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Emma’s Back Porch | Haunted Restaurant in Burlington

Emma’s Back Porch & the Water Street Cooker were once popular restaurants in the old house at 2084 Old Lakeshore in Burlington. 

And a haunted hotspot reaching legendary status.  Catching the eye of the most known Canadian Ghost Show in history… Creepy Canada. 

Today, the house Emma Byrens made famous now stands empty and alone on the Burlington Waterfront, waiting out its fate.

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Bootlegger? | Debunking | Ghost Stories

Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Main Image

by Ghost Guide Daniel

Emma’s Back Porch is a Historic Home

The current building at 2084 Old Lakeshore Road was once the location of an 1800’s home belonging to the Gage Family.  Hamiltonians will recognize that name.  Not the Gage Park Gage’s.  The Stoney Creek ones.

Andrew Gage owned 2084 Lakeshore.  He was the grandson of Mary Jones Gage, the widowed owner of the home now known as Battlefield House in Storey Creek.  A woman who witnessed the Battle of Stoney Creek.

In 1870, he sold the house to William Kerns.  Kerns owned it while serving Ontario as the representative of Halton in Toronto’s Legislative Building (Queen’s Park) from 1883 to 1898. 

In 1915, selling it to a Hamilton lawyer named Harold Lazier.  And only 4 years later, the house was leased to Emma and George Byrens.  They opened the Estaminet (pronounced eh-staa-mee-nay, French for Bistro) Restaurant in 1919.

Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Estaminet Restaurant

Emma grew it into one of the best-known establishments in Burlington.  Gaining the attention of dignitaries and celebrities.

Was Emma Byrens a Bootlegger?

No.  But her husband George has a connection to one of the most infamous Bootlegger’s in Canada.  Ben Kerr was a known Hamilton Rumrunner and competition to the infamous Rocco Perri.

And Ben the Bootlegger was married to George Byrens’ sister. 

Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Rumrunner Ben Kerr
Hamilton Rumrunner Ben Kerr – George Byrens’ Brother-in-Law

The Estaminet opened in 1919.  This was the beginning of Prohibition (and the banning of alcohol).  It was still legal in Canada at the time.  But limited.  A restaurant willing to break these laws and serve strong booze became popular with the people. 

Nothing is proven, but logic states George took advantage of his Brother-in-Law, Ben Kerr’s, delivery route from the Toronto Distillery District to Hamilton’s Harbourfront. 

Scamming the Inspectors

A supporting legend talks about inspectors who visited the Estaminet.  Coming regularly to test the alcohol, making sure it was sufficiently watered down. 

Says Emma was involved in the charade.  Switching beer lines from the regular beer, to much lighter versions.  Tricking the inspectors.

The danger of offering illegal booze to the public, in my opinion, explains the mystery of why the Estaminet was so popular among such famous names.   Speaking of …

Famous Guests

Old guest books give proof that many famous guests visited the Estaminet.  Including…

  • Prime Minister John Diefenbaker
  • Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson
  • Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent
  • Baseball Star Jackie Robinson
  • Other Baseball Star Mickey Mantle
  • Most Famous Trumpeter Louis Armstrong
  • Pianist and Singer Liberace
Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Famous Guest Liberace

All greeted by the famous green parrot named Paul.  A pet of George and Emma, and a smart little fellow.  He was kept in the main lobby, greeting guests as they came in.  It is said Paul knew all the employees’ names and loved making conversation.

From Emma to the End

By 1930, she purchased the building from Lazier.  Keeping control over it until her later years.  At the age of 79, sold it off to Reginald Cooper in 1952.  Dying 7 years later. 

Ghostly legend states she died inside the house on the main staircase, on the fourth step.  Leading to the experiences of recent years surrounding that step.  However, this isn’t true (see Debunking Legends below).

Reginald passed the restaurant to his son Brian in 1963, who kept it under the name Estaminet, marketing it as ‘Canada’s House of Hospitality’.

The rest of the history is quick, as the property changed hands many times.  Leading up to 1994, when it last stood as the Water Street Cooker and Emma’s Back Porch (in honour of Emma Byrens). 

Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Modern image

Finally closing in 2020 after being hit hard by the lockdowns.

Stories of Mike Crooks

Mr. Crooks was a manager of Emma’s Back Porch.  Serving in the restaurant for over 8 years.  He was in charge during the major years of ghost stories.

The main ghosts are said to be Emma and her two kids, Robert and Sahara. 

