Sometimes you come across things by chance. The initial plan on the way from Cleveland to Columbus was to hit one of the many Amish buffets that populate mid-Ohio. However, I still super full from the previous day. Curious about the weather, I flipped on the news to look at the map and get the forecast and saw that the town of Mansfield, Ohio was about halfway to Columbus travelling down highway 71. After a quick internet search, I discovered two things; Mansfield, in particular the Ohio State Reformatory, was the venue for the 2019 Inkcarceration tour featuring the likes of Godsmack, Five Finger Death Punch and a whole lot of tattoo artists which, as a guy who’s skin is a blank canvas, wasn’t particularly appealing. Second, the same prison was the hub for the filming of the Shawshank Redemption which hit theaters 25 years ago. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this movie, which follows the wrongful conviction Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) has achieved cult-like status. That year, it couldn’t compete with Forest Gump and the Lion King but surprisingly, it didn’t even crack the top 50 in box office earnings that year and was even beaten by the likes of Beverly Hills Cop III, Richie Rich and the Schwarzenegger classic Junior. Nonetheless it was nominated for 7 Oscars including best picture (at a a time when there weren’t 17 candidates), best adapted screenplay and best actor for Morgan Freeman. It failed to win any. Also, it seemed a fitting tour stop given the fact I stomped around Bangor, Maine last year posing near numerous landmarks referenced in Stephen King’s “It” so why stop now.
One can tour the reformatory for $15 and we got lucky because it was the first day it was open following the concert (they were still disassembling the stages and cleaning up the grounds when we arrived). The tour is a peek into the history of the Ohio penal system with a number of Shawshank references scattered throughout. One gets a bit gobsmacked (or is it Godsmacked) viewing things like the electric chair, shanks (made from spoons, pencils and other routine prisonware) and the eerie symmetry of the numerous cells stacked on top of each other. In regards to the movie, you can also the warden’s office, the infamous “Brooks was here” room, the solitary confinement area where Andy spend a lot of fine as well as the tunnel that was used for his escape. Cardboard cutouts of various characters including the ominous Captain Hadley are strategically placed throughout the grounds to recreate many of the movie scenes.
Other movie scenes scattered throughout the town of Mansfield itself which are identified by Shawshank Trail signs which made me feel like I was competing on the amazing race. These included the building who’s front facade was the movie’s halfway house and the green bench Brooks rested and reflected on after his release. There is also the Food Way(now a convenience/grocery store called the KV market) which was used in the movie. It was purchased by a Brampton family and now looks nothing like the market Red was employed at following his release. I had a nice chat with the owner’s son about life in rural Ohio and whether the Honey Jalapeno Fetty Wap chips were any good.
The Shawshank trail also scoots up to Upper Sandusky (which is south of Sandusky….). Here you can see the courthouse where Andy was originally sentenced in the movie as well as the workshop where many of the prisoners worked throughout the movie. Other than that, it is a quaint Northern Ohio place with a picturesque central street where you can get a decent coffee and a friendly small town smile at a place called Beca House Coffee Co.
Given I stumbled across Mansfield by fluke at the 11th hour, I didn’t have a chance to venture to Ashfield or Butler to sit under the “Shawshank oak tree” and ponder why I might want to get “Brooks was Here” tattooed on my forearms in sanskrit. I guess I don’t really have to; I bought the beer koozie which I can nicely tuck it away in a drawer when the novelty wears off.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo. Remembering anything after the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, the famous Dickens novel, reminds me of Dr. Evil trying to remember the lyrics to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”.
My last few days in New Orleans still involved a few mandatory pit stops. From a celebrity chef perspective, I still hadn’t travelled down the road to Emeril’s and I still had a few DDD to conquer to meet my predefined quota of 6 for the trip. I also wanted to swing by the Sazarac bar in the Famous Roosevelt hotel for the namesake cocktail.
Honestly, I didn’t have Emeril’s on my mandatory list but I certainly didn’t turn down the chance when I got invited to lunch. I figured it would be best to sample a bit of classic Cajun cuisine with a bit of fancy in the form of soup and salad (more specifically gumbo and lobster salad). The dishes couldn’t have been different. The gumbo was rich and thick and full of regional flavours and flare. The salad was crisp and refreshing. I was pleasantly surprised by both and quickly forgot the annoying Bams! that made me angry for years before. I did, however, read that the Bams! were a way to keep his staff awake. While filming his show, we would do at least half a dozen back to back in only a few hours and needed to scare his staff into staying attentive. The service was above average..for New Orleans anyway.
After the conference sessions of the day were over, I became an aristocrat for 45 minutes and sipped a sazarac in the bar at the historic Roosevelt hotel. Once a cognac based drink (in fact it still can be), since the 1870’s it has been more commonly served with rye whisky due to the fact the phylloxera epidemic in Europe devastated the vineyards of France and made cognac an endangered species. Foodies probably also appreciate the fact that the sazarac starts with a herbsaint rinse. Herbsaint is a locally produced anise-flavoured liquor which replaced absinthe when it was banned in the early 19th century due to its potential hallucinogenic properties. The substitution may also be one of the first documented examples of locavorism. God bless America.
