Local News Links:... .........................

Sunday 25 February 2024

The back story of Winnipeg's Rae and Jerry's Steak House

© 2024, Christian Cassidy

Winnipeg has lost several iconic local restaurants in recent times after the owners could not sell them to a new generation of restaurateurs. There is good news that Rae and Jerry's will be around for years to come as it was recently purchased by new owners.

The Rae and Jerry's we think of today at its iconic Portage Avenue building near Polo Park dates back to 1957 but the partnership of John Rae and Gerald "Jerry" Hemsworth goes back much further than that.

John Rae (left) and Jerry Hemsworth

Gerald "Jerry" Hemsworth was born and raised in Winnipeg and began working on CN dining cars as a young teen during the Depression. He then landed a job at the first Salisbury House restaurant on Fort Street where he met lifelong friend and business partner John Rae.

John Porteous Rae was a businessman by trade who was born in Alberta in 1914 and came to Winnipeg as a child. He was a clerk at Federal Grain when he met Hemsworth.

The duo moved to Fort William (now Thunder Bay) in 1935 with other partners Gordon Hill and Casey Byron to run a small restaurant together. It was then on to a brief stint operating a restaurant in Toronto before Winnipeg called them home.

October 27, 1937, Winnipeg Free Press

Rae and Hemsworth returned to Winnipeg in 1939 and took over the tea room located inside Brathwaite's Pharmacy at Portage Avenue and Vaughan Street across from The Bay. Art Chipman was a financial partner in the venture.

Brathwaite's was established in 1902 and billed itself as Winnipeg's oldest operating drug store and is still in business today. Its eatery was a popular place for lunch, afternoon tea, or to get your tea leaves read, and underwent extensive renovations in 1937.

After a successful decade at Braithwaite's, Rae and Hemsworth relocated to their own space at 251 Kennedy Street just south of Portage Avenue in 1947.

The new restaurant became popular and prompted the duo to open a second location in 1951 at 571 Portage Avenue at Langside.

The Kennedy Street location was referred to in street directories as Rae and Jerry's Restaurant and the Portage Avenue location was called Rae and Jerry's Steak House. It was the only eatery in the directory at the time to bill itself as a 'steak house'.

Business was good at the steak house under head chef Joe Matenchuk. It became an "in" place to be and had no need to advertise in local papers. Its back room hosted countless anniversary dinners, business luncheons, and other special events.

Due to the success of the new venture, the Kennedy Street restaurant was closed in late 1953 and it wasn't long before Rae and Hemsworth were looking for a new, larger location with plenty of on-site parking.

In 1956, they purchased a lot that may have been as large as four and a half acres at 1405 Portage Avenue near the newly opened Winnipeg Arena. The site was unusual in that it bordered a residential neighbourhood that was established by the 1920s but this land was mostly vacant.

This had to do with its former use.

March 19, 1932, Winnipeg Tribune

The David Swail Company was a heating fuel retailer established in 1919 with its main yard for the wood, coal, and coke it sold located on Logan Avenue. David Swail had previously run the Duncan Fuel Company and either branched off on his own or renamed the company.

By the late 1920s, Swail had moved the main fuel yard from Logan Avenue to 1405 Portage Avenue and branched out into the ice business. The company also had smaller depots in Elmwood and Weston.

The space required for storing the various heating fuel products, a fleet of delivery vehicles, a storage shed, and presumably a small ice house, meant that the company required a lot of open land on which to operate.

January 8, 1954, Winnipeg Tribune

The move to 1405 Portage was not a coincidence as David and Bessie Swail bought the house and land in 1922 just a year after they married. It was originally built in the 1850s by John Omand for whom neighbouring Omand's Creek is named.

The Swails carried out major renovations to the interior and added a kitchen, bathroom, and basement before moving in. An office was added behind the house to administer the fuel yard when it arrived.

