The Beaconsfield on Queen West shut down suddenly this spring. After 13 years in business, the popular watering hole was sold to new owners unbeknownst to staff and regular customers.
But now the brick building at the corner of Beaconsfield and Queen has a new marquee on it. “Death and Taxes Free House,” a neon red sign waiting to be illuminated reads. Another sign on the side of the building calls it Death and Taxes Public House.
The building was purchased by new, undisclosed landlords. Their tenant, the Donnelly Group, is a long-running Vancouver-based company with over a dozen restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs. They also own a series of highly stylized barber shops. Recently, they took over Vancouver’s historic Railway Club to mixed reactions.
In 2016, the Donnelly Group started making inroads in Toronto, opening Belfast Love on King West. By phone, owner Jeff Donnelly explains that the name is homage to the Donnelly family’s northern Irish ancestry.
“Northern Ireland never got any love. Everyone was always doing these Dublin pubs, and Belfast is such a cool city these days,” he says.
The Irish-inspired everybar offers over 30 beers on tap, guest DJs on the weekends and a roast lunch on Sundays. Donnelly Group calls it “a modern tribute to the sensibilities of a proper pub.” The patio out front is always packed.
Then, in December 2016, Barber & Co, which has five locations in Vancouver, quietly opened on Ossington. The shop is handsome and old-timey. They offer hipster approved haircuts and shaves. There’s a gift shop selling men’s grooming products and a small cocktail bar hidden in the back. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the place, but Toronto hair stylists voiced their displeasure, calling Barber & Co a cheap reproduction of classic barbers and an insult to the traditions within the industry.
“I worked my ass off for 15 years to build a community,” Chris Hammell, owner of Town Barber, told BlogTO at the time. “For some rich ass from Vancouver who has six barber shops that are basically First Choice [Haircutters] with tattoos to come through and say ‘We’ve taken over Vancouver. Where’s the cool neighbourhood in Toronto?’ That’s ridiculous.”
Now, the company is opening their third Toronto outpost, Death and Taxes, in mid-August. The menu and bar program have already been designed, but they’re waiting on light renovations including a 60-seat patio to be completed.
The location has been a long-time favourite of Donnelly and proprietor Scott Rowe, who lives down the street from the restaurant and previously worked at the Drake Hotel.
“The thing we’re most excited about is putting a pub in that area,” says Donnelly. “You’ve got the Dog & Bear and Otto’s [Bierhalle] in the area, but we think that neighbourhood could just use another good pub.”
Donnelly insists that he’s completely hands-on with the project, so much so that he’s purchased an apartment on Ossington (directly above Barber & Co) so he can spend more time in the city. The company is also in discussion to open a fourth to-be-named property downtown at the corner of Bay and Wellington.
Walking past any one of these establishments, you wouldn’t know they were all part of the same restaurant group. There’s no signage attached to Death and Taxes that indicates it’s owned by the Donnelly Group, and that’s the point.
Part of the success of the Donnelly Group in Vancouver has been to create seemingly unique restaurants that are actually completely homogenous. If you look at menus at any one of Donnelly Group restaurants, you’ll see pretty basic favourites that appeal to everyone: burgers, yam fries, nachos and salad. Their restaurants are often styled with chalkboard art, have large bars and most of the time, the music’s too loud to have a proper conversation.
In fact, hating on the Donnelly Group is pretty popular in Vancouver. There are entire Reddit threads dedicated to rants calling the restaurants “generic, soulless venues” and “McPub[s] with a monopoly on the city.” One Redditer even went so far as to call it the Nickelback of pubs, which I think is pretty clever. It’s true: it’s easy to hate on Donnelly Group restaurants and yet they grow more successful every year. Wander the city on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll seen a line to be seated at anyone of their establishments.
For that reason, Donnelly admits he isn’t keen to expand in Toronto the way he’s done in Vancouver.
“We don’t want to give the same impression in Toronto that people started to get in Vancouver: that we’re this big corporate entity,” he says.
Instead, he’s considering shrinking his portfolio to maintain the quality of food, drinks and locations.
There’s no doubt Death and Taxes will be successful. It occupies a prime location on Queen West surrounded by other restaurants and bars, and nightlifers have known to flock to Queen and Beaconsfield for years. Plus, it’s owned by a company that’s opened over a dozen restaurants that look, feel, taste and sound just like it. And they’ll apply the tried and true formula as it continues to move into Toronto.
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