For dinner I hit the French quarter to try the old coffeepot restaurant which could be the oldest restaurants on the illustrious and lengthy diner drive-in and dive list. Established in the 1894, it didn’t take me long to realize that it likely still served some of the original patrons in 2016. The decor was a cross between a museum and nursing home cafeteria. Keeping in mind it was a Monday night, I didn’t think it would be packed but the huge space had only two occupied tables which soon became one when the one couple got tired of waiting for the rather apathetic waiter to make his rounds. One thing I did appreciate was the Triple D combo, which allowed me to sample everything Guy had on the show in one dish. Although I knew this was going to be my order, I asked the waiter what he recommended and he nonchalantly told me he hasn’t tried anything on the menu. The danger with a preset Triple D menu that it usually allows the restaurant to inflate the price for the convenience and this was no exception. Twenty-five bucks got me jambalaya, green bean casserole, and fleur de lis chicken (with crab meat stuffing and topped with gulf shrimp) slopped onto a plate and garnished with a bit of parsley and paprika. It wasn’t the worse thing I have ever eaten but it seemed to be reheated as opposed to made to order.
As far as Triple Ds go, this one is among my least favorites. I guess the Old Coffee pot restaurant is a bit synonymous with a good part of the French Quarter; tired and touristy. The decor is desperate to reminisce on the glory days of the big easy and the laissez-faire attitude of the staff tainted the experience further. Finish it off with average food and I’m afraid the pot’s coffee left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Food- 2.5/5 Guyz
Decor- 3/5 Guyz
Total: 7.5/15 Guyz
I could have called it a night at this point but I had an ashtray I had to get rid of. I’m a sucker for a good gimmick and the Rivershack Tavern in Jefferson was right up my alley. It’s tag line is “Home of the Tacky Ashtray”. Essentially, if you bring in an ugly ashtray you get a free drink. In the past, I figure I’ve had to work a lot harder for a complementary beverage so I dropped by my local Value Village on my way to Detroit to find the perfect mantelpiece for a bar 1645 km away. After perusing through the shelves of donated knick-knacks, I laid my eyes on the prize…a rather ugly homemade chunk of ceramic which faintly resembled an ashtray.
A colleague and myself grabbed an uber and took the rather long drive out of New Orleans to the suburb of Jefferson. We were quite entertained by the driver who told us story after story about her trails and tribulations about being a female driver in New Orleans while complaining about the slew of WWE fans who poured into the streets outside the Superdome after the end of Monday Night Raw.
It was quite late when we arrived so it was far from busy but we were greeted by a friendly bartender. We pulled up to the bar and sat on another of the bar’s gimmicks; the Bar Legs stools. These homemade works of art have been part of the Rivershack’s decor since 1992.
Luckily, the kitchen was still open and offered bar food and burgers. We ordered mushrooms and onion rings ($6.75 each) and a burger with jack cheese for $9.75 which were the perfect accompaniments to my free pint. The food was far from gourmet (I did find it odd that the cheese on the burger wasn’t melted) but the batter on the snacks was seasoned nicely and the price was right for what you got. While sitting on somebody else’s legs, I imagined if I lived in the area I would use my own legs to stroll down the road and catch a band at this rural eatery on a regular basis.
Onion Rings $6.75
Jack Cheese Burger $9.75
Bar Legs Stools
My Tacky Ashtray
Although my visit was a little artificial given it was late on a Monday night, I did like the waiter and the gimmicks at the Rivershack. The food was decent as well. Plus, I can’t help feeling oddly proud about the fact that a little ceramic ashtray which was destined to collect dust on a Value Village knick-knack shelf in London is now permanently enshrined in the “Home of the Tacky Ashtray”. It almost brings a tear to my eye.
Total- 11.5/15 Guyz
My last day in New Orleans was a food network extravaganza highlighted by lunch at one of the pioneers of celebrity chefdom’s establishments and visits to two very polar Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. It did remind me a bit of a Tale of Two Cities but instead of peasantry vs aristocracy ( I feel I experienced both in 12 hours), my tale is one which parallels the tired tourism of New Orleans with a shack on a rural road where one can come and hang with the locals, ashtray in hand, and get a free beer without having to expose his man boobs as a consequence.
Windsor was once a Tim Horton’s town. Years ago, I spent countless hours in Timmie’s plugging away at a computer in between appointments when I used to travel there twice a week. At the time, public wifi was as non-existent as choices outside of lame coffee and cookie cutter, par-baked apple fritters.
In the years since Windsor has evolved into more of a cosmopolitan burghal. Although the downtown is still a work in progress, glimmers of light have emerged through the cracks of closed eateries and boarded up retail stores. Neighbourhoods like Walkerville have developed their own identities, offering foodies everything from microbrews to quinoa burgers.
In conjunction with this expansion, there has been a explosion of coffee shops which have percolated up in all corners of Windsor. It goes without saying that Starbucks has jumped on the opportunity to sway local and loyal Tim drinkers and recruit teenage caffeine junkies to a life of lattes, frappuccinos and cake pops.
I was recently down in Windsor for a couple of days of business and embarked on a mission to hit as many coffee shops as I could. Not only did I want to sample the wares but I wanted to test the waters regarding the ability for everybody to play nice in the sandbox. I was intrigued with a comment a good friend of mine and Windsorite made about her hometown. She said that she doesn’t understand why the art community in Windsor can’t get along. In particular, she was referring to belly dancing, yoga studios and coffee shops and since I would be an absolute embarrassment at the first two, I figure I would test the theory while drinking java while strumming away on my computer.