Winnipeg Tribune reporter Lillian Gibbons featured the house in one of her "Stories Houses Tell" columns in 1954. Mrs. Swail noted in the interview that her husband sold his fuel and ice business, including the house, to Arctic Ice in 1946.

Street directories show that the company then split. Swail Coal and Cartage managed by M. Roy Swail popped up on Wall Street at Wellington Avenue and the ice business, now owned by Arctic Ice, carried on at 1405 Portage under the David Swail name until around 1951.

The house was then put up for rent and Watson Swail, a son of  David and Bessie who grew up in the house, decided to rent it. He lived there and ran W. E. Swail Real Estate from the office.

Advertising for the real estate office ended in December 1956 after Rae and Hemsworth bought the property for their new restaurant.

Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, David Carter fonds

Rae and Hemsworth closed the old Portage Avenue steak house in early 1957 so that they could concentrate on their new and much larger venture.

They hired up-and-coming local architects Smith Carter Katelnikoff to design the new building. (The firm would go on to design the Pan-Am Pool and Centennial Concert Hall the following decade.)

The design took advantage of the space by setting the restaurant toward the back of the lot which provided parking for 200 cars and required customers to take along driveway that ended at a covered entrance on the east of the building.

The above drawing by Dennis Carter and the black and white photo by Kalen do not show the 24-foot by 60-foot extension that was added to the front (south side) of the building in 1958 to expand the cocktail lounge. The building initially displayed its original brick colour though it has been painted white for several decades.

The building was constructed by Semmler Construction Co. at a cost of around $130,000. The Winnipeg Architecture Foundation was told by Dennis Carter that Rae and Jerry's was one of his favourite projects.

Interior in 2018 (C. Cassidy)

Rae and Jerry's is known for its timeless interior. Its original interior designer, New York-trained Leslie Girling, created what was the epitome of an upscale 1950s steak house with soft lighting, plush carpets, dark woods, and red upholstery.
The restaurant was redecorated in 1967, likely again by Girling who had a freelance firm at the time. His aesthetic has stayed largely intact to this day.

There are some online mentions of Rae and Jerry's being "Canada's first steak house" and it is unclear where that accolade originates. It is not mentioned on the restaurant's website and going back through nearly 70 years of newspaper archives, including the time of its construction, there is no mention of this. It does not appear to have ever received a national award from a restaurant association or similar organisation recognizing this achievement.

It is hard to imagine that a city like Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary, with its visiting American oil executives, would not have picked up first on this American restaurant trend. In fact, Hy's says its first restaurant opened in Calgary in 1955 followed by a Winnipeg location in 1958, though both restaurants have moved locations since they first opened.

If the statement implies that Rae and Jerry's is "Canada's oldest operating steak house", that is much more plausible. For any restaurant outside of a hotel, operating continuously from the same location for 67 years is quite an achievement. A national survey could look into multiple cities and their oldest continuously operating restaurants and could verify if any other steak houses are still around from that era. The online claim, however, does not seem to be the result of such a study.

November 6, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press

The new Rae and Jerry's was advertising for staff by June 1957 and a text only "now open" ad appeared in local newspapers on July 31, 1957. More detailed ads featuring the Rae and Jerry's logo did not run until early November.

Aside from its first year in operation at the new address, Rae and Jerry's rarely advertised in local papers. It didn't need to as its customer base knew where to find it. It is also difficult to find a photo of either man, much less the two of them together, in newspaper archives. They seemed to have let the restaurant speak for itself.

Jimmy King, in his Free Press Night Beat column of March 29, 1975, noted that Rae was the PR person and Hemsworth handled the business side. He also wrote that: "Both John and Jerry could be considered among the best dressed men in the city. They are always suave and impeccable. They even talk alike."

Rarely included in the story of the restaurant was the role of the spouses, Judy Rae and Marjorie Hemsworth.