Emma Byrens is seen as a floating white figure on the main staircase.  My thought… her energy is connected to the stairs.  Years of greeting guests as they walked into the Estaminet.  Hours upon hours anxiously standing on the staircase.

Debunking Couple Legends

2 legends need to be debunked before getting into a couple ghost stories.

First… it’s said Emma haunts the stairs because that’s where she died.  This doesn’t make sense historically because Emma sold the restaurant a few years before her death.  Meaning, she didn’t die inside the building. 

Second… that the 2 kid ghosts, Robert and Sahara, were Emma’s.  That they were 2 of her 5 kids, and they died at a young age.  Sahara dying at 4 years old from pneumonia.  And Robert at 6 years old while playing near the Lake, when he slipped on a rock and hit his head. 

Children of Emma & George

The ghost stories around the 2 kids in Emma’s Back Porch state that Emma and George had 5 children.  Some research shows this is false.

They had only one son, named Foster.  He grew and stayed in the family’s chosen life by being a Chef.  Married at only 21 years old and died young, at 38.  Tragically in a car accident on the QEW in 1941.

Confusion for the number of Emma’s kids may come from the Byrens’ gravestone, which shows…

  • Emma & George
  • Foster
  • And at the bottom is a “Loving Daughter” named Nonita Byrens Batchelor
Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Emma Byrens Grave

Born in 1924, Nonita was listed as the daughter of Emma and George.  The problem is, Emma was 49 years old when Nonita was born. 

Turns out, their son Foster married young to a maid in 1924.  The same year Nonita was born. 

Common belief… Nonita was the daughter of Foster and the maid.  A quick marriage the same year she was born.  Said that Emma listed the girl as her daughter to avoid the shame of getting a girl pregnant out of wedlock. 

Little Kid in Basement

Back to Manager Mike Crooks.  Before Crooks arrived, he’d heard a story about a former dishwasher. 

At the beginning of the lunch shift, the dishwasher went into the basement to get ice cream out of the walk-in freezer.

Coming out into the hallway, he noticed somebody sitting on the ground, blocking his path to the stairs.  Getting closer, he saw it was a little boy, hunched up on the floor. 

“Are you okay?”  He asked when walking up.  Reaching out, he touched the boy’s shoulder.  His hand passed right through.  Dropping the ice cream, the dishwasher ran up the stairs and out the door. 

Crooks investigated the story and found out the dishwasher refused to come back.

Emma's Back Porch, Burlington, Ontario - Basement

Now, this was reported as a Robert sighting (Emma’s supposed dead son, who we now know never existed). 

This isn’t to say the experience of the dishwasher isn’t true.  Only that it wasn’t Robert.  May be another spirit within the historic restaurant.

Strange Noises

The workers call the basement, “The Dungeon”.  And so many of them refused to be down there alone. 

One of the reasons is experiences like the dishwasher.  But also, random strange noises. 

One energetic night, workers were cleaning up the restaurant after closing.  Down in the basement, one of the managers heard sounds.  “Like glasses being clinked together…”  Which escalated to pounding on the floor and walls. 

The workers rushed off.  Later, passing it off with a laugh as, “… just something strange”.  On the outside they made it a joke.  But actions prove the truth, as they all refused to go down into the basement again.

Will it be Demolished?

At the writing of this article (late 2023), we’re not sure.  It’s not looking good for 2084 Old Lakeshore Road in Burlington. 

Only this year, there was an attempt to have the house deemed a Heritage Site of Canada. 

Having such a designation protects it against the wrecking ball.  Not a guarantee of survival.  But this makes it much harder to demolish. 

However, Emma’s pride-and-joy didn’t get it.  As quoted from the Committee’s decision…

“2084 Old Lakeshore does not meet the qualifications to be designated as a heritage site.  To be considered for historical designation, sites must meet at least two of nine criteria, including design, and historical or contextual value.”

It’s one of the oldest houses in Burlington!  Mixed with a premier restaurant catering to some extremely famous names.  All surrounding a well-respected and brilliant woman remembered by many in the history of Burlington. 

If this isn’t enough to give a building Heritage Designation… then I personally don’t know what is.  There are so many cookie-cutter condos in Canada.  There’s only one Emma’s Back Porch. 

Ghost Guide Daniel is the head tour guide of the Ghost Walks.  Currently leading in Hamilton and Niagara-on-the-Lake, and host of the Ghost Guide Daniel Podcast.


A Tale of Two Restaurants –

Nicola Thompson research –

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