like that there’s not much retail left in the neighbourhood.”

The early years of The Real McCoy

Mihail was only seven years old when his father, Louie Mihail, and Louie’s father-in-law and brother-in-law wanted to go into business for themselves after immigrating to Canada roughly a decade earlier and working in restaurants.

He said they bought out the lease of Stouffville Bakery in 1969, which operated as a storefront only and had products shipped to the small plaza located at the northeast corner of Markham Road and Brimorton Drive.

As for naming the business, George said they wanted something unique at a time when other places were named using a couple of letters (like P and S Burgers or something similar).

He said a milk commercial at the time had a slogan, “Oh, that’s the real McCoy,” so it came from that, adding an Irish-sounding name fit in a neighbourhood with many Irish families at the time. However, George noted the name is also an idiom that stemmed from a mechanism used in the rail industry created by African-Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy.

With the name settled on, why did the trio settle on selling burgers?

“Fast food was just beginning. Most of the restaurants that were around all had seating with breakfast, lunch … with pies and all that stuff, but it was quick food and everyone seemed to be starting to be in that rush mode,” George said.

“You didn’t have to worry about seating, about plates, about waitresses and it was more of a simple operation as they thought.

“The original menu had hamburgers like a cheeseburger, banquet, hot dogs, steak on a kaiser, fish and chips, fries and rings, and that was it.”

George, who is 60 now, has been involved in one way or another since he was 11 years old.

“I rode my bike up, peel potatoes, get a burger and go, and once I was in my teen years, I was 13, 14, on weekends and after school, I would work and stuff and it just snowballed,” he said.

George joins the business

In 1986 shortly after getting married, George said the business was doing OK but not as well as it could have been at the time. So he raised the money needed to buy out the part of the restaurant owned by Louie’s brother-in-law.

“It needed a bit of a new life. They were already in business for 17 years,” he recalled.

Souvlaki, salads, chicken fingers and homestyle burgers were among the changes George said he brought into The Real McCoy at a time when consumers had changing palates. Fresh-cut fries were always on order, but the quality of the ingredients shifted. They eased off on frozen burgers and developed fresh patties. Graded ribeyes became used for the steak sandwiches served to this day.

“And things started to take off,” he noted.

“All of our product is always fresh, it’s because of the volume also … We don’t skimp on anything.”

Reinventing the pizzas they served and coming up with a homemade sauce also became a top priority, George said, praising a “pizza specialist” whose talents could also be found in Toronto’s west end too.

“God rest his soul, Angelo, a lot of the older customers will remember him. He was quite a funny guy, always had a smart comment,” he said.

“He got us to the level with the pizza that we are at now because he really helped out a lot. Credit where credit is due, you have to give it and he really helped out a lot.”

Louie died in 2015, but his pictures overlook the register to this date.

“Pops was a champ… we lost dad about nine years ago, sorry… he was a workaholic but he was a good guy. Never complained, always worked well,” George said, fighting back emotion.

“He’d have a jacket over his shoulder, he’d have a dart coming in, come inside, make his cup of coffee, wouldn’t take a sip out of it yet … hang up his jacket, open the fridge, see what he had to get done, come up, get his coffee, apron on and then start.”

Freda, George’s mother, worked different jobs before patronage at the restaurant picked up.

“Once business started getting a little bit busier, we needed help so help costs money and you’re not making that kind of money, small little restaurant and stuff, so mom came in and helped,” he said, adding she could often be found making pizzas.

“Mom’s a champ, she’s still around and she’s playing with her garden every day.”

The signature burger at The Real McCoy is the so-called Mojo burger, a homemade banquet-style burger that can be built high with multiple patties. He renamed it after reluctantly entering it in an impromptu burger contest at a local radio station amid a flurry of encouragement from others.

“I cooked up four burgers, dressed them up and brought them down to the station. All these other guys came with barbeques and things and chef’s hats, I came with my Bruin hat and McCoy shirt on and said, ‘Here you go,’” adding he beat out three other contenders.