Though their names were not on the marquee they shared the load by working regularly at the restaurant. In a 1967 Free Press column, Bill Trebicole noted that since the restaurant opened: "...when diners walked into Rae and Gerry's they were greeted by either Johnny Rae, Jerry Hemsworth, or their wives Judy and Marge."

Marjorie Hemsworth's obituary noted that Rae and Jerry's meant working 364 day a year with only Christmas Day off.

Though it catered to Winnipeg's well-to-do, most restaurant reviews noted that what made Rae and Jerry's a popular place to dine for decades was the simplicity of its menu. 

Andrew Allentuck wrote in a 1979 review for the Winnipeg Tribune: "Rae and Jerry's cuisine is prairie steakhouse - lots of beef, ribs, chicken and fresh fish. There's no French on the menu and no pretense at doing anything more than serving simple things prepared as well as possible."

A 1980 review by Winnipeg Free Press food critic Marion Warhaft called the restaurant's fare "straightforward" and added: "...the menu at Rae and Jerry's is sensibly limited to what the restaurant does best."

Steve Hrousalas (Linkedin)

When Rae and Hemsworth entered their early sixties, they sold the restaurant to Steve Hrousalas and John Petrakos, as Steer Holdings Ltd., in 1975. In this Free Press article, Hrousalas, who was 30 at the time, said he approached the owners to ask if they wanted to sell and to call him with a price when they were ready.

The two men, both Greek, grew up in restaurant-owning families.

Petrakos' father owned the Original Food Bar on Main Street and the family were co-founders of the Junior's Drive-Inn chain. Hrousalas grew up working in his father's Paris Restaurant on Portage Avenue and at the original Juniors on Main Street before going to the University of North Dakota to study business. He was later the food services manager for The Bay.

Gene Telpner wrote in his entertainment beat column at the time of the sale that the rumoured purchase price, which included the restaurant and 4.5 acres of land, was around $1 million. He added that the men had no plans to change anything about the restaurant. The name, Leon and Harry (see below), and the 85 staff would carry on as usual, though they speculated that the restaurant might branch out into catering in the future, (it did.)

Hrousalas bought out Petrakos in 1978 and by 2014 he had owned Rae and Gerry's for longer than Rae and Gerry did!

It was announced in January 2024 that Hrousalas, now 79, sold the restaurant. He told the CBC that he gave the new owners similar advice to what he received from the original owners 49 years earlier: "Keep it the same. People want to know what they're going to get. They want consistency. They want the same food. They want the same service."

There was another long-time partnership associated with this restaurant.

Leon and Henry was the house band in the Scarlet Lounge from 1963 to 1983. They even recorded a live album there in 1980 that you can listen to here.

Leon Isenberg was from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and settled in Winnipeg after the Second World War. He soon formed the Leon Quintet and became a fixture on the local night club scene. Ellsworth moved to Winnipeg from his native Montreal in 1958.

The two met at an evening of performances at Rae and Jerry's Scarlet Lounge in 1962 and hit it off. It was not long before they created their own jazz / easy listening duo and were signed on as Rae and Jerry's house entertainment. At times, they brought in additional musicians and singers to accompany them.

The pair retired in December 1983 at which time one entertainment reporter speculated that their 20 years together likely broke the longevity record for any act in Winnipeg's night club scene.

Further reading:
Rae and Jerry's website
Outgoing owner of Rae and Jerry's advises new owner CBC. Jan. 18, 2024
Iconic Winnipeg steak house is now under new ownership CTV Winnipeg, Jan 18, 2024
Nothing to Change at Rae and Jerry's - except the ownership Global, Jan 18, 2024
Longtim fan buys Rae and Jerry's Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 18, 2024
Well done and rare Winnipeg Free Press July 7, 2022
1405 Portage Avenue Winnipeg Architecture Foundation


Anonymous said...

Great story!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the Rae and Jerry's on Kennedy later became the original location for He's and I wonder if the R&J on Portage at Langside later became the Club Morocco.

Anonymous said...

Hy's not He's