Music Hall chef and impresario Robin Romalho tells the story of his grandparents operating the first and for some time only Portuguese restaurant in Toronto: Sousas’, in Kensington Market, which they ran for 30 years or more.
“Because of that, I never wanted to open a restaurant,” he said. “I always said to myself: ‘You’ve got to be half-crazy to want that kind of pressure.’”
So how did he get from there to the point, four months ago, when he opened the Music Hall on Roberts Street in Ladysmith, a restaurant arguably 17 years in the making?
Well, first, you have to know that the Music Hall is not just a restaurant. It is a museum, the set for a music show which Romalho is producing and hoping to pitch to a major network, and it’s a venue for youth talent in Ladysmith.
And you have to understand that Romalho, who describes himself as ‘overly ambitious’, is not your typical restaurateur.
Until 1998, when he moved to Ladysmith he had put in 27 years as a historical set designer and TV show producer. That ties into his passion for anything historical, and his future plans for the Music Hall.
“You’re talking to a guy who spent, at that point, 27 years of his life creating areas to make them look heritage, to make them look old – trying to hide a parking meter, or having a sign removed that’s cemented in,” he explained.
His first view of Ladysmith, during the shooting of a TV episode of The Wind at my Back, convinced him this was a place he wanted to be, eventually. So on impulse he bought three buildings on Roberts Street, including the future location of The Music Hall.
In 1996, when he sold the rights to a TV show called Reigning Cats & Dogs, about people and their best friends, Romalho saw his chance. He sold up his heritage mansion in Toronto and moved here in 1998.
There’s an ironic twist in the tail… er tale, though. Romalho hadn’t intended to sell Reigning Cats & Dogs at all; he wanted to sell a an episodic Canadian music showcase concept he was developing.
“What I was actually trying to sell was a show called The Music Hall Presents, it was a Canadian talent showcase episodic, featuring independent acts signed to record labels.”
He hopes to bring that concept to fruition twenty years later in the little red house on the hill, which he’s transformed into what people think of as a restaurant where the over-40 demographic can “go out for a glass of wine or a martini in a comfortable, quieter, mellower place that’s historically bound to the community.”
It is all that, Romalho says. But in the overlapping collages of his active mind, it’s way more.
There’s certainly no shortage of historical ambiance to The Music Hall. At the entrance, for example, framed and displayed on the wall, is the surveyor’s transept used to lay out the streets of Ladysmith. The bar is a compilation of 27 historical fragments of Ladysmith memorabilia. On the wall is Little Joe’s concertina – Little Joe was the accompanist to the silent movies that played at the Rialto Theatre in Ladysmith…
The Music Hall is a museum, and Romalho the curator is gregarious to a fault when it comes to describing its artifacts and their fascinating stories. He always nods to the memory of Ray Knight, his guide and mentor through Ladysmith’s past.
“He just knew everybody and everything, and he could remember dates and times, and he could tell you things,” Romalho said, admiration still alive in his voice. He thinks people should get involved in the history of Ladysmith through its Historical Society, but as an appetizer, the Music Hall is a treat.
“My goal with this building, and all my decorating in here, was to try to do that on a lighter note, so people could come in and eat a burger, have a beer, and learn a little bit about the history of the town.”
But then there’s the ‘way more’ part. The big picture perspective on The Music Hall is about bringing big name musicians – or musicians about to top the charts – right here to the town on the hill, for intimate performances in a historically enriched setting, in front of a live audience.
And it’s no pipe dream.
“Now I’ve build the set, it’s a real restaurant. I’ve already shot five episodes, two of which were Juno award winners – David Gogo and Morgan Davis, Canadian blues legend – and I’ve shot the Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, who are up and coming and signed to an independent label,” Romalho said, warming up to his vision. “It’s a venue with a menu, that’s my slogan.”
There’s more to come. If he pulls it off and sells the concept to a network, he and Ladysmith will be basking in some PR glory, and he’ll be eligible for a cut of the $440 million fund that’s been set up for the development of Canadian TV programming.
Then lots of people will be tuned in to the little red restaurant on the hill in the town that Dunsmuir built.
“So when I bring in the guy from 54-40, when I bring in Valdy, when I bring in Bill Henderson, all big names, I’m going to shoot them here and – hypothetically – then I qualify for money, which would then, in turn allow me to bring in bigger names,” Romalho said. “I will fit right in, I would qualify for some of that money.”
So if you think of Ladysmith maybe ten years down the road, and imagine Romalho’s vision coming true, then we’ll all be saying he made some history of his own to add to the legends that surround him.