Here we are with the second in our three-part rundown of Canada’s Best Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. First came the Western third of the country and as we continue along our Trans-Canada journey, it’s time to tackle central Canada. This includes the truly lick-off-the-fryer greasy spoons, the time-stopping drive-in restaurants and the truly stumble-worthy dive bars of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
Diner: The Wagon Wheel – The story of The Wagon Wheel starts and stops with a sandwich – specifically, a clubhouse sandwich. For many in Winnipeg, it’s the be-all-end-all, hurt-me-now, honey-hush clubhouse sandwich. The secret is the fresh, real turkey, not the processed stuff other places use. These days though, the staff must add resilience to their story, having just re-opened after mourning the death of longtime owner Louis Martinez who ran the counter for more than 50 years. Now his daughter and son have taken over, but people are still filing in for that sandwich – even if they need a key for the next building to use the washroom.
Drive-in: Junior’s – The only franchise on our list, (with three locations in Winnipeg) but this one is personal for me. My father and his buddies used to hangout at the original drive-in location on Portage Ave. as twentysomethings eating the spot’s signature Fat Boy burger on the hood of their cars. The Fat Boy is a cheese and chili smothered wad of artery-clogging goodness. Those brave enough, can make it a double or a triple. Besides having the cardiologist on standby, I’d also say watch the giant outdoor sign during the winter months. I once saw someone take a header right into it after slipping on black ice.
Dive: The Royal Albert Arms Hotel – Winnipegers have a lot to be pissed about. If it’s not the subzero temperatures in the winter, it’s the mosquitoes in the summer. That’s why year-round there’s only one place angry punks can go and that’s the derilect Royal Albert Arms. Opened in 1913, this hotel plays host to three things: beer, bands and soon BDSM. The likes of Sloan, The UK Subs, Dayglo Abortions, Green Day, The Melvins, Dave Grohl and The Cure have slapped their stickers on a pole in the centre of the bar. New York had CBGBs, Vancouver has The Smiling Buddha, the UK has The Warehouse and the Royal Albert Arms belongs mentioned in that same breath. Check it out for yourself or if you’re too much of a wuss, check out this documentary..
Diner: Haugen’s Chicken and Ribs BBQ – An on the way to the cottage destination. Haugen’s has been a Port Perry institution since 1953 when it was in the hands of the late Ivan Haugen. The BBQ joint attracts classic cars on Wednesday and Motorcycles on Tuesday from May to September with their Big Cruise attracting over 1000 cars on August 20, but the true showstopper is the RibFest running June 1-14. The debate seems to be whether the ribs are better than Swiss Chalet and if the meat doesn’t do it for you, the highly personal service will. Most diners remember their servers by name and their breakfast buffet is award-winning.
Drive-in: The Flying Saucer Drive-In – The outside looks like a flying saucer crash-landed in the middle of Niagara Falls, while the inside looks like the best sci-fi B-movies come to life. One patron says, “The lights woke me up before the coffee did.” It isn’t as full of tourists as you’d expect and is positioned more as a local recommendation, off the falls’ main drag. The alien feel makes for the perfect hangover recovery destination. Plus these guys do delivery until 3am, the portions are plenty and you can get two eggs, toast and hash browns for a $1.59. Besides, even if you’ll be feeling your guts later, the kids will love it, so it’s well worth being abducted by these guys.
Dive: The Horseshoe Tavern – Though this Toronto legend started as a blacksmith in 1861, it wasn’t until 1947 that Jack Starr began converting it into an eatery, bar and music venue that we know today. The list of acts to perform through the years spanned all genres from rockabilly in the ’50s with Willie Nelson and Stompin’ Tom, to punk and new wave in the ’70s with the Ramones, the B-52s and the Talking Heads. It was also the first place to see now famous Canadian acts like The Tragically Hip, Great Big Sea and The Barenaked Ladies in the ’80s and ’90s. Later, their Nu Music Tuesday Nights gave needed exposure to bands like Billy Talent, Matchbox 20 and The Strokes. After over 60 years, It’s still a magnet for the bizarre and angst-ridden, a place to see the city’s hottest rising bands and is known for rather temperate beer.
Diner: Beauty’s Luncheonette – Beauty’s was opened in 1942 by Hyman Scholnick and he’s there to this day, at what many Montrealers call the penultimate brunch destination in the city. The line stretches out the door every weekend and patrons can expect a 25-35 minute wait at minimum. Though the booths are a little tight, it’s clear even with the decor (posters of breakfast) that the emphasis is on the food. We’re talking old school breakfast here: bagels, smoothies, eggs, fruit plate and more. It may be the only place in the city where you can get challah (egg bread) french toast and they make their own banana loaf from scratch. The service is excellent, but some menu items are slightly pricier than at other places.
Drive-in: The Gibeau Orange Julep – “What the heck is that?” has got to be the first words out of the mouth of anyone who sees this giant three-storey high, 40-foot wide fiberglass orange on the side of Decarie Blvd. Sure, it’s the best place in Montreal to scope out classic cars on Wednesday nights. Plus, the burgers, hot dogs and poutine have that fairground feel, but the real secret behind “The Big Orange” is the Julep itself. A Gibeau family secret for decades, this not-quite-Orange-Julius has been a foamy staple since the ’20s. Though it has lots of sugar, it supposedly has more vitamin C than iceberg lettuce and the secret ingredient is reportedly powdered eggs. You could buy the drink here, but it’s more fun to go to Montreal, get off the metro, scan the skyline for the big orange and walk. After all, it’s open 24 hours in the summer.
Dive: Le Fou Bar – Walk down into this Quebec City dive and the narrow corridors combined with the red brick and old stone fireplace may make you feel as if you’re in the centre of a pestle. The decor is dank and haphazard with the original church house flooring, hipster lighting and an archaic foosball table. Their full artist schedule can be found on their website in a PDF file, but this is truly a beer drinker’s oasis with sudsy concoctions like St. Abroise Noire and Griffon, among others.
Thus concludes our drive past the great Canadian Diner’s, Drive-Ins and Dives in central Canada. I hope your mouth is watering or your tongue tastes salty and parched, but don’t leave for your nearest member of the “three Ds” just yet. You know that collection of islands on the far east side of the country? There’s still more to come from those crazy Newfies and the other provinces that make up this country’s Atlantic region. Still, before you leave, let us know what we missed. What would’ve you selected instead of our choices in central Canada? Leave your recommendations in the comments field and they may appear in an Eastern Canada Reader’s Choice version of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.