Whether you’re hungry for a career in the arts, or just plain hungry, Free Times Café on College St. is an obvious choice. 

The storied restaurant/bar has offered delicious food and a platform for emerging artists since 1980. And though performing at Free Times is an easy way to get noticed, running the café has been anything but easy for owner, Judy Perly.

“There’s little protection for businesses in the city,” explains Perly. “And since the pandemic, it’s been even worse. But it’s not about making a profit. It’s about providing a service to the community.” 

Perly has always committed herself to the tenet of service, and she comes by it honestly. Born into a family of cultural aficionados, Perly was taught early on the value of good eating and good entertainment.

“We were not a typical middle-class family,” Perly recalls. “My parents worked non-stop in the day, so ours was a late-night home…going to restaurants and nightclubs and live theatre, in Toronto and Stratford and New York.”

Because of the demand of her parent’s work (they founded and operated Perly’s Maps in 1949), Judy was often left to run the household and prepare and cook dinner. This fostered in her an understanding of the economics of food (how to pick quality ingredients at a good price) and an appreciation for culinary traditions in Jewish culture and beyond. Cooking also became an emotional refuge.

“Food was my escape,” shares Perly. “And it was the one thing I got praised for. My parents were busy people, and they didn’t focus on my academics or other achievements. But if I made a nice meal…”

Though Perly’s parents weren’t poring over her report cards from school, there was an expectation of greatness in the home: a belief that their children could change the world. And because she was allowed to run free, Perly developed an industriousness and a penchant for risk-taking, traits that prompted her to action 40-plus years ago, when a newly renovated lunch spot at 320 College St. came on the market. 

Opening a restaurant at the best of times is a tough task, and certainly no less so on the cusp of a recession. And though Perly seems unscathed, it was also an era when female business owners were regarded with skepticism.

“I did encounter certain patronizing attitudes,” says Perly. “But I was raised in an egalitarian household, with my mother working just as hard as my father. So, I never let that stuff slow me.”

What did impact Perly’s first year in business was a string of bad luck, with her father and beloved grandmother dying, and her mother requiring care for injuries. Perly and her boyfriend split up, and creative differences brought an end to an early partnership in the business.

“My partner didn’t want to host entertainment in the Café,” recalls Perly. ‘But I saw music and the arts as a part of life that should be accessible to all. So, I bought out my partner, brought in music, and the rest is history.”

And quite a history it is. Over four decades, Free Times Café has played host to some of the finest musicians in Canada and beyond. A beacon of quality folk music, and the only venue in the world to feature weekly klezmer performances without a cover charge, the Café has helped to launch the career of Canadian artists like Ron Sexsmith, Emm Gryner and Laura Fernandez, on the longest-running open mic stage in the city.

“Free Times Cafe is where I learned to hone my craft,” shares Toronto recording artist Laura Fernandez. “It’s where I learned how to play to an audience and where I have always felt comfortable sharing new material. Judy Perly is a hero of the Canadian live music and singer songwriting scene!” 

The standard of performance at Free Times brought in a steady flow of customers and allowed Perly to curate a menu of food favorites that delighted patrons through the decades. Today’s menu is eclectic, combining Middle Eastern dishes with Canadian fare, but it was the introduction of the iconic ‘Bella! Did Ya Eat?’ brunch on Sundays that really cemented Perly’s reputation as a gifted, culturally authentic chef.

Perly continued to refine and evolve the business, but in the spring of 1990 a fire broke out and the venue was shuttered for nearly eight months. When others might have quit, Perly was indefatigable: her business acumen and commitment to service helped her to rebuild better.

And it’s those very same traits that allowed the Café not just to survive the COVID-19 lockdown, but to thrive. Perly looked first to renovation and remodeling projects, addressing some of the venue’s maintenance needs like new carpets and new lighting. And money from the government helped soften the loss of dine-in patrons, affording Perly the opportunity to come into the café every day and be creative and industrious. She revised the menus and together with her beloved staff built a temporary Free Times ‘store’, with holiday meals that delighted her supportive Jewish customer base, and hundreds upon hundreds of Paletas, a popular Popsicle treat.

“It’s never been easy to run this business,” Perly admits. “Commercial property taxes have always been bad, and with rising food and labour costs and the slow return to dining out after the pandemic, it may be more challenging than ever. But I have a great group of staff, and I’m a creative person. I believe we are doing something unique at Free Times Cafe, with food that’s connected to my roots and entertainment that reflects the diversity of our city.”

Given the lineups and the appreciative crowds at Tuesday’s open mic nights, Judy Perly is right and worthy of praise.

Laura Fernandez will be performing at Free Times Cafe with Howard Gladstone at 7 p.m on Sept 17th.

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