Salute Espresso Bar
Pronounced salute-a, this coffee house is located in the aforementioned Walkerville area. It has an underground feel, partly due to the fact you have to walk down the stairs to get inside. This industrial theme is furthered by the painted concrete floors and unfinished ceilings. It’s quite spacious and offers a number of tables and stools to sit and sip. Instead of coffee brewed by the pot and housed in a thermos, Salute chooses to brew cup by cup using a chemex. I usually order decaf and their product is amazing, As it cools, the flavour profile evolves, reflecting the complexity of a high quality coffee bean. For latte lovers, if you’re against lactose in dairy and phytoestrogens in soy you can substitute in their housemade almond milk (which I sure as hell hope is carrageenan free). The pecan tarts are sinful. They also offer a small menu which offers a decent breakfast sandwich. During my visits, many people walk through the doors to buy coffee and accessories. They also sell high quality chocolate and…uuummmmm….toothpaste.
Those who would enjoy Salute include the following:
Local residents who choose not to deepen the carbon footprint by refusing to drive outside their Walkerville microcosm.
Members of the non-GMO, gluten free, vegan, raw and alkaline clan who can take advantage of the secret passage to Carrots N Dates next door so one can indulge on cold pressed juices, kombucha or longevity salads while sipping a brew.
People who enjoy listening to funky music off the owner’s ipod playlist set at a volume which only slightly impairs you ability to have a conversation with your table mate.
Those who like picking up things and bringing them home to enjoy later (I am referring to coffee here in case your mind wandered somewhere else).
Heathens who would rather drink coffee than go to church on Sundays.
Oral care enthusiasts who want clean teeth after drinking copious amounts of coffee and/or eating squares of delicious chocolate.
Anchor Coffee House
Pronounced “anchor”, this coffee house is tucked in a strip mall along Huron Chruch road. My impression is it that is owned by a young husband and wife team. The decor is more rustic than industrial, highlighted with a lot of wood accents and nice art hanging on the walls. It’s quite cozy and is open 7-5 during the week and 11-8 on Saturday. They are closed Sundays. They offer a selection of brewed coffee as well as the normal list of espresso based drinks. I ordered an decaf Americano which was delicious. Since I was there a while, I also ordered a Chai Latte which they make from scratch in a stove top process which takes an hour or so. It was complex and nicely balanced with an aggressive amount of spice and minimal sweetness. There is also a good selection of homemade cookies, scones and bars. I was there in the morning and fell in love with the sight of a frittata on display at the cash. It was a near perfect breakfast…light, fluffy, well seasoned and all that stuff.
Those who would enjoy Anchor include the following:
Local business owners and workers who no longer feel the need to head down to the street to the Tim’s or Starbucks to wait in line with the other peons.
Those who need to cleanse themselves from the defilement of chain restaurants after wondering why the hell they went to the Applebee’s next door.
Travelers who need a caffeine shot prior to crossing the border and have this ill-conceived notion that you cannot or should not stop in Detroit because you might get carjacked by members of Eminem’s eight mile cartel. (On a side note, I think coffee is ok to bring across the border but just don’t bring an orange over. The border patrol has citrus sniffing dogs and the punishment is a dirty look and having to watch a perfectly good piece of fruit tossed into the trash).
I can’t recall music playing so I think Anchor is good for those who want to enjoy the silence instead of listening to it.
Fans of frittatas, homemade soups and baked goods like grandma used to make.
Music fans who are looking for a true coffee house experience. Anchor offers live music on Saturday nights so one can be serenaded while sipping. Everybody can sleep in on Sundays.
Brewin’ Bros Coffee Company.
This is the newest addition to Windsor’s growing coffee culture. It is quietly located in a strip mall along Walker Road. In fact, I drove by it, missing the small black and white pop-up sign that was impaled in roadside snowbank. It’s internet presence is as non-existent as it’s signage. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the name. It sounds like a brewery; I mistakenly typed in “brew bros windsor” and was provided with numerous sites linking me to Brew, a microbrewery located on University Ave. Perhaps a better name would be naivety (pronounced naivet-a) for a number or reasons. First, it appears to have a French theme as indicated by the Eiffel tower decal by the washroom, an array of macaroons in the display case and fact that individual cups of coffee are brewed via the French press method but it lacks a Parisian bistro feeling. The ceiling is unfinished and furniture is more practical than cute. Second, the prices are lower than I would expect. Third, they don’t have decaf which I find quite odd. Fourth, the husband and wife owners look younger than my kids. I felt like a bit of a chaperone sitting there watching them making gaga eyes at each other at their makeshift office in the corner of the seating area. Lastly, they have the strangest hours. They don’t open until 11 and stay open until 1130. Apparently the model is working but I prefer a different type of brew after 8 pm. They offer a small menu which I haven’t tried except for a piece of turtle cheesecake which was quite satisfying. The macarons were decent too.
Those would enjoy Brewin’ Bros include the following:
Drivers who prefer Walker Road as a means of getting in an out of Windsor and don’t mind getting their assess out of the car to get a coffee instead of joining the Tim’s or Starbucks drive-thru line.