Everyone who nominated the McCoy felt like they won also.

“It’s a really good burger. There are lots of good burgers out there, but mine I’ll compare to anybody’s honestly.”

Focus on community, Scarborough front and centre

In the more than 45 years George has been coming to work on Markham Road, George said he has seen a lot of changes outside his windows and in the community. However, Scarborough is in his DNA as much as it is in the business.

“Scarborough got slagged a lot of times for oh this, shootings here, muggings there, and it got a bad rap for a lot of things and stuff but it’s not like that. If anybody thinks that, come talk to me,” he said, adding a surge of immigrants in the past couple of decades were pivotal for strengthening the community and boosting a sense of pride.

“Scarborough itself and this neighbourhood have always been fantastic and stuff, everybody’s always taking care of themselves and looking out for themselves and kids.”

When it comes to taking care of youth, it’s something that has also been important to George. In the waiting area of the restaurant that’s no bigger than many living rooms, pictures of hockey, baseball and soccer teams sponsored by the business line the walls.

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“With the hockey and stuff, it was always fun the little kids coming in with their shirts on – their shirts were always past their ankles. We’d always treat them to fries and a pop or a burger,” he said.

But in George’s eyes, you didn’t need to be part of a sports team to get a helping hand.

“A lot of the kids you kind of know where they’re coming from and how they are and stuff and a lot of them were… having a really hard time at home. With many of them, [I’d say] ‘OK guys, listen I need some help, go make some pizza boxes in the back.’ So they would get a full belly, make some pizza boxes and stuff and at least get a sense it wasn’t like a handout – a lot of them didn’t want that, a lot of them were very proud about that too,” he said.

“There were so many of them that slept in the restaurant because of what was going on at home. But one thing we wanted to do is and stuff is put myself in those shoes, no one wants that, it’s not a kid’s choice of what goes on.

“If you can help out a little bit, maybe some of that is going to rub off a little bit later on in life, maybe not at the moment but a little bit. But all of those kids, all of them, show some kind of appreciation until today all of them still come back pretty well.”

What’s next for The Real McCoy?

George and Sophie need to vacate the property by Jan. 1, leaving them with just a week to pack up after their last service. It’s a reality that doesn’t appear to have fully sunk in just yet. Even the timing of the announcement was a struggle for George.

“My daughters were telling me, ‘Announce it earlier, announce it earlier,’ and I really didn’t want to. It was like that faint hope of maybe they’re going to extend this a little while and just let it go. And maybe it was something I just didn’t want to put in the forefront,” he said, adding their Facebook and Instagram accounts were subsequently bombarded with well wishes and messages.

“I didn’t expect a reaction like that. I knew it was going to be popular and stuff, but I did not expect it to explode the way it has.

“The amount of people that have come through. We’ve got guys, like groups of guys coming in, nostalgia guys from the ‘70s who went to Woburn High School, ‘No, we’re coming in, we’re coming in,’ 10, 12 at a time.”

George said as he and Sophie grapple with an uncertain future and ways to figure out financing, they want to reopen somewhere in Scarborough that’s affordable and has parking for takeout customers and for food delivery drivers.

“That’s going to be very, very difficult and stuff right just to lock up and then all of a sudden now what,” he said.

“Yes, I will open up somewhere else. There are plans for that. It will be Scarborough, I owe it to Scarborough I don’t care it’s got to be one there and then we’ll worry about anywhere else if we do decide to expand. But the first store has got to be in Scarborough and stuff, right, it’s going to be our flagship, it has to be. It might take some time though.”

And as for what he’ll do with this first Sunday when he won’t have to work 16 hours behind the counter preparing food?

“I’m going to be in a car on the way to Myrtle Beach, but it’s still a little cold for Myrtle so I might be a little farther. But I’m going to be somewhere,” George said with a laugh.

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