Head to Gale’s Snack Bar and you’ll feel like you’re going back in time.
GALE’S SNACK BAR (539 Eastern, at Carlaw, no phone) Open Monday to Friday 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday noon to 5 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: five steps at door, booth and counter seating, tiny washroom on same floor. Rating: NNNN
A visit to Gale's Snack Bar, that beat-up beanery at Eastern and Carlaw, is a true trip back in time. Toronto's longest-running resto, the down-on-its-heels diner has changed little since it opened more than 80 years ago.
Seating all of 18 - eight at a fading formica lunch counter, the rest in three cramped booths complete with their original lumpy upholstery - Gale's is an anachronism in these days of $40 hamburgers and $100 gold-leaf pizza. Just check out these prices: hot liver sandwich with fries and gravy ($3.25), wieners and beans ($2.50), toasted western ($1.25). And that's tax included!
"My dad's philosophy is to make our food affordable to everybody," says Eda Chan, who fronts the house while her septuagenarian father, David, cooks out back, as he has for more than 40 years. "We're not like McDonald's, where the prices are sky high."
Though Gale's will never win any culinary awards from the James Beard Foundation, the Chans deserve local recognition, if only from the Toronto Historical Board. I mean, where else can you get a sardine sandwich? And for $1.35?
Sure, the fries and the spoonful of mixed veggies that come with the hot turkey sandwich ($3.70, the priciest thing on the menu) are frozen, the gravy overly reliant on cornstarch and the bread white-bread white. But the bird is roasted daily in-house, plentiful and remarkably moist. It also shows up as the main player in a very respectable club house ($2.50).
And, yes, Gale's retro cheeseburger ($1.35) - period-correctly garnished with Velveeta, ripe tomato, diced onion and Miracle Whip - might seem small next to a Big Mac. Order two - you can afford it. Want fries with that? That'll be an additional $1.40. And remember to save room for a slice of homemade raisin pie à la mode ($1.25). I swear the flaky 50s-style fluted crust is as good as Wanda's.
Since the Hells Angels' now-shuttered headquarters is just down the block, I ask the easy-going Chan if the notorious bike gang were ever regular customers.
"They'd come in occasionally, but they're very discreet," she says. "But the Para-Dice Riders used to come in all the time."
That's not to say Gale's doesn't attract the odd Hollywood celebrity, too. John Travolta - in drag - paid a visit recently when the resto was used as an exterior in the opening scene of Hairspray.
"He came in and shook my father's hand," remembers Chan. "Maybe it was the wig and the fat suit, but Dad had no idea who he was. Jackie Chan he'd know."