Coffee drinkers who can enjoy a French Press at Brewin’ Bros. and then walk two doors down to Personal Service Coffee to grab a bag full of shitty mix and match Keurig pods for home.
Patrons of “Mom’s” next door who would prefer a coffee to go along with their halal fried chicken combo.
People who want a one shop stop for coffee, bubble tea and soda. You can bring your non-coffee drinking friend there, order them a bubble tea and tell them to shut the hell up.
Fans of name that tune. Acoustic sets of lyricless classic rock played who included Zeppelin and Hotel California by the Eagles, making it fun to see how it takes you to figure it out.
If you’re not a morning person or a religious zealot, this place is for you. They don’t open until 11 am, stay open until 11:30 at night and aren’t open on Sundays.
I love when yelpers, spooners and bloggers go into in-depth descriptions about Starbucks. “Starbucks is an international coffee chain out of Seattle that offers a variety of hot and cold drinks”. Gee thanks! All I am going to say is that I went there on my way out of Windsor and unbeknownst to me, it was the launch day of the La Boulange, the new bakery which promises a new line of French pastries that go magnificently with all Starbucks beverages. I walked into see all the tables donning dollar store pink plastic aprons and the staff wearing matching pink aprons. I felt like I was at a breast cancer fund raiser as I shoved a butter-laden chocolate croissant down my pie hole. It wasn’t bad but still tasted like a mass produced pastry.
Those who would enjoy Starbucks include the following:
People who enjoy making up a name for the side of the cup (yes..that’s right..my name is Chazz), prefer random strangers to know what your real name is or those who like watching the staff cringe when you go there with a friend of colleague with a name like Chanika or Harpreet. Come to think of it, even the name Shawn is an adventure since I often have to spell it out like I’m standing in front of my grade one teacher. If they guess it correctly though, some of them act like they just got final jeopardy right.
Those who think contrived names like grande and venti are cool and think it ironic that a tall is in fact not really tall but actually a small.
Coffee drinkers who conform to the biggest coffee conglomerate on the planet yet long to be individualists by ordering a grande no-fat, half-sweet ,extra foam soy green tea latte. In fact, I know somebody who made sure that his local Starbucks knew his individual concoction should be ordered and understood as the “Captain’s cappuccino”.
Those with a mermaid fetish. Looking at the Starbucks slogan, I don’t know how she can even hold a coffee. I think her father must have been a lobster. If there was even an American Horror Story:Coffee Shop series she could be one of the lead roles
Of course, the numerous locations, familiarity and convenience of a drive-thru make it an easy choice for many people.
In addition to an influx of new and trendy restaurants, Windsor’s coffee scene has taken off in the last couple of years. The success of such a scene is not indicated by the number of Starbucks within the perimeter of a city but instead a vibrant selection of independent retailers. This is not a blog to say that one of these establishments is better than other. If you’re in Walkerville or want a latte with housemade almond milk, go to Salute Espresso bar. If you want a wicked chai latte in the west end, go to Anchor Coffee House. If a little name that tune and a french press is your preference, then Brewin’ Bros. Coffee Company is your destination. I think riffs between independent businesses are counterproductive. That’s what rap and religion are for. Toronto adopted a coffee house passport a few years back in which patrons who visited a number of participating vendors got a coffee mug or a t-shirt with a completed card. It’s a small gesture, but it targets the people who would rather not stare at lobster-clawed mermaids. That said, imagine if the number of Timbucktoos (my term to describe Tim Horton’s/Starbucks regulars) in Windsor dropped and even 10% of their business was diverted to small businesses like these. Maybe these businesses would get drive-thrus, roll up the rim, put pink plastic on the tables and maybe even name their cup sizes something ridiculous like douze or seize.
In the end, the advent of coffee shops in Windsor is indicative of the city’s evolution as a whole. Hopefully in five years these places will continue to be vibrant partners in the community and not causalities of big box (or in this case big cup) retailers. It starts one brew, macaroon or frittata at a time.
There seems to be something about offering breakfast in a hotel. I’ve stayed in numerous hotel across Canada and the United States and can make a few general observations about the most important meal of the day:
1. Free breakfast usually involves a large common room populated with sports teams, messy haired kids wearing butterfly wings and hungover parents. Some will settle for a cold boiled egg and plain bread because the line up for the waffle machine and the toaster is too long. If you do get the the waffles, it’s a complex process of pour, fill, rotate and wait. While waiting, you look around and make conversation with a family member, a stranger or the orange juice carafe in an effort to avoid the jeers and dirty looks of the 15 people in line waiting for Belgian deliciousness. Kids are allowed to have free reign at the breakfast apparatus confirmed by the crunch of fruit loops beneath the feet of morning zombies.
2. For those who prefer to eat a croissant while blow drying their hair, there is the room service option. Fifteen bucks will get you a choice of baked goods (with preserves of course), a shot glass of orange juice, a carafe of house coffee and a individual tub of Activia yougurt delivered sometime between 6:45-7:00. An extra 10 dollars will get you a “hot” breakfast with some eggs supposedly kept warm by the use of a plastic cover. Either way, the tray ends up on the floor outside door and the faint smell of ketchup fills the halls along the walk to the elevator.
