Sign-Based Eating… Does it mean scheduling your meals based on the Zodiac? Reviewing restaurants using only hand gestures? Having a sandwich at a four-way stop? No, nothing that crazy... but then again…

Sign-Based Eating was born of our fascination with the atmosphere and ambiance of “dive” restaurants. That’s right, dives. The type of place you normally wouldn’t choose to have a meal but just happen to find yourself in. Maybe you just wanted to get out of the rain. Maybe you were driving through a small town and there was nowhere else to stop for lunch. Maybe you were just looking for a quiet spot where you could be alone for awhile. For whatever the reason, our attraction to these types of places has grown over the years. It seems like all the best conversations, eavesdropping, and deep thinking take place in restaurants we’ve chosen to frequent not because of the food but simply because of the bad lighting, worn-out wallpaper, mismatched counter stools, rude waitresses, old plates, outdated music on the jukeboxes and, of course, the element that often first catches our eye, the sign outside or in the window.

The Sign-Based Eating project was inspired by a couple of other food-related pastimes...
One is “label-based shopping”—which is not what you think it is. Ever buy your groceries based solely on the aesthetic qualities of the packaging? Go out of your way to find a can of Italian tomatoes with a label that looks like it hasn’t been redesigned in the last 50 years… just because of the way it makes you feel? That’s label-based shopping.

The second source of inspiration came from the “Phase System” of rating ethnic restaurants (initially developed by our friend, Fred Sarli). Phase System ratings are (also) not based on food quality but on the overall ethnic authenticity or down-home/rustic qualities of ethnic restaurants. Ratings work as follows:

Phase O: There are no Phase O restaurants outside of their country of origin. For example, an Italian restaurant serving home-cooked-style Italian food in Italy is a Phase 0 restaurant.
Phase 1: A restaurant serving authentic-as-possible ethnic food outside of the home country. The emphasis is not on decor or ambiance but on the food, the right ingredients, and a home-style approach.
Phase 2: A restaurant that looks a little more like a restaurant and a little less like someone’s grandmother’s kitchen. The proprietors may have begun to put candles on the tables, and have started cutting corners, using local ingredients rather than imports.
Phase 3:
a) A restaurant serving ethnic food but owned and operated by members of another ethnic group (e.g. a Greek-owned deli that serves ravioli with meat sauce).
b) An ethnic restaurant that has gone somewhat “upscale” (e.g. an Italian restaurant in which you still find lasagna on the menu but where you can also order a pizza with smoked salmon, watercress, and a béarnaise sauce).
Phase 4: The equivalent of ethnic fast food (e.g. a restaurant in which the pizza crusts come ready-made and are simply dressed and stuck in the oven).
Our collective quest for Phase 1 restaurants, together with our appreciation of the label-based shopping aesthetic, led to the development of the Sign-Based Eating concept.

In seeking out basic, simple ethnic restaurants that served good food, we became more and more fascinated with their lack of typical restaurant atmosphere… so much so that we began to seek out restaurants with a similar “non-ambiance” that were not necessarily ethnic and did not necessarily serve good food. In other words, the overlooked underbelly of the restaurant trade. We became more interested in the mood or feeling that one could experience than in the quality of the food itself. This is not to say that all restaurants featured here serve bad food, but simply that the food was not the primary reason we chose to eat there. By the way, for added interest, ethnic restaurants featured here are also given a Phase System rating.

Since the authors of this blog currently reside in Montreal and Toronto respectively, the blog mostly provides a taste of what Sign-Based Eating in these cities can be like. But the wonderful thing is that Sign-Based Eateries can be found anywhere. Every city or town—no matter the size—has a place that can make it into a post here. More often than not, it’s one of the older restaurants in town; its very incongruity with the modern world catches the eye and magnetically draws you near… if not for a meal, then at least for a peek in the window to see if the decor lives up to your initial expectations.

Admittedly, eating in these types of establishments is not for everyone. But if you somehow just feel better in places that have the ability to transport you, movie-like, to another time and place—where waitresses, bewteen nicotine-fueled coughing fits, still manage to call you “Dearie” (or “Cher / Chère” in Montreal) and where gruff cooks hunch and sweat over gargantuan blackened grills—you’ve come to the right place. Even if there’s only one such place in your neck of the woods, it’s worth patronizing once in a while. Heck, you might find yourself sitting in the same booth your parents did when they had their first kiss!

Living in Canada’s two largest cities, we feel rather lucky. There are hundreds of places to discover... Travelling to other cities also opens up opportunities for more Sign-Based Eating. Of course, since this is a somewhat subjective pursuit (different people will be attracted to different aspects of dive restaurants), you may be dismayed to find that some place you considered a “natural” isn’t found here. We therefore invite you to send us pictures and a description of your favourite Sign-Based Eateries. Who knows, maybe it’ll make it into a future post here.
(You can write to us at signbasedeatingATmacDOTcom, but you'll have to replace the "AT" with an "@" and the "DOT" with a ".")

Our photos try to show the elements that attracted us to these restaurants in the first place; the accompanying text conveys the experience of just “being” there.

Order the special, it comes with coffee and dessert, and enjoy.

John Trivisonno & Dave LeBlanc

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,
Nice blog, it'll help pass the time at work. I can think of several spots that might qualify in Ottawa...Mello's on Dalhousie is one, although it is pretty well known. I'll try to find a few more to make a field trip worth your time. Cheers
Tom (friend of Fred's)