Her given name, in the memorial announcement for the Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, was Miriam Braidberg. But everybody knew her as “Mimi“.
But there it is in the announcement: Miriam (Mimi) – April 1956 to July 2010. Suddenly at home on Sunday, July 4th. Dear daughter of Pearl and the late David. Beloved sister and sister-in-law of Ann and Gary Posen, and Shelly and Gerry Merovitz. Wonderful aunt to Sara and Russell Posen Johnston, and Leslie and Daryl Parat. Former colourful proprietor of Mimi’s Restaurant and recognized as Toronto’s Blintz Queen. A graveside service will be held at Holy Blossom Memorial Park, 40 Brimley Road. (south of Eglinton) at 1:00 p.m. Shiva, 3600 Yonge Street, Suite 424 on Thursday evening only.
Mimi, who died way too young, at 54, from a heart attack Sunday, used to feed us most mornings back in the day. Her restaurant – oddly set in the lower right side of the Oak Leaf Steam Baths building at 218 Bathurst – was our clubhouse, our breakfast club, the place where we regaled each other in band stories, commiserated over petty band jealousies and most of all bathed in the approbation of the beret wearing chef behind the counter, hitting play on the VCR clips of Pee Wee Herman, stirring the chili, slamming down the challah toast and pouring out the second, third, fourth and fifth cups of coffee – all without letting the joint fall from her lips (well not always, but I have seen her do it countless times).
She loved the boys in the bands, and was an early supporter of Blue Rodeo, for whom she named her Chili, and would always decorate her walls with posters for gigs by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, she always swooned when tall drink of water Brian Connelly, guitarist from the “Shad cats” (her nickname for the band), came in. Russell De Carle of Prairie Oyster was “Woofy”. She loved Stan Ridgway, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, Kevin Quain, Fred Eaglesmith, Leonard Cohen, Bobby Wiseman, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, and more Bob Dylan. She got to know Jonathan Richman, whom she lovingly called “Jo-Jo” and whom I think she wanted to fatten up like only a Jewish mother would. And it would have been easy to do that, too, what with all the high calorie, high carb delights she was dealing in. The BR Chili, the New Wave-os Rancheros, the Corn Beef Hash and Eggs, the Challah French Toast or her world famous Blintzes. Set a spell, what’s your hurry. Eat. I’ll make you a plate.
Before she was the matron of the musicians morning scene, Mimi was a house mate. In the 80’s, I used to live in a house with her and three other people (one of whom was musician Chris Houston), at Bathurst and Richmond, just south of where she would eventually open the restaurant. I remember the week she opened, we all went over to see what she’d done to the place (which previously been run by the bass player from local art rockers The Government).
Mimi made it her own, a combination East Village art house, Betsey Johnson kitsch couture and teenagers bedroom. Plastic toys, a Pee Wee Herman doll, photos of Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood and El Vez on the walls.
It became my morning routine to stumble up the street and plant myself on the counter. Soon enough her nine counter seats and three four-seater booths were packed with various Cowboy Junkies, a few Prairie Oyster folks, The Skydiggers, Greg Keelor, Jim Cuddy, or Bobby Wiseman and Jane Siberry (we always wondered if her songs “Mimi On The Beach” or “Waitress” had been inspired by her).
As her reputation grew, Mimi’s was a key location in the local alternative music scene, kind of like a Toronto breakfast equivalent of CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City. Oh bands didn’t gig there, we just got our heads together there and rapped with Mimi, who would cue up cool songs on the boom box, or VHS tapes on the little portable TV above the pie fridge.
It felt a little exclusive at times and often I was embarrassed when Mimi played me as a favourite ahead of the people in line, but it was her own private club and be damned if she didn’t like you. She loved originals who were genuine, like Al Mader (“The Minimalist Jug Band”) or Jaymz Bee from the Look People, Moe Berg from The Pursuit Of Happiness. Meryn Cadell. Mary Margaret O’Hara. If you were in, you were in. Luckily, she liked me, and even though I was never famous, it didn’t matter. We got each other. Not that we ever saw it as Studio 54 or anything, but Mimi’s smile was the velvet rope that let you know if you deserved one of her three booths or a coveted spot on the counter. It wasn’t about what THEY thought, it was all about her own exquisite taste. All I knew was, phew, I was in. It felt good. We talked about tunes while she stirred the Blue Rodeo Chili. She started doing Cafe Au Lait when I mentioned that I preferred it (Coincidence? probably, but I felt like she was doing it for me). Also, I don’t think I ever paid full price for a meal ever.
I’ll never forget one time when I thought I might have an ulcer and my doctor said I should lay off the fried foods for a while. Mimi went out and bought a box of Cream of Wheat and kept it behind the counter just for me. She was so stoked when Lyle Lovett came in, even if she was pissed that he asked her to extinguish the joint while he ate. She also loved the lady musicians, like saint Joni Mitchell, kd lang, Nina Hagen, and especially Rickie Lee Jones (I think she cooked for her).
And she loved Laura Nyro, and played me lots of her music. Hey, I seem to recall that Mimi flew to New York and saw one of Laura’s last shows…
She discovered Neko Case and Carolyn Mark long before many of us. When my wife Liza and I were leaving Toronto in 1997, we asked Mimi to make some food for the party at the Horseshoe and she lovingly complied. When I got fired from one of my day jobs, I headed right over to Mimi’s and we talked about what the hell I was gonna do next. She loved music. I loved her like a sister and I know she loved me too.
Any great scene runs on the passion of a few committed souls, and Mimi put more than food in our bellies, she put passion into her life and, by example, inspired us all.
If Toronto was London, I’d vote for one of those blue plaques on the side of her old building. We’ll never forget Mimi, and whether you play guitar or just play your iPod, the next time you play music, send some out to her soul, she loved that.
PS – it’s really sad but I just went to her Myspace page, which she updated up until only last week. On there somewhere, she had shared a few thoughts about having hung up her apron in 2007:
“I can’t say I miss the restaurant so much, but I do miss my Monday Hockey Boys, and feeding my favorite musicians when ever they hit town. I feel so naked not being able to offer breakfast favors in exchange for CD’s and concert seats, my goodness y’all have no idea how far a girl can go on a little good french toast karma! I’m not sure where I’ll end up next, but hope to bump into you soon, the good lord willing and if the creek don’t rise!”