Presenting: Mary Lee from Spiaggia Restaurant – A Hospitality Entrepreneur with a Heart for the Arts

One restaurant I have wanted to check out for a long time is Spiaggia Trattoria (“spiaggia” is Italian for “beach) at the eastern end of the Queen Street strip. Local Beach expert Glenn Cochrane had mentioned that the owner, Mary Lee, was an interesting person and recommended that I interview her. To catch her before the busy evening hours at her establishment I met her at 5:30 and we sat down in a quiet corner at the back of the restaurant.

Mary Lee indicated that she and her husband John moved into the Beach in 1989. Before the couple moved to this neighbourhood h they used to live in an apartment at the Sutton Place Hotel. When she noticed my surprise Mary Lee explained that the 19th to the 31st floor of this famous hotel in Toronto were set aside for rent-controlled residential apartments. Even today some of the apartments are still occupied by the original tenants. I had never known that there were private apartments in the Sutton Place Hotel. You never stop learning about your own city…

Mary Lee

Prior to becoming restaurant entrepreneurs, Mary Lee was an interior designer while her husband worked as an architect at the Bank of Montreal. Spiaggia was not their first foray into the hospitality ownership; the couple had owned restaurants in Oakville and on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. In 1990 they bought the building that the current restaurant is located in; it housed five apartments and the small Spiaggia..

Mary Lee and her husband immediately set about renovating the property and when the demolition work started, they found newspapers in the wall dating back to 1902. Throughout the entire renovation process they continued to operate the existing restaurant, and the patrons enjoyed watching the stucco work being performed on the building, right through the front windows.

The room at the north end of Trattoria Spiaggia

Today the second floor holds a beautiful apartment – Mary Lee took me briefly upstairs and I saw a spacious apartment with an unusual layout with lots of angles and a gorgeous light-coloured decorating scheme, obviously the results of her interior design talents. She took me out on the rear balcony and mentioned that she can see all the way to Toronto’s City Hall from this location.

The couple spent three years overhauling the building and dealt with the glitches along the way. One local regulation required that they keep the old plumbing intact while they were installing the new pipes. As a result, the building today has two sets of plumbing throughout, of course only the new plumbing is being used.

A view of the bar

Mary Lee’s real estate investment and renovation skills as well as her protective sentiments about the neighbourhood became evident when a video rental store across the street was being converted into an adult video store. Concerned about the impact on the neighbourhood, the couple bought the property and turned it into an art gallery. The adult video store relocated further west on Queen Street outside of the Beach neighbourhood.

When her husband passed away in 1998, Mary Lee closed down the art gallery since she did not have enough time to manage both businesses. A graphic design business now occupies the space. Mary Lee mentions that during the difficult time around her husband’s death her loyal restaurant customers took care of her. Their support and the higher workload she was carrying by herself now helped her get through a difficult transition period.

Mary Lee with picture by local photographer John Dowding

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