What keeps them going? Tenacity, thriftiness and a whole lot of love
They’re friendly, familiar and always there at the start of the day or after a rough night. Toronto’s classic diners serve as bastions of nostalgia and comfort, remaining steady and reliable as the streets around them rapidly evolve. Although many of them boast a storied history and devoted clientele, that doesn’t always mean smooth sailing. With the local food scene becoming increasingly driven by special-occasion outings, boldface names and booze sales, many diners are finding it tough to stay cheap and cheerful in the face of rising rent, labour and food costs. But, as these eight restaurateurs – from OG grill cooks to preservation-minded young guns – prove, it’s love that keeps them picking up the spatula morning after morning.
Decommissioned bus terminal turned east-end classic, established 1948
Tim Dutaud, owner: There’s a story behind these booths. Orphan Black filmed here, and I guess they didn’t like the original colour of the booths, so they brought the green ones in. Then they left them here. And when 50 Cent shot a video here, they painted those murals and brought in the menu board behind the counter. This place really is a culmination of so many different people taking it over.
This actually was a bus terminal. John Hollinger had the first independent bus line on the east side. It was during World War Two, and most of his passengers were women going to factories to build stuff for the war. There’s always been some sort of coffee shop in here – Hollinger owned it until the TTC bought him out in the ‘50s.
This was the first restaurant I came to after I moved to this neighbourhood in 2010. I sell real estate and I’d come here with clients or read my paper here. I showed up one day and the place was closed. When it went up for sale I was competing with three or four big chains.
I got the call that I got the diner the day I buried my dad. This was one of the places he always wanted to go to when he came to visit me – I had told him I wanted to buy it, and one of the last things he said to me was, “I’ll be your first customer.”
I would have never opened a restaurant if this place hadn’t come up for sale, but that’s life, right? It was this diner or nothing. I also never used to think I’d have a kid. But now, she’s the boss here.
I knew the neighborhood was really territorial about this place. I put in a new floor, but I kept it checkered red and white. I repainted all the lines on the walls. As we were doing the renos, people kept giving the thumbs up from outside, every time. When the regulars came in for the first year, they wanted to tell me everything about their history with the place. They really wanted to mark their territory. They wanted to let us know, “Listen, I was coming here for five years before it closed down.”
The last thing I wanted, like anyone else, was to see the chains gobble this place up. But the reality is, the money’s in booze. This isn’t a political speech, but there’s real challenges with the increasing hydro and minimum wage costs. I need the same amount of labour to make this breakfast as a steak dinner, but I’m not selling a $90 bottle of wine with a $40 steak. The reality of all these places is if the neighborhoods don’t support them, we’ll all be going to Eggspectation and Sunset Grill.
1606 Danforth, 416-463-4680, facebook.com/busterminaldiner
East-side luncheonette with an Irish heart (and a killer soda bread recipe), reopened 2008
Ash Farrelly, owner: I am what you would call a professional waitress. I was born into this business – three generations, both sides of my family, owned pubs or small hotels throughout Ireland. My father was born above the pub his family owned. So this is what we do, I guess.
I immigrated here as a domestic worker, a nanny. I was 18. I had $12 and a suitcase. I didn’t even know the winters were cold. I’d gone to the American embassy thinking I’d go to America. But it was really weird – lots of police, they asked lots of questions, no smiles. I went to the Canadian embassy and there was a Mountie all dressed in red. He was really, really nice. The photos were beautiful and the people were so friendly. They sat me down, told me what Canada was all about. I said, “There’s no competition here!”
I got married, had a kid and got divorced. I was just trying to survive, single parenting and waitressing. It’s a very common thing, when women get divorced and they have to restructure their lives.
One day I said to myself, “I can’t do this. What kind of future is my kid gonna have?” And when you get older as a waitress, you don’t get the jobs. So I started looking for little places to rent. I wanted to have a place I could run in the daytime, be home by five o’clock, pick up the kid.
This place has been here since the dawn of time – we’ve got records on it from the 1850s – though it was rebuilt in the 1960s. It was a wooden building, and the termites got to it. The family who owned this place before me were all working here together – the mother, the son, his wife, the sister, the nephew – which is a recipe for disaster. They got into this thinking they could make money. You don’t make a good living running a diner. You can have a fun living. But you’re not in it for making cash.
