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When the zombie apocalypse comes, I'm hiding out here in the city. Some of my friends will head for the hills in their dangerously vulnerable vehicles, but I'll be holing up in Dufferin Mall, which has everything I need plus the appropriate amount of bolted down apocalypse-friendly furniture for the occasion.
The last time I was there was for an evening at Swiss Chalet that my friends and I organized because it had been a while and it was time. That's what Swiss Chalet is: not a last-minute, hey-why-not thing, but something you plan.
And because it's Swiss Chalet, just about anyone with any number of kids of any age can afford it.
That's significant because when kids are young, eating out is usually torture or bliss - never the same thing for all parties involved. My parents hated the restaurants my brother and I craved (Chucky Cheese, McDonalds). My brother and I wept openly when forced into the stiff chairs of fancy restaurants that cooked their chicken with mushy brown stuff and insisted on putting green beans on the side. Beans are not a side.
Swiss Chalet was the first nice restaurant I ever went to that I liked but my parents could also tolerate.
Back then I had no idea it was a chain, because I didn't get around a lot. This would have been the early 80s, and the resto had what I deemed fancy decor: wooden lattices, warm Swiss mood lighting and servers (always) in (possibly Swiss) outfits I thought of as dressy because they involved frilly white blouses. White blouses featured heavily in all my good outfits at the time.
Modern-day SC servers no longer wear puffy white sleeves; that playful, festive feel has been replaced by a crisp-shirt, comfortable-pants food service look. This seems fair to me, given that wearing a uniform is rarely a festive thing. I know this as someone who once wore the very unfestive Chapters suede vest.
Also, the Dufferin Mall venue has no ornate wood trim. In fact, it has more of a bunker feel: practical and easy to wipe down with something other than Pledge.
I'd like to see the stats on who orders anything there but the signature rotisserie chicken. I mean, how do you walk through the door of a place that literally fans you with the smell of sizzling, dripping, greasy, chicken skin and think, "I'll have the ribs!?" It'd be like ordering chicken wings at Pizza Pizza.
Mariko Tamaki's favourite childhood resto was Swiss Chalet, and she still can't resist dunking her fries in that gravy.
I always order the same thing: the quarter-chicken with fries and an extra saucer of magical Swiss Chalet sauce. When I was a kid, before the days of extra sauce, my brother and I were forced to make do with the standard teacup-sized portion that comes with every dinner. To make it stretch, after soaking our fries in it we'd wipe the excess off back into the bowl. Because we knew the key to good Swiss Chaleting was... drinking the sauce. Right from the bowl like a big, fat Canadian shooter, or with a spoon if you were a sophisticate. That solo shot is easier to accomplish with an order of extra sauce, by the way, and it's super-cheap, so why not?
Another key to the Swiss Chalet experience, a favourite moment for true fans, is the cleansing finger dunk in a bowl of warm water with a little lemon chunk in there, the Canadian version of a squirt of Purell. It's so sophisticated. I have never trusted any person who refused the bowl. If you'd rather go wash your hands like a tourist, I'd rather not know you. What's better for removing a layer of grease than a tiny slice of lemon? Nothing.
In my memory, in the early days Swiss Chalet meals came with a free dessert. I never paid the bill as a kid, so I can't say for sure. The choice when I was little was pie (the old person's desert) or a scoop of ice cream with chocolate syrup. No debate. After saving my chicken sauce for most of the meal, I'd pulverize my sundae in seconds by beating the ice cream and chocolate into a soft-serve froth in its fancy metal cup. I always thought the cup looked a little like a weapon.
Today, my experiences eating at Swiss Chalet are a reminder that I'm not a kid any more. After my chicken-skin-eating and sauce-sipping, I have to consider that this is a meal with nothing green in it. "Probably not great for my cholesterol," I think. Then I think, "Holy cow, what an old-person thing to worry about."
That said, until his last days, Swiss Chalet was where my mom and I would take my grandfather for dinner, partly because it was the closest restaurant to his seniors home and because even when he was in his 90s my grandpa liked a nice chicken finger. Apparently, Swiss Chalet chicken fingers are very good. I wouldn't know. Because they don't come with extra sauce.
Mariko Tamaki is a writer of comics and YA novels. Her latest work is This One Summer (Groundwood/Anansi; see NOW's 4N review), with Jillian Tamaki. She is working on a novel about magic and California and blogs at marikotamaki.blogspot.com.