Popular St. Clair West patio at risk of closing over lights

A fight to keep the lights on at a beloved Toronto patio is threatening to turn the restaurant’s lights off, for good. Caryn Ceolin with why a patio the City already approved years ago is now at risk of closing.

Twinkling lights wrapped around Toronto’s DeSotos Eatery on St. Clair West create a welcoming glow. But a fight to keep those lights on now threatens to turn the restaurant’s lights off, for good.

Owner Tony Merante said his patio is at the centre of a licensing dispute with the City, despite municipal authorities approving it almost a decade ago.

In an interview with CityNews, Merante said he’s been locked in a fight with City Hall since 2022, when it began forcing restaurants to take down expensive COVID-era plexiglass modifications from patios deemed too covered.

DeSotos reverted its patio back to its 2016 configuration, which licensing inspectors had approved at the time. But the City still refused to renew Merante’s patio permit, claiming the outdoor string lights and posts they hang from are illegal. At his last inspection, Merante was told he had to apply for a brand-new licence, just ahead of the critical, revenue-boosting patio season.

“To this day nobody has brought me documents that say the post is illegal and the lights are illegal,” Merante said. Instead, he said City staff have told him to file a freedom of information request when he asks for an explanation. On one occasion, Merante said he was sent Ontario’s Building Code.

“I’m not going to interpret the building code,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t provided me any information to prove that there was a violation that needed to be addressed and they revoked my license.”

Merante has been given until June 19 to resolve the issue and obtain a new Sidewalk Cafe Patio Permit. Until then, DeSotos’ business licence is on hold, and at risk of being cancelled altogether, if the deadline is missed.

“They are actually holding my business license ransom,” Merante said, adding the lights, and the inviting ambiance they create, are part of the restaurant’s identity. “I know how hard it’s going to be to get a patio with the new regulations and rules. The City does not make it easy for business.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the City told CityNews, “It is in contact with the business owner to explain how they can come into compliance with the City bylaws and is actively working with the business owner to resolve the issue.”

Merante is urging City Hall to work with small businesses still struggling to survive after the pandemic, noting restaurants have been squeezed particularly hard over the last year by rising food, financing, and rent costs.

In January, Merante had to sell his assets at a depreciated value to pay back interest-free Canada Emergency Business Account loans, and hasn’t paid himself a salary in eight months to keep his staff working.

“I should be concentrating on preparing for summer business and how to boost the restaurant, so everybody earns…I don’t need to be destabilized,” he said, noting he has no plans of closing his doors after June 19.

“I lost it all. COVID took it all away from me. So at the end of the day, I’ve got zero to lose.”

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