R.I.P. the Stem, long live BQM

Those mourning the Stem's demise can take heart from the burgers at the diner that's taken over the old spot


BQM DINER (354 Queen West, at Spadina, 416-792-7792) Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a pint. Average main $9. Open Monday to Thursday 8 am to 9 pm, Friday 8 am to 10 pm, Saturday 9 am to 10 pm, Sunday and holidays 9 am to 9 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement, booth seating. Rating: NNN


Bo Diddley was right. You really can’t judge a book by looking at the cover.

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Case in point: BQM Diner, the offshoot of the Burger Shoppe that’s just opened in the legendary Stem at Queen and Spadina. Before stepping into the joint, I figure I’m going to hate everything about it. For starters, there’s the once-iconic neon sign out front, now painted over with a shudder-inducing logo for Pabst Blue Ribbon, the official tipple of the trucker-hatted hipster set.

Plus, I’d never been a fan of the Burger Shoppe, having found the Riverside take-away’s operation amateurish, its product poorly executed, overpriced and under-garnished. And how dare anyone desecrate a Toronto landmark like the Stem, the no-frills spoon that had served the downtown crowd since the early 50s? Is nothing sacred?

But one bite into BQM’s honorary Stem Burger ($8.95) and I’m ready to eat my words. Whereas previously, BS’s burger was scrawny, of no particular provenance and overcooked to the point of resembling a hockey puck, the considerably improved BQM patty is now a generous 6 ounces of Rowe Farms organic ground beef.

Better yet, ask that it be cooked medium and, not only will you be obliged, but it’ll turn up perfectly pink-centred and squirting juice. It also comes properly topped with a handful of mesclun, sorta-ripe tomato, thick, meaty bacon and a runny over-easy egg, all served on a pliable grilled whole wheat bun.

Complete the burger concept with a side of nicely crisped skin-on fries.

David Laurence

Halfway through the burger, I begin to notice the narrow room itself. Although it’s been completely gutted, the new Diner’s design takes its cues from the old, a row of retro vinyl-upholstered booths down one long wall, a new industrial bar with stools facing an open kitchen down the other. A time-capsule soundtrack shifts from the 87 Pixies to the 68 Velvets. A Handsome Ned or Demics CD would not be amiss.

Burger Shoppe’s onion rings used to be proudly frozen and straight from a box labelled McCain’s, but BQM’s are the real deal, large slices of Spanish onion dipped in beer-battered panko crumbs and deep-fried to perfection ($4.95).

Skin-on fries ($3.95) also arrive nicely crisped. Throw on some mozzarella and a whack of shredded pulled pork in a too-sweet barbecue sauce in need of a shot of vinegar and you get one of the tastiest poutines in town ($7.95).

Don’t eat meat? Then start with a fabulously rich roasted carrot soup ($3.95) spiked with maple syrup before polishing off one of Miss Joy’s Tofu Burgers, a massive block of dense bean curd deep-fried in eggy batter and dressed with organic greens, balsamic-glazed beets and crumbly goat cheese ($8.95). But steer clear of the Meatless Burger ($7.95), a “grain and legume patty” that might be likened to a mushy mash of Indo-spiced spuds and chickpea channa. Messy, too.

But whatever you do, don’t come to BQM expecting the Stem of $2.25 cornflakes and $1.10 cinnamon toast. Long gone are the days of $4.45 three-egg breakfasts, now replaced with two-eggs-any-style (except poached) sided with three rashers of regulation bacon and a stack of Texas-style whole wheat toast ($8.95), a cup of strongly brewed Te Aro coffee another two bucks.

“I’m well aware of the Stem’s place in history, and I’m trying to stay as true to the original as I can,” says Diner owner Saeed Mohamed. “We’ve even brought back rice pudding.”

All very well, but where’s the red and green Jello?

stevend@nowtoronto.com

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