We opened right at the 2008 recession and I did some really weird things to get us through. I did 15 per cent off takeout, so we got lots of takeout business. I worked seven days a week. It took a few years of really hard work to get people coming in, then another seven years of hard work, and now I’m here.
My kid’s 19 now – he’s in college – and he started working here on his 15th birthday. He doesn’t love it, but he knows this is my dream. He gets to go pursue his dream, but he helps me out with mine.
129 George, 416-862-7676, thegeorgestreetdiner.blogspot.com
Owner Terry Papas (left) and cook Chris Slifkas preside over the Patrician.
King East greasy spoon with lovably surly service, established 1953
Terry Papas, owner: The restaurant was built in 1953, and my parents bought it in late 67. We just had our 50th anniversary. I didn’t announce it or tell any newspapers. I just put posters up in the window. But Global News came, and the next day, the place was nuts. People who hadn’t been around in years saw us on TV and came down. It was a good day. Mom was there – Dad passed away in 2011.
When I was a kid, this was like a second home. It was more of a home than where I lived because we were here so much. I’ve been here working full-time since the mid-80s.
When I was younger, I had some other things I wanted to do but they didn’t work out, and then my dad got sick. Was it my plan to do this full-time? Absolutely not. The restaurant life is tough – any owner would tell you that the business actually owns you. But what keeps my sanity is that my brother-in-law works here. We play music, and we try to keep it fun.
We joke around with the customers, too. They like that because it makes them feel like you know them. People say, “Can I get extra?” “EXTRA? WHAT?!” It’s personal. With all these trendy new restaurants and cafés, employees change all the time, so people don’t get to be remembered as having a “usual.” You say, “Oh, yeah, you want your toast brown, no butter, right?” “Oh my God, you remember!” And they feel appreciated, not like they’re just a bill.
We don’t do poached eggs here. They’re temperamental. People asked for veggie burgers for a long time and we were like, “No, no.” But you know what? The world is turning that way, so we got it. We sold one to a girl once and she complained she couldn’t finish it because it tasted too much like a real burger.
There was a time where we thought about closing. There were people interested in buying the land for condos. But remember the crash in 2008? The talks stopped after that, so we’re still here.
I’m lucky because I’ve got my brother-in-law here. We’re here every day, six days a week. That’s why I think we’ve lasted all this time – because we trust each other. And it’s hard to find people you can trust.
219 King East, 416-366-4841, patriciangrill.com
Skyline staffers, including chef Mack Elo-Shepherd (right), take a breather at the front counter.
Parkdale lunch counter turned all-day comfort food destination, established 1963
Maggie Ruhl, co-owner: I’ve been coming here ever since I moved to Parkdale. My brother and I had separate places – I opened the Dakota Tavern and the Ace, and he has the Three Speed and the Wallflower – but never together. I ran into the Skyline’s original owner, Louie, one day, and he was like, “Are you ready?” He’d decided to sell. When he closed down, we took it over the next day. That was in 2016.
Some customers were a little trepidatious. But when we explain that Louie is happily retired, and that this is 100 per cent a family business, they get it. My brother and I are here all the time, and our parents are very involved. I get that, to the older crowd, we seem like a new hipster restaurant. I don’t care about that term – hipsters are people, too – but I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I feel like we’re a little old and weathered to be hipsters.
We tried to leave items on the menu that people wanted us to keep. Some worked out – but the hot beef sandwich and hot turkey sandwich? The open-faced ones? People wanted them, but they’d order one out of nostalgia and then never order it again.
The menu is right in the comfort food zone. Half of it is diner classics, and the other half is specials. The kitchen gets to be really creative. Our chef, Mack Elo-Shepherd, is really young – she just turned 22 and she’s killin’ it. Sunday is cheap date night: spaghetti, meatballs and garlic bread for $25 for two. On Thursdays, my sous chef from the Ace does a Chinese-Canadian menu – it’s his passion.
We want people to feel like they’re at home, and keep the price point where they can do that. Our burger is $12, but with the quality of meat and the hand-grinding, that’s the minimum we can charge. For the quality, you have to stick to your guns. And a lot of older diners would own the property, but we rent. That makes for a big difference in price point. I mean, who can afford to buy?