3. For those adventurous enough to leave their quarters, breakfast at the hotel restaurant is a third option. Similar to an amusement park, the convenience of proximal eating comes at a premium. The biggest decision is the choice between the $30 buffet which allows for the dried fruit and nuts as well as the bacon, the $15 continental buffet which the excludes pork products and the premade eggs benny or the a la carte menu which frequently involves a double take at the prices. That said, at least there’s free refills on the coffee.
Attached to the Hotel Zetta in San Francisco, the Cavalier offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Intrigued by it’s honorable mention in this years James Beard nominations, I wanted to experience at least one meal so I went for breakfast, especially given its proximity to the convention centre. It is constructed to look like a high end pub one may frequent after a game of polo or a fox hunt. It’s a small menu with 4 or 5 standard morning items. I opted for the breakfast sandwich consisting of eggs, crisp bacon, pepper cress and a mustard dressing for $13. I was promised the crispy potatoes were worth it so I added them for another $6. I finished off the order with a $4 stumptown decaf coffee. The sandwich was delicious; all the components from the bun to the red onion, cress and mustard condiments hit the mark. The potatoes, as promised, complemented the sandwich and the coffee was probably the best I had in San Francisco. That said, it ended up being a $23 breakfast.
I’m not saying that I expect to get a breakfast sandwich combo at a hotel for the price of an egg McMuffin combo. Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious and the service was pleasant but $23 is a little steep. I would have liked to try lunch of dinner to assess the vibe (it was a bit dull and sleepy during the morning hours), but one can only hit so many places while in town. Maybe James Beard wasn’t a morning person but hell, at least there were free refills.
Bar Buca comes for a pedigree that has gained the attention of the likes of Jamie Oliver among others. So far, so good for the offspring. It has escaped the mercurial grasp of the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttall-Smith as well as gaining praise from seasoned critic Joanne Kates (who I’m convinced is Carmen Sandiego) who recently called it the best thing to open in a year.
In one sense it’s following the lead of the snack bar swing which has taken Toronto by storm. In another it ups the ante by offerings goods all day including a coffee and breakfast bar as early as 7 am. The quiet exterior on Portland hides a deceivingly large area with high ceilings, seating which includes wooden high tables, an open kitchen and a coffee/booze bar right inside the entrance. In the morning, each table is equipped with sugar as well as a sugar/espresso paste in a jar which offers an extra kick to the morning coffee. Speaking of which, there are couple of dozen espresso/latte combinations to choose from. After careful deliberation I opted for a Latte Canadese latte style ($5.50). The foundation was maple and brown butter. Although the size would barely compete with a Starbucks tall, the flavour was far superior. Not for everybody, it was a bit like drinking melted fudge but the bitterness of the coffee bean balanced it to a degree.
The breakfast menu features everything from savory egg dishes to sweet pastries. Sensing my indecision, the waiter (yes, I may have forgotten to mention you sit down and they take your coffee order at the table) recommended pane and ricotta; fresh ciabatta bread lathered with fresh ricotta cheese and topped with pear marmalade (honey was an option as well) for $3.50. There was no shortage of fresh cheese. The bread was fresh and the marmalade added the contrast of sweet and clove.
Chef Rob Gentile has not only jumped on the snack food bandwagon, he’s added horsepower and a fresh coat of paint. The deviation from dinner only hours provides the opportunity to snack on an array of goods anytime of day. A smart breakfast menu with both sweet and savory items which fills the huge gap between greasy spoons and coffee shop pastries is sheer genius. The diversity and quality of caffeinated options rivals any other coffeehouse in the area. I have every intention of indulging on cicchettis, spuntinis and schiacciatas sometime soon but thankfully I have 15 hours a day and 7 days a week to do so.
I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto). Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.
Here are a few observations I have made about diners:
1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant. The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog. There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa. The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul seems a moot point in the diner culture.
2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam. The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.
4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner. The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish. My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side. I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”. This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45. The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.
5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner. Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.
6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff. On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties. On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there). This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.
In the end, I adore diners. They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine. Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.
The Junction has recently taken on the theme “If we build it they will come”, the most famous line from Field of Dreams. A bit off the beaten path, this area has been overshadowed by others in Toronto which have more established destinations, better parking and more convenient transit access. Most vendors along Dundas West will state that the local community keeps business alive but they would more than welcome a larger crowd moving forward. This optimism has resulted in an explosion of new eateries, from small sandwich shops and coffee shops to hipster destinations such as the Farmhouse Tavern and the Indie Alehouse Brewing Co.
Humble beginnings is a modest joint which focuses on quick meals and catering in addition to coffee and baked goods. Although the lion share of the menu is dedicated to dishes with a focus from local meat, poultry and fish suppliers, special attention is given to vegan and gluten free options as well. I popped in around lunch, so I leaned more toward the soup and sandwich menu as opposed to the larger entrees.
The soup of the day was pumpkin served with apple croutons (which were essentially dried apple rings). It was absolutely delicious. Small bits of fragrant ginger were like pop rocks within a smooth slurry of wonderfully seasoned pumpkin. The apple added a morsel of sweetness and chewiness which was a pleasant contrast. For around $5, it was a large portion. I also appreciated the fact that it was heated to order on a gas stove as opposed to drawn out of a luke warm cauldron with an unknown start time.
