22.6.07

CAPRI DELICATESSEN



2051 Rosemont Blvd., 3 blocks east of Papineau, Montreal

Actual transcription of a phone message about the Capri Deli: “Hey John, got your message from last night. Unfortunately, got in really late and I’m sorry I didn’t call back. I wanted to tell you about, uh, a few places that I saw this week that I… I wanna check out. And I just left Dave a message on these. Every time I drive over to your place, uh, on Rosemont, I see the Capri Delicatessen... and it looks really good. It has an old sign at the front. It has lots of neon signs in the windows and it’s very narrow. Uh, you have the bar... well, the counter... and then a row of stools of course, that belong to the counter, and then a narrow passageway and then a row of booths, and that’s it. So, it’s the most ideal diner design, uh, you know, ever. Compact, efficient, and it has everything there. And people sit there, compressed against the glass, and there’re neon signs over their heads… and it looks so good, I just want to check that out. So, if you’re into that, I proposed to Dave to come over to my place Friday night, just before we head out, get a couple of drinks at my place and then, uh, head out to the Capri Delicatessen. So, that’s the plan that I’d like to, uh, try to… try to do.”

The one that started it all: Needless to say, the plan was carried out and the Capri Delicatessen became the place that planted the seed of the idea for Sign-Based Eating. After having eaten at the Capri just once, it was decided: places like these need to be documented in some way.

Backlit plastic: The sign is, unfortunately, not what it used to be when it first caught our eye. Sure the basic structure is still there but most of the neon – the letters spelling out C-a-p-r-i and all the rest – has been replaced by ugly yellow and orange backlit plastic.

Back for more: What is it that made me return to the Capri Deli on more than one occasion? The wonderfully flat and oily grilled cheese sandwiches? The dour waitress who became abusive when we politely requested to be moved to a larger booth? Or the absurdity of being able to order Chinese food in what is essentially a hot dog and poutine joint (that is until we peeked through the serving window and noticed that the short-order cook was, in fact, Oriental)?

Thought about: Whenever I see the sign now, it makes me lament all of the places I’ve failed to visit before the neon fizzled out and the blinking bulbs flashed their last flicker of incandescence…

14.6.07

BARCLAY'S STEAK & SEAFOOD



1921 Lawrence Ave. E., Scarborough, ON


Why I now love the 70s: This is the sort of place that wouldn't have appealed to me when I was a teenager here in the early 1980s. Who cares about a mansard roof and a crappy 1970s backlit plastic sign? However, 25 years later it looks almost quaint as the Scarborough neighbourhood of Wexford changes all around it...mostly to places that claim they're "100% Halal."

Not that there's anything wrong with Halal: Don't get me wrong, I'm all for ethnic diversity and I absolutely LOVE what's happening to my old neighbourhood (which is perhaps why Shauntelle and I have chosen to live just a five minute drive away), but this place speaks to the Scarborough that was mostly populated by the Wonderbread crowd, with a few Greeks thrown in for good measure. There was a Red Barn and a Mister Donut across the street, a block away was the "Dixieland Fruit Market" and the guys that ran the many stripmall convenience stores wouldn't know halal if it came up and bit them.

You say it's your birthday? Yup. Which is why we came here. Scarborough's finest steakhouse...perhaps its only steakhouse, which is fine by us, because it was pretty good, actually. Three correctly-prepared martinis between us to start, filet mignon for the lady and a 16oz rib steak for me, two glasses of house red to wash it all down and the bill went just a tad north of $100. Try that downtown.

So why all those great floor-to-ceiling windows if you're just gonna cover 'em up? Driving by all these years, I always figured this building had to have been something else before it was Barclay's. It's a little Modernist glass pavillion with a stretched shingled roof over top, which, while nice, doesn't convey that men's club atmosphere you want with your dead cow. I asked the waiter if this building was purpose-built as a steakhouse; after I explained what the heck "purpose-built" meant, he went and fetched another waiter, an older Greek guy who'd been working here since the early 80s. Fascinating stuff: turns out this was built as an A&W Family Restaurant in the late 1960s, which explains the Modernist/Mansard marriage, but then it changed after just a few years into a non-A&W family restaurant. Sometime around 1975, it turned into Barclay's Steak & Seafood, which is when, I assume, they papered the windows save for those little ovals with the B logo.

The decor: Actually not as dated as we'd have liked. Yes, there were the great curved booths and the bar certainly looked smack dab out of Love Boat, but the upholstery and wallpaper were probably changed sometime around 1991. However, the aforementioned B logo in the windows, the font on the signage outside, the just-snooty-enough waiter in a slightly rumpled tux and the 70s Muzak percolating from ceiling speakers gave it all a very Barbary Coast in Vegas in 1979 kind of vibe, if ya know what I mean.

Thought about: How we may have to eat here for my next birthday.

Phase O? Well, we are eating steak and potatoes in the country that sort of invented it (unless it was the U.S. or Brazil?) so I guess it's Phase O. If not that it's certainly Phase 1...


-D. LeBlanc

6.6.07

OASIS DINER



Bank Street, just off Church Street, Burlington, VT

An enduring classic: Wedged between an alley and the side of a building on Bank Street in downtown Burlington, Vermont, the Oasis is a true, classic diner… A slightly older east coast equivalent to the west coast coffee shops, this is one of those vaguely railroad-car-like prefab eateries that is all tile, formica, and art moderne-accented stainless steel. Shiny once, now somewhat dulled by the patina of time. The food is typical, basic diner fare… nothing too daring, nothing unfamiliar, nothing to write home about…

Mid-day at the Oasis: But then again, diner food shouldn’t be anything to write home about. Places like these are about getting out of the rain, getting out of the dark night and into a gleaming little bright spot where you can hunch on a stool or slide into a booth for awhile. At least that’s what it used to be all about. So why does the Oasis Diner close in mid-afternoon, just after the lunch hour crowd is gone?

My first time back after an absence of many years… Sad to say the two old guys who used to be familiar fixtures behind the counter are no longer around, replaced by an Oasis Diner t-shirt-wearing staff who rock out to AC/DC on the radio as their shift comes to an end. My order – a cup of coffee and a peanut butter and bacon sandwich – is the last of the day at 2:45 p.m.

The Breakfast of Champions, the Lunch of Presidents: Sat in the same booth Clinton did when he stopped here for lunch a little over a decade ago. Wonder if Bubba chose something healthier than peanut butter and bacon…


COZY RESTAURANT



On Beaubien