We still have a lot of Louie’s customers, and we also have some people who have had a tougher time in life, and we take care of them. They’re our regulars, in all different ways. We do a pay-what-you-can Thanksgiving dinner every year, and that’s a huge success. It’s all of Parkdale, in this room, all at once. It’s everyone.
1426 Queen West, 416-536-3682, instagram.com/theskylinerestaurant
Victor Reinoso, son of Miriam, cooks up a club sandwich.
24-hour grill on a quiet strip of Dupont, established 1955
Miriam Reinoso: We’ve been in the food business for the past 38 years. We used to sell Italian food in the Standard Life Centre they ended our lease, and that’s how we got here. One day we passed by and saw the “for sale” sign. Our real estate agent said, “It’s a lot of money.” I said, “It’s okay! Don’t worry about it.” What I know is, I’m gonna have a home, a place to go to work.
I’m gonna be 60 this year. This is what I love to do, but I hope my kids – in this case, my son Victor and his wife – will take over. But I tell them, if you think too much about money, it won’t last too long. It’s not what you have, it’s how you keep it. You have to be on the same level as your workers. Because we are the smallest people in the world. If you think you are bigger than them, they won’t want to come in to work. They’ll say, “I’d rather be at home.” We’re a team.
Over the past 14 or 15 years, we have had to raise the price a few times. Sometimes we’ve had to tell people, “Sorry, the cost of meat went up, the wages went up – but thank you for coming.” That politeness, thanking them for being here, it’s very important. Because if you feel welcome, you’re going to come back.
We have people here sometimes who don’t have much money. I tell the staff to give them credit. I think we should never be too cheap to help. We have to pay our bills and make our money, but we have to remember that we live because of that customer. I always think of my grandfather back home in Ecuador who used to sell bread. He didn’t have paper – he would carve a piece of wood with “The lady from up by the river owes me 10 cents.” He’d tell us, “Grandchildren, never let people go hungry.”
I want people to know I’ll always wait for them. I was on the night shift and a customer asked me, “Miriam, why are you out cooking this time of the night?” I say, “Waiting for my babies. My babies are you guys, the customers.” People have the bad impression that people come in swearing or disrespecting at night. There are a couple, sometimes. But I look at them and say, “Do you see that mama with the white hair is here to cook for you? So what you want to eat?”
474 Dupont, 416-537-4318
Lakeview co-owner Fadi Hakim.
24-hour brunch and late-night hot spot, established 1932
Fadi Hakim, co-owner: I loved this place from the start. Alex (Sengupta, co-owner) and I went to high school together, and we basically grew up in diners. I ran bars throughout my 20s and we eventually began looking for a restaurant project. When the Lakeview went up for sale in 2009, we met with the landlord, then we camped out in a car across the street, waited for him to finish all his appointments, walked up and told him, “Look, we’ve been dreaming about this all our lives. We love this place. We have to have it.” All we did was give everything a polish. Whatever we changed, we wanted to make it feel like it had been that way for a long time. But we didn’t really do much, other than turning it 24 hours. That was the key.
I’m always surprised there aren’t more 24-hour places in Toronto. Late night is such a romantic time, you know? So much ends up happening. And then when the bars shut down at 2 or 2:30 am, the 24-hour places are always packed. Getting started was tough, though. For the first year, I would work midnight until 9 am, and then be back at 1 pm to do the books, taking a nap on chairs in the office. But there’s nothing more satisfying, as a restaurant owner, to see the club kids leaving Saturday morning as the moms are pushing kids in strollers into the same restaurant. That’s what kind of makes this place.
This place had 10 or 11 owners over the years, and we found all these menus in the basement. They were doing pizza, pasta, all kinds of stuff. We wanted to simplify everything. Diners are uncomplicated. It doesn’t matter what class of person you are – everyone likes that type of food.
I was born here, but my parents came from Lebanon. My mom would cook North American dishes based on recipes out of Chatelaine, and my favourite was her cornflake chicken. We repurposed it for the menu. And one day, Judah Friedlander from 30 Rock came in and asked, “You guys got any Disco Fries? They’re like poutine but with shredded cheese.” He was literally wearing a trucker hat that said “Disco Fries.” We got in the kitchen and made some, and we ended up putting them on the menu. We might start selling those trucker hats.
It’s been almost 10 years, and Alex and I talk sometimes about whether or not we’ll still have this place one day for our kids, if they’d work here one day. My daughter’s only two and a half, so we’ve got a while yet. But it would be nice.
