This appeared in the Toronto Star on September 13, 2008.
“It’s like a death in a family,” says Sarah Dearing to friend Steven Davey on hearing the devastating news.
“It is a death in the family,” he replies, expressing what so many of us feel as we continue to grieve the loss of beloved Kensington Market restaurateur Amadeu Goncalves.
Amadeu, 62, was killed in a car accident near Cobourg on July 28. Driving with his wife Celeste and three others, he was taking a rare day off from Amadeu’s, 182-4 Augusta Ave: the hugely popular restaurant that has been a landmark – nay, the heart and soul – of Kensington for many moons.
Celeste, an ace cook who worked in the kitchen with two other women, was often at his side as the couple took a break to share food and wine with friends in the midst of their eatery’s marvellous melee. She was badly injured in the crash but is recovering at home.
Amadeu, a short, dark-haired man with fair skin, was the quintessential host, scanning tables to see that all was well, greeting people with a handshake or a kiss and making sure that things ran smoothly.
He had owned and operated Casa Abril just north of Dundas on Augusta Ave. for about 20 years when he bought the former Lisbon Plate and re-named it Amadeu’s in 1989.
It was soon after that I, who lived for 25 years kitty-corner to the restaurant, became a regular for a morning espresso, a lunch-time steak sandwich or an excellent seafood dinner washed down with wine and shared with friends.
Davey, food editor and restaurant critic for NOW, recalls being one of many who gathered in what he calls the “Portuguese working-class bar” or outside on the famous corner patio during the 1990s, arguably Amadeu’s wild-and-woolly heyday.
“Amadeu’s became the cool place after the Tropical Paradise across the street was closed by the police in 1984,” he begins. “It had that Cheers mentality – you were guaranteed to run into like-minded friends. There was a period of 10 years when we went every single day for good conversation, witty repartee, good food and the cheapest beer in town.”
The clientele, he notes, was eclectic: “They encouraged an unlikely mix of Portuguese fishmongers, punks, art students and Queen Street musicians who’d been kicked out of other bars.”
He recalls that “everyone called Amadeu ‘The Boss’ mainly because you could tell the waitress: ‘The Boss says it’s okay to put it on my tab.'”
Author Sarah Dearing’s book Courage My Love (Stoddart) takes place in Kensington and features characters who have been fixtures at Amadeu’s, among them the late Keith Whittaker.
Once lead singer for punk rock band The Demics, he wrote the iconic song New York City. At Amadeu’s, he drew a crowd and would hold court, expounding in gravelly Mancunian tones on everything from James Joyce to British band The Kinks.
As it was for many of us, Amadeu’s was Whittaker’s second home. Not feeling well on one occasion, he called the restaurant to say: “Tell ‘The Boss’ I won’t be in today.”
Dearing credits Amadeu with the restaurant’s special spirit. “If you were having a bad day or things were tough,” she says, “he’d be really happy to see you, bring you a beer or, if you asked, give you a tab. He’d also give you free food.”
Sometimes, things got a bit too lively, especially on the patio.
“There were frequent fights,” she recalls. “Celeste, who is barely 5-foot tall, would intervene. Everyone had a lot of respect for her and she knew how to calm them down.”
For Dearing, Amadeu’s is an anchor. “If you wanted to find somebody, you could at least find out where they were and what they were doing.”
Three years ago, I reluctantly left the Market and moved to the kinder, gentler town of Stratford.
Still, like a bear to honey, I’m drawn back almost weekly to gritty Kensington – my community, family and steadfast Toronto home – to mingle with friends, sip espresso or pick up a jar of tamarind paste.
On a recent visit after Amadeu’s death, I was greeted warmly by merchants and residents alike. All wanted to talk, especially to tell stories about the lovely man they sorely missed.
Joe Freitas started working at Sasmart, the cavernous, exuberantly eclectic emporium around the corner from Amadeu’s, at age 13. Thirty years later, he and his wife Rosario manage the housewares half of the store.
Freitas saw Amadeu at least 20 times week, dropping by the eatery for coffee or to pick up a take-out lunch.
“Amadeu was like the heart of the Market,” he says sadly. “He was a hell of a nice guy. He helped me out of a bind several times. When I needed to pick up merchandise and didn’t have a van, he would lend me his.”
He cites the cozy but more formal restaurant attached to Amadeu’s bar where there would be frequent parties for christenings, baptisms and weddings.
“He was well-known in the Portuguese community,” Freitas adds. “You could see by the huge crowds at the funeral home.”
Carlos Pereira started working at House of Spice two doors away at age 15 and has been there more than 30 years. He fell apart on hearing of his friend’s sudden death.
“We were like brothers, very close,” he says. “He’d often bring me a coffee in the morning. Once in a while, it had Irish Cream in it.”
Tom Mihalik, owner of well-known Tom’s Place – home to discount high-end clothing – is celebrating the store’s 50th anniversary.
He calls Amadeu “a friend who was very outgoing, approachable and caring.” He cites crowds who crammed the bar and patio for soccer games and says, “Amadeu loved the neighbourhood and changed that whole corner.”
Even though it’s been several weeks since his death, Mihalik tells me, “Everybody’s still crying.”
With a heavy heart, I approach Danny Zimmerman whose father Zoltan still works there and opened this glorified general store more than 50 years ago.
Danny loved Amadeu: “He was honest and dedicated. He treated his customers with respect and got respect back.”
He cheers me up by pointing out how much this small community cares about its members. “These few little blocks are unique,” he says. “We all know each other and we feel it when things happen.”
Community worker Barbara Lawrence has lived in Kensington for 38 years. “Every morning I ride my bike around because of my arthritis,” she explains. “Amadeu would be out there having coffee, feeding the birds and talking to people.”
She calls him “a celebration of the working man – a good man, a good husband, a good father and a really strong part of this community.”
Lawrence recalls the launch for one of Dearing’s books.
“The event was downtown at Bloor and Avenue Rd.,” she says. “Then we went on to The Pilot when someone said, ‘Let’s go home.’ The next thing you know, we’re at Amadeu’s. We were home.”
Eventually, Amadeu’s son Rui, 37, agrees to come out of seclusion and meet me in Kensington to share photos of his dad. It’s a touching, heart-breaking moment with a ray of hope.
He assures me that Amadeu’s will re-open some time in September. “It’s what my father would have wanted,” he says quietly.
A resounding, heartfelt “Amen” from us, his large and loving family.