As for the sandwich (or as they put it… got to run, but it on a bun), I opted for the grilled chicken with a cherry chili aioli. It was a simple concoction of nicely cooked although a flimsy amount of chicken. What it lacked in content it made up for in flavour, dressed with a tornado of sweet and heat matched with a blanket of peppery arugula. Although the bun was a bit mediocre, in the end it was a decent sandwich. I found $11 a bit steep but not asinine.
Humble beginnings is exactly that…humble. It attempts to serve fresh and locally sourced foods without a lot of noise. In addition for those looking for fresh food options, consideration is given to vegans and those with gluten sensitivity. There aren’t animal heads hanging on the wall or house music blaring in the background. All the dishes are under 15 bucks, the sandwiches under $11 and include a pleasant array of all things that grow. swim or walk. The soup was delicious and the sandwich was satisfying. By itself, it isn’t Field of Dreams in the sense that it won’t bring bleachers of patrons into the Junction, but it’s certainly a building block in this growing community’s attempt to attract the otherwise trend centric foodies looking for the newest place to swing a bat.
When it comes to coffee houses, there’s a few things I look for:
1. Decent internet. Ample plug-in sockets are an asset.
2. A welcoming decor including enough space to avoid having somebody reading my computer screen or vice-versa (speaking of which I was in a coffee shop and the guy beside me had a glamour shot of himself as his wallpaper…creepy).
3. At least something decent to munch on.
A bonus is always an attempt at a unique interpretation of a coffee concoction.
Tampered press is located at the corner of Crawford and Dundas. It’s a humble exterior complete with a bowl full of dog treats and water on the sidewalk. When you enter, it opens up into a spacious square room containing communal and smaller tables. The high shelves are lined with books (which included what I’m assuming was a get this the hell out of my house donated copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons). There’s art on the wall, they take credit cards, adopt the clean spoon/dirty spoon concept and have a tip cup that says “Tips” as opposed to “College Fund” or “Karma Jar”.
The list of beverages included the standard lattes and americanos but I was interested in the dirty chai. I think I’m drawn to dirty things, so I had to ask. Turns out it’s a chai latte laced with espresso which, according to the barista, balances the normal overbearing sweetness of a normal chai tea latte. Sounded good to me, so I ordered a medium for about four bucks. With a skill which was second nature and while discussing the ridiculousness of vegetable bread, she produced a great drink complete with the signature leaf decoration on top. I quite enjoyed it and went up for seconds. The cheese croissant was pretty good as well.
There’s a million coffee shops in Toronto (500 000 if you exclude Starbucks). Some look like they were carved out of a garage and others have a cosiness where you can stretch out, people watch and surf the net with decent wi-fi for the next coffee shop you’ll infiltrate. The Tampered Press is the latter. They make a decent latte, serve a good croissant and have lots of characters to gawk at….and you get a leaf on your latte! As for the name, it might be fun to open up either a dog groomer or a hair studio next door called “The Pampered Tress”. That way, people would get even more confused looking for a coffee shop with a Crawford address who’s storefront actually sits on Dundas.
The early morning humidity didn’t stop me from taking a 30 minute walk to West Randolph, an interesting stretch known for an array of restaurants of all shapes and sizes. After the first wave of high end places (including a few touting Michelin stars), you hit a block of empty, spray-painted buildings, cut in half by a highway running underneath. Shorty after, the street becomes vibrant again, filled with microbreweries and eateries slapped with celebrity names like Graham Elliot.
The apex of this West Randolph landscape is a cute spinning goat overlooking the street. This was destination number one.
Stop #1- The Little Goat Diner
This Stephanie Izard spin-off offers a bit more versatility than the flagship Girl and the Goat. You can grab a quick breakfast, feast on a hearty dinner and everything in between. You can buy of loaf of bread or drink on the roof. This particular visit was of the breakfast variety. It was about half full and we were seated quickly at a booth. The place had a definite diner vibe. I felt like John Travolta in Pulp fiction. The waiters and waitresses were current and hip and bad-ass despite donning trendy yet old school diner uniforms. There’s something about raven tattoos and dainty dresses that works for me. Coffee flowed, served with smiles and poured from old school pots into mugs stamped with that cute, smiling goat.
The menu is equally dichotomous. One can simply grab bacon and eggs or venture into the creative realm of a number of more exotic options. I didn’t come to Chicago to eat standard fare, so I did what any warm-blooded Irish dude would do; I ordered spaghetti. Presented like a cross between a seafood pasta and an omelette, it was boldly flavoured and sat in a delicious broth. I asked for some hot sauce and was offered a housemade smoky chipotle and an apricot flavoured option which had a little more bite. Both were delicious although I feel the former more suited for the dish. It’s not for everybody, but I’d shelve the home fries any day to dig into this seafood medley.
My colleague went for the bull’ s eye french toast, a crafty demonstration of Korea meets chicken and waffles meets toad in the hole. The sweet dueled with the savory in every bite to create a stimulating battlefield on the tongue. Underneath the chicken, two slightly overcooked eggs stared up from the comfort of the thick brioche. In the end, the savory prevailed, so don’t order it if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Otherwise, It’s delicious.
