Johnny Vago 1923 – 2018 R.I.P.

Written by  //  October 21, 2018  //  Absent Friends  //  No comments

King of Crescent Street

The entrepreneur, engineer, and philanthropic ‘King’ of Crescent Street, John Vago, passed away peacefully on the 20th of October 2018 surrounded by his family, in Montreal, Québec.
Born on the 5th December, 1923 in Budapest, Hungary, he came to Canada in 1951, bringing with him a café culture and bonhomie characteristic of post-war Europe found in such cosmopolitan cities as Vienna, Milan, Prague, Budapest and Paris.
Montréal embraced the European café life as proposed by the young Vago who led his multi-cultural, interdisciplinary team alongside his architect brother, Peter Vago, on to building an empire consisting of the Boiler Room, Oliver’s, Carmen’s, The Casa Pedro to name a few of his innovative venues, culminating in the acclaimed ‘Winston Churchill Pub’ and ‘Winnie’s’.
Crescent Street became the go-to club / bar / restaurant scene also attracting star-studded personalities to this day.
John Vago was humble, loyal to his Hungarian roots but ultimately proud to be Canadian, and a Montrealer until the end. His engaging, charismatic personality, visionary outlook combined with his humanitarian empathy, are a hard act to follow.
He will be remembered for his incredible generosity, his capacity to give many young people a start in life, and was a genuine leader in the vein of his mentor, Sir Winston Churchill.

“I have no family, so this is my home. The staff are my children. I brought them up. When they started with me, only one of them had ever stood behind a bar before.”
– John Vago, founder of Crescent Street.

He will be greatly missed by family, friends, and co-workers alike.

John Vago’s wake/remembrance will be held at Winnie’s. For further information, please contact: [email protected]

14 February 2017
Sir Winston Churchill Pub marks 50th anniversary — minus some characters who made it a landmark
The Sir Winston Churchill Pub celebrates its 50th birthday but, sadly, those habitués who made it a local landmark have long since passed on.
By Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette
It is a bittersweet anniversary for some: the Sir Winston Churchill Pub celebrates its 50th birthday this year, but, sadly, those habitués who made this Crescent St. complex a local landmark have long since passed on.
Front-row seats at the bar presided over by Margo MacGillivray were near impossible to land 20 years back. That’s because the stools were most frequently occupied by the likes of Nick Auf der Maur, Mordecai Richler and his friend/sparring partner Richard Holden, the latter’s former political comrade-turned-foil Gordon Atkinson, and radio icons George Balcan and Ted Blackman, among other local luminaries. These patrons served as a lively barometer for what was going on in the city, province, country and world. Opinions were rarely tempered and always colourful – roughly proportional to the amount of booze consumed.
There was nothing like it on the anglo bar front in town. Lunches turned into happy hours into dinners into late nights.
Some of us can still recall boulevardier/politician/journo Auf der Maur, vodka and cranberry in one hand and pen in the other, scribbling a Montreal Gazette city column on a cocktail napkin and, amid the din of the bar, calling it in and dictating it to a none-too-thrilled editor. Or author/political pundit Richler and Holden going at it, after the latter left the Equality Party to join the Parti Québécois. Or Atkinson, who remained true to the Equality cause, actually challenging Holden to a duel. Or Blackman setting new land-speed records for consumption of rum-and-Cokes before hitting the airwaves.
OK, not exactly lifestyles suited to longevity — which might explain why they are no longer with us. But there was a spirit among this rogue’s gallery that brought much-needed fire to the city scene and that is rarely in evidence these days. Nor is Crescent St. the haven it once was, long since replaced by the action to the south and east of it.
The inimitable Johnny Vago, an economic adviser to the government of Fidel Castro in 1959-1960 and friend of Cuban revolutionary hero Che Guevara, founded the Sir Winston Churchill Pub. Tagged the “Father of Crescent St.” (but not in the priestly sense), and also the founder of the now-defunct Boiler Room, Don Juan’s and Casa Pedro (ask your parents), Vago, 93, – though no longer an owner – still drops by the pub for lunch.
Apart from the more famed regulars, the bar complex also served – and continues to do so – as a place for all manner of mortals to launch careers, marriages, divorces and, yes, liver conditions.
“I remember like it was almost yesterday. Nick decided we should all move from Grumpy’s to here and like the latter-day Moses he sort of was, we followed him,” says former CBC producer and Auf der Maur crony Stephen Phizicky, over a beer at the bar. “The rest is history — and some hysteria.”
Auf der Maur was actually following his bartender of choice, MacGillivray, from Grumpy’s. She was the glue that kept this eccentric circle together and spent 37 years as mixologist/shrink at the pub. Though she officially retired a few years ago, she still shows up for the occasional Friday shift for old times’ sake.

Leave a Comment

comm comm comm