The Seven Dwarfs restaurant was born into a culinary wilderness.
Just after World War II the isolated stretch of highway between London and Lambeth was home to just two other eateries - if you didn't count the burger joints doubling as gas stations. But there was something special about the Seven Dwarfs from the start.
Built by Joe Raymond, his brother Cy and Ted Blainey, the English-style inn was inspired by the popular Walt Disney film. Boasting a "Hearth Room" and a sunken dance floor, the Seven Dwarfs first opened its doors to the public on October 5, 1946.
Londoners, who had been starving for a new dining experience for nearly a decade, overwhelmed the place. There wasn't a table to be had and the modest kitchen staff was quickly swamped with orders.
"We were just besieged and, eventually, we got a bad name for service," Raymond recalled in 1975.
The Monday after the opening, management published an apology for the poor service and canceled noon lunches to give the waiters and cooks time to catch their breath between sittings. Things eventually leveled off and the service at the Seven Dwarfs reflected the industriousness of their namesakes. As a bonus, Joe met his future wife and business partner, Ellie, when he horned into her date at his restaurant.
Boasting "good food, good music and dancing," the Seven Dwarfs soon became better known as an after-hours spot, even though it didn't have a liquor license. Prior to 1968 Westminster Township was dry, meaning patrons had to smuggle in their own booze. When former 1920s heart throb Rudy Vallee dined at the place in the early 1960s, he brought along a portable bar and mixed cocktails at his table.
While the arrangement worked for a while, the OPP began conducting raids in 1963 after a rival restaurant owner filed a complaint against Raymond. The constant police checks spooked patrons who began avoiding the place like a speed trap.
The Seven Dwarfs nearly went bankrupt during this time. Joe took out a second mortgage on the place and unpaid bills often meant that items on the menu - and even electricity - weren't available. Ellie Raymond would cover by telling guests not to order a nonexistent dinner of roast beef because the meat was too tough.
After the township went wet, Ellie was one of the first restaurant owners in Westminster to secure a liquor license. The Seven Dwarfs sailed into the 1970s with a new lease on life.
But the return of big crowds created another problem. On busy nights, the one and a half acre parking lot was easily filled, forcing dinners to park on either side of the highway outside. When two men were fatally run over in the late 1960s, the OPP cited the overflow parking as a traffic danger. A coroner's jury later recommended parking restrictions.
Over the years, the Seven Dwarfs claimed celebrities like Nat King Cole, The Glenn Miller Orchestra and Johnny Cash performed for dancers. They're great stories - but probably just that. Although it boasted a modest dance floor, the Seven Dwarfs was too small - and too remote - to accommodate major artists who were just ten minutes away from much larger venues in London.
Chances are these greats stopped by for no more than a couple of dry martinis and an order of prime rib while seated alongside visiting hockey greats like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Gerry Cheevers.
Gus and John Liabotis purchased the restaurant in July 1975 and added a major addition ten years later, complimented by a vintage neon sign sporting the most popular of the Disney dwarfs, Dopey.
However, as the Seven Dwarfs entered its second half century in 1996 it began to look more like a cafeteria at a retirement home. The live music disappeared, the dance floor fell into disuse and the restaurant's buffet devolved into a bland palette of Tim Horton's donuts and rice pudding. Younger diners can be forgiven for assuming you had to be a senior citizen to get into the place.
"They must be going home to catch 60 Minutes," quipped one patron as he surveyed the place emptying out early one Sunday evening. In April 2004, the Seven Dwarfs shut its doors. Mounting debts were too much for its third owner, Pat Liabotis.
However, like the fairy tale it was based upon, the Seven Dwarfs would have its happy ending. In March 2005 the restaurant reopened after extensive remodeling. The Dwarfs memorabilia is back in place and new owner John Panos is promising the create a wall of fame of all the celebrities who have "performed" there over the years.
But for this writer the most unique thing about the Seven Dwarfs is that it has sailed through nearly 60 years of service without receiving a single legal challenge from the Walt Disney Company for using its characters. Perhaps the statute of limitations ran out a long time ago - or perhaps those lawyers in California just appreciate good food.