Will The Matador open again? Its owner hopes so, but says the city has him at his 'wit's end'

1 / 4
The Matador Ballroom could rise again through rezoning

Paul McCaughey's says his dream of reopening The Matador, the historic west end rock and country bar where music legends like Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash once partied into the early morning hours, is still alive, but the clock is ticking.

McCaughey purchased the building — located on Dovercourt Road, just north of College Street — in 2010 and received a licence to serve alcohol there last February. But he says he can't do anything with the space until the city gives him several zoning and building permits.

Now he's setting a deadline of April 7 to get what he calls "traction" with the city. And if he doesn't, he may pull the plug. 

"Under the current situation we don't have a right to do anything," he told CBC Toronto earlier this week, standing in the Matador's airy main hall, now mostly bathed in fresh white paint.

"We have been at this for seven years, we're at our wit's end."

McCaughey said he had a productive but inconclusive meeting with city officials on Thursday afternoon. The two sides are set to meet again soon, and McCaughey said he's been asked to provide more information that will clarify what he has the right to do with the venue.   

McCaughey had been hoping to build some consensus with staff about his plans for site. The vision is a far cry from the Matador's past life as a notorious noisy booze can where bottles of liquor could be purchased from a hockey bag at the back of the room.

City officials declined to comment ahead of the meeting.

The Matador's rebirth is taking on greater importance, as Toronto brands itself as a "Music City" even as a number of well-known venues across the city are shutting down.

City process must be followed, councillor says

Coun. Ana Bailao, who has been working with McCaughey and represents the ward where the club stands, says she supports the Matador's return to its live music roots — famously, the late Cohen is said to have penned his song Closing Time about the venue.

However, Bailao said, both the city and the owner have to ensure the new Matador will fit in with the neighbourhood, which means there need to be solid plans for how to deal with those coming and going from the club, as well as the noise.

"I'm hearing that more and more from the owner that they want to play a role in the community," Bailao said.

That will also require working out the issues with city staff.

"I think the most important thing is for the owner to understand what is required to operate a space the way that he's now presenting it to us ... because he's bringing new things to the table," she said.

"There's a process that needs to be followed."

Owner criticizes city's 'adversarial' approach

McCaughey says he wants The Matador Ballroom to draw a line back to 1916 when the venue was the Dovercourt Assembly Hall, a gathering place where proceeds would go to the First World War efforts.

Designating the venue a public hall instead of a nightclub would mean future parties will stop by 12:45 a.m., he said. He's also offering to keep the occupancy down to 650 people.  

"This is a big concession on our behalf," he said.

The main ballroom's sprung maple floor, a prized feature McCaughey delights in, will be used for big events, including concerts, weddings and other events. While there will also be smaller spaces for up-and-coming bands.  

Earlier this month, however, McCaughey said city officials said they didn't see anything about his plan they could approve.

McCaughey says he believes staff are taking an "adversarial" and "legalistic" approach to dealing with his project, however Thursday's meeting was a better and provided a clear direction forward.

There's still a long way to go, he said, but he's optimistic the venue will open again. 

McCaughey says he and his brother, his business partner in the venture, have spent some $3.5 million on the project so far, but he's not opposed to selling it whether he gets the city's OK or not.