My Take: With so many choices, I’ll have to come back whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner or sucking back drinks on the rooftop. It’s full of innovation and choices that only makes sense when you read them on a menu. Plus, I enjoy feeling like a Chicago gangster as I sip coffee in an old school diner surrounded by tattooed staff and riffraff such as myself. Don’t expect diner prices, however. It’s not a cheap, unless you come for the experience and settle for one of the daily breakfast specials.
Stop #2– Naha
A lunch appointment kept me downtown for a trip to Naha, a Michelin star restaurant with a bit of a middle eastern flare. It’s spacious and modest, reminiscent of a Moroccan villa. The waitstaff were courteous, although many were wearing these oddly large uniforms that just didn’t seem to fit. A full lunch menu is offered in what seemed to be Chicago fashion: a prix fixe menu for $22. After consuming the Little Goat breakfast earlier that day, I was sort of hoping for Blackbird type portions sizes to save the embarrassment of the ramifications of overindulgence. When asked if I wanted a beverage, I found that the beer selection was quite lame…..a bit of a cardinal sin in the heart of the craft brew craze which consumes the Midwest.
I started with the cannelloni which was stuffed with housemade ricotta and garnished with snap peas, jerusalem artichokes and a bit of fregola (small pasta balls). Nothing like some pasta on pasta action. It was a very delicate, had great texture contrast and fresh flavour….an ideal lunchtime starter.
For the main, I opted for the sea loup de mer (sea bass) which wasn’t much bigger than the starter. It appeared to be a twist on a bagna cauda( a dip with strong Mediterranean flavours) which served as a salad dressing on romaine lettuce instead of being served in the typical vessel. The fish was a bit dry and the flavours reminded me of a well-disguised ceasar salad. It was a little bit of a yawn.
My colleague opted for a mezze (ie sampler) of Mediterranean goodies which included hummus, babaganoush, string cheese, spiced beef etc. It offered a true experience minus the salt water smell one might experience if eating the same thing in the homeland itself (I don’t think the smell off of Lake Michigan could mimic…even if the windows were open).
The dessert menu incorporated concepts from this side of the ocean, ignoring the expected tiramisu and baklava and replacing with American classics such as ice cream, malt and caramel corn. I went with the sundae, served with with porter ice cream topped with a crackling chocolate topping and a bit of European infusion with the use of toasted hazelnuts and a couple of triangles of nutella panini. The other choice at the table was a chocolate pave with the aforementioned sprinkles of Americana and a gold leaf as a tribute to capitalism. Both were a fitting end to a meal. There were no surprises…just well constructed and executed desserts which would be deemed delicious by anybody on the either side of the ocean.
My Take: Naha offers a well-executed lunch by fusing strong Mediterranean flavours and techniques with beloved elements of Americana. For the most part, the execution was on the mark and the portion sizes were acceptable, at least for lunch. The North American inspired desserts were the star, an irony for a place whose concepts are rooted in elements of the Middle East. The meal was well paced, the service was decent and the decor was spacious and fresh.
Stop #3– Billy Goat Tavern
Between the Billy Goat curse and the famed SNL appearance, it’s a foregone conclusion that one has to drop by this tavern during a trip to Chicago (especially on the heels of a visit to Wrigley). I won’t go into the details of the curse (you can look it up on the website, wikipedia etc.) but it involves a goat and a bunch of men….enough said.
Basically, it’s a place with the burgers, coke, beer and a spattering of other snack foods. The walls are plastered with faded newspaper articles and signed pictures and accolades from generations past. The grey-haired bartender looks like he’s won a trivia contest or two in his time and courteous staff pan the floors looking for empty steins to refill.
I ordered a burger for three bucks and change and a beer for about the same. The thin, pre-made patty is served on an oversized bun. The condiment station has the standard toppings, although I found the onions two ways rather intriguing. You could choose finally diced or thick (and I mean thick) rings. I loaded up with a pile of pickles as well. It was exactly was I expected and exactly what I wanted; a burger which brought me back to the days when it didn’t cost twenty bucks and wasn’t served with pineapple, mango, fried egg, short rib, pulled pork, bone marrow, avocado or housemade BBQ sauce. It’s just a freaking $3 burger.
Neither the burger nor the beer will win any culinary awards, but I consider the $6 cost the price of admission for a small bite of Chicago history.
Stop #4- Topolobampo
I’ve been eying Rick Bayless’ Michelin star Topolobampo even since I ate tortilla soup at his place in the airport a couple of years ago. Plus, I’ve been mesmerized by his soothing voice while watching “Mexico: One plate at a time” and even attempted one of his moles as well as a short rib recipe, both with good success and a lot of sweat. I routed for him on Top Chef Masters and follow him on twitter. Ya..maybe it’s manlove but I was longing to experience Mexican in an environment other than the numerous taquerias which have appeared throughout Toronto.
Showing up was like entering a busy Mexican market…buzzing people all over place and busy servers navigating nachos and guacamole through the streaming crowds. I was very loud and I wondering how I would hear myself think I was went to the desk to check in. I was greeted by two gentlemen who barely looked twenty; dressed in bright colours, trendy ties and the look of either a beachfront Tommy model or a member of One Direction. They confirmed the reservation I had 4 months before and we were notified of the token short wait as they got the table ready. With the announcement, I was prepared to deal with the abundant noise that was in store for the evening. Instead, a magic door open and we were whisked into a room with half the decibels of the waiting area. We were seated, the door was shut and it felt as if we were transformed in to a secret VIP space. Water was immediately served in large, heavy blue glasses and the night began, but that’s another story…..
