Impossible to read Edward Keenan’s piece about the slow demise of family run diners (Toronto Star, Jan.26/19) without being overwhelmed by the urge to visit my own favourite local, aka: Whitby Diner, where the first time we ate there the chef came out onto the made-with-love scruffy little patio chock full of giant tomatoes growing in white plastic industrial sized buckets (originally home to feta cheese) and told us how he left Greece as a youngster and lived for a time in Newfoundland then moved to Toronto and, finally, Whitby where he spent many years making doughnuts at a number of local establishments but was happy to get out of that racket. He tells us with pride about the cucumbers he grows on his land just outside of town (his wife, apparently, is an amazing pickler and the pickles are for sale).
And so we head over on this snowy Saturday morning and while tucking into the best white toast (toast is an art), sausage and over not-entirely-easy/not-entirely-medium eggs (the chef at Whitby Diner really gets me)… I revel in the memory of a few historical faves.
Diana Sweets on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines where Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman eats an egg salad sandwich (because Howard Engel is from St. Catharines and the Benny Cooperman series’ town of Grantham is actually based on St. Catharines) and where my older sister worked and where I loved hanging around because she was like a rock star in those white don’t-make-no-noise shoes and aproned uniform and how — my god this was big! — she could go right into the back room and USE THE GESTETNER MACHINE to print out daily specials. I wasn’t allowed back there but just waiting for her to emerge with a handful of freshly minted menus was bliss. The glorious smell of the ink! I swear I’m still slightly high from that stuff.
And the stories. Every day she’d come home and tell something. About staff, about customers like the Hells Angels or the elderly couple who wandered in and studied all the wooden booths trying to find the one they’d carved their names on when they were courting. They found it. (Carving names in the booths was apparently never discouraged, which was just one more groovy thing about ‘The Di’ that made me want to work there one day.) (I never did. Went straight into delis instead and from there I lucked out and got a receptionist gig in a denture clinic, which is when my career really took off.)
The diner across the Homer Bridge where my sister also worked (before the illustrious DS) and where buses didn’t run so my dad had to drive her and pick her up, during which transport I tagged along so that I could wait for her on a twirling counter stool and ask diner related questions like why are there so many flies on the windows? and where sometimes somebody gave me a slice of pie to shut me up.
The place in the old Towers plaza next to the Bank of Montreal where I would drop quarters into the jukebox and listen to John Lennon’s Imagine over and over and over while eating plates of fries with vinegar.
PJ’s in Whitby where the tables used to have built in PacMan games instead of place mats. Now they are just tables… *sniff* (but hands down still the best staff and the best place within walking distance for a cup of tea and/or brekkie and/or lunch and to soak up some beautiful unchanged over the years small town vibe).
Teddy’s in Oshawa. THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE FOR GRILLED CHEESE AND FRIES. None. (And none of yer fancy cheeses either… I’m talking process slices on Wonder bread. Once in a while, and done right, it is heaven.) (Technically more a family restaurant but I’m including it because it’s an ancient fixture on the landscape. And because of grilled cheese.)
A mere quick handful as I’m feeling peckish…
(All of which to say…. please, please, support your local diners! They are so much fun, essential to community and almost always run by interesting people, and because it is so very heart-warming to hear a waiter say “Hello, Betty/Jim/Stanislaus/Georgina… the usual? And how’s your mum doing…?”)
And this is a world in need of heart-warming.
All pics taken at Whitby Diner (where the jam is amazing). And for sale.
Thanks to Edward Keenan for loving diners and to the Toronto Star for the wonderfulness it publishes.
(Also… what have I missed?? Current favourites and all diner love memories welcome.)