1132 Dundas West, 416-850-8886, thelakeviewrestaurant.ca
Purple Onion owner Sunny Sun, with son Alex.
Junction spot known for steak, eggs & coconut cream pie, established 1970s
Sunny Sun, owner: The Purple Onion name has been around a long time – the first one was on Avenue Road, a coffeehouse. (The original Purple Onion, in Yorkville, was known as a popular hangout for the folk music crowd and hosted early performances by Carly Simon and Buffy Sainte-Marie.) In the 70s, the Purple Onion Bar & Grill opened at Keele and St. Clair. We get a lot of older customers who say, “Sonny, you don’t know? You’re very famous.”
I worked at the Tulip in the Beach for over 12 years. Before that, I didn’t know how to cook at all – I learned there. When I bought the original location on Keele, my bosses at the Tulip were really mad at me. The owner went to the Swiss Chalet across the street, sat there and counted how many people were coming in. But the customers were telling me, “I live in the west end and now I don’t have to cross the city.”
I moved here in 2010. They gave me three weeks’ notice before my lease was up at the old location, and I didn’t have a new one yet. So I put a notebook out with a sign saying I was moving and asked people to leave their emails and phone numbers so I could tell them where we ended up. One thousand people signed it. I still have that book.
My family and I live upstairs – I sold my house in Markham, so now I don’t have to drive for an hour to get here. I put in 120 hours a week. You want the secret? You have to do everything yourself. I make the burgers on my own – no waste.
I buy the food myself, too. Before we’d order everything in, but to get a bag of potatoes delivered, it’s $20 a bag. To buy it yourself wholesale, it’s $12 a bag. I go shopping twice a week. That’s how we keep the prices low.
So many people who come here focus on just one menu item. They can eat it forever. My customers can tell when anything changes. They can even tell who’s cooking when they taste the food: “Is so-and-so in the kitchen? Okay, then I’ll have the steak.”
It’s been a tough time lately. On this street, when anything closes, they open a new restaurant. Before, there were five restaurants. Now, it’s more like 25. Parking’s an issue because there’s so many [restaurants]. Some customers tell me, “I liked your old location better because I never had to worry about parking.” And before, when a new restaurant opened, nobody would go there – it would sit there for a couple months. Now everyone goes right away. It’s amazing how much things change.
2998 Dundas West, 416-760-8208, purpleonion.ca
24-hour standby for students and the downtown crowd, established 1940
Richard Kim, co-owner: My family bought this location [on College Street] of Fran’s in the 90s. The previous owner, Francis Deck Jr., inherited all the restaurants from his father. He got a little ambitious and started opening all over the place – Eglinton, St. Clair, Windsor, Hamilton. Fran Jr. wanted to get out of the restaurant business, so my father offered to buy the rights to the name around 2000. We shut down all the locations except for this one, and started growing again from there. We opened Victoria Street, then Front Street and Barrie. This is the only original one in the city. It’s a landmark, if you think about how old it is. That’s really unique. I think people connect Fran’s with Toronto because of that.
The main floor and basement on College are all original. It’s a little less polished-looking than the other locations, but in a good, nostalgic sort of way. A lot of regulars really like that, especially the older clientele. You hear stories from them all the time. I get 60-year-olds saying that they used to come here after the bar, hung over, while attending U of T.
We haven’t changed many of the menu favorites – we don’t mess with the rice pudding or the pancake mix. But we’ve also made additions to the menu that cater to millennials, or someone of my generation, in their late 30s. We’ve also been doing specials at the CNE for the past few years. With the CNE being as old as it is, we almost felt like we could co-brand around the history of Toronto.
My brothers Robert and Roger are also involved in the business, and my father’s still working away. We’ve been taking on more responsibility as he gets older, and it’s been a natural progression. It’s almost like diners tend to be an inheritance from generation to generation.
To be honest, I didn’t want to get into this business when I was younger. My brothers and I were jocks growing up, you could say, and the goal was to go into something that had to do with fitness and health. But this is a family tradition – something we know, something we’re good at – so we stuck with it.
I think if I were ever to do the health food thing, I’d start a whole other concept. Grain bowls are great, but pancakes taste better. And breakfast is universal: wherever you go in the world, you can find bacon and eggs.
20 College (and others), 416-923-9867, fransrestaurant.com
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