I arrived at Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport at 7 am. I ran into a customer on the plane. Upon takeoff, she kindly offered me her copy of Oprah’s magazine to read on the plane, so I figured what the hell…I was going to Chicago and I did learn how to remove a mole with surgery. When we landed, we agreed to head into the core together. To my surprise, there wasn’t a cab to be found. Eventually, one arrived and it was the first of many pristine cabs (yes, I actually enjoyed the cabs in Chicago despite their stop and go and hornophilic nature) I would take during the week. The drive was slow and I eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel on the magnificent mile. My room was ready, I dumped my bag and heading for a day of culinary adventure.
Stop 1– Grahamwich
Anybody who knows me is aware I’m a sucker for celebrity chefs. Graham Elliot’s sandwich shop, Grahamwich, allowed me to experience the fares of the heavy man without the need for a heavy wallet. Sitting downtown, it offers an arrays of sandwiches with sides including popcorn, chips, pickles and even soft serve ice cream. It’s a simple joint, with minimal seating and the trademark GE symbol painted here and there. It also has one of the most annoying songs I have ever heard on a website and no apparent way to turn it off. The staff resembled Graham himself, with slicked hair and wide-rimmed specs, although few would be able to mimic the speech of expectations related to cutting through the bread of a perfectly toasted sandwich.
I opted for the waldorf chicken sandwich which included grapes, walnuts, gorgonzola and celery for $8. I threw in a large order of local pickles on the side and a homemade vanilla kola for $3 each. For good measure, I grabbed a maple bacon Long John which I venture to guess was a product of local bakery Glazed and Infused for $4.
I grabbed my “To Go” pack, hopped on the subway, and jaunted up to Wrigley field to check out the field. Grabbing a bench outside the park, I dug in.
The most underrated component of a sandwich is the texture. This one was a home run! Each bite was like a great pitching performance and a couple of base hits; the chicken salad that was firm and not soggy and it had perfect walnut and celery crunch and juicy pops of grape. Delicious! I opened the cup holding two flavours of pickles (traditonal kosher dill and spicy). Equally delicious. The drink was subtly sweet and very vanilla flavoured, a polarity that might turn off a soda-pop purists. All in all, a great lunch by a great park. I even thought I saw a few tourists scanning the neighbourhood looking for the source of my lunchtime bliss.
Satisfied, I snapped a few pics and hopped back on the subway and heading up the red line to stop #2. Along the way, I succumbed to the donut and tore off a quarter. Anybody that thinks the combination of maple, bacon and donuts works…you’re right! It was sweet and salty and doughy. Let’s call it an achievement of the donut triple crown….or maybe the Cy Yum award.
Stop #2- Metropolis Coffee
There’s a lot of hype about this coffee (it is served at GE’s restaurants after all), so I was hoping the subway ride up would be worth the visit. I walked past the patio (complete with the classic picture of my favorite bird with a smoke hanging out of his mouth and a caption reading “No Puffin”…come to think of it, how would a puffin get a cigarette in its mouth to begin with or light it for that matter) and into the rather large interior. The patrons were like a chess board; all sorts of sizes and shapes. On the other hand, the staff were similar; young and tattooed and ready to brew. I grabbed a Chemex (pronounced Chem-ex, not chem-A as some of us Canadians like to say in err) made with a nice Guatemalan bean. The execution was flawless and allowed 10 minutes or so for friendly banter. They take their coffee seriously and the final product reflected it. The payment machines were down, so I got a pat on the back and a “just pay when you leave”. Great coffee, great service, great sign. By the way, I remembered to pay…can’t risk the karma coffee.
Stop #3– BIG and Little’s
Knowing I was in for a late dinner, I figured a mid-afterrnoon snack was in order. I decided to take a walk downtown and ended up at my first diner, drive-in and drive of the trip. BIG and Little’s is the brainchild of Hell’s Kitchen contestant Tony D’Alessandro, who was remembered having issues with segmenting grapefruit and who’s early and subtle exit was overshadowed by a volcanic blowup by some guy wanting to punch Ramsey in the face. Since then, he has found success in this cash only taco/burger/fish shack. It’s like a beach canteen in the middle of the city minus the seagulls, crying kids and barefoot patrons. The staff were friendly and the service was quick. I ordered a Big and Little fish taco and al pastor (pork belly). Both tacos were good although I found too much sauce on the first and not enough rendering on the latter. Otherwise, the fish was cooked perfectly (although it was swimming in a sea of lettuce) and the belly was well seasoned and worked well combined with a few sweet pineapple chunks. The fois gras and fries and fish and chips looked divine, but I was going out for dinner later so I toned down a bit, not knowing of the microscopy-requiring meal to come.
Verdict- 3.5 Guyz
Stop #4– Blackbird
I’m going to do a full review in a separate blog, but one of the dangers of Michelin star restaurants is portion size. In this case, Blackbird could be renamed “Blackbird Food”. Bitesize frog leg portions, matchbox sized sturgeon and half a chicken wing were highlights of the dishes served. Although the flavours were nice, the crowded room, average service and the aforementioned small bites left this star shining dimly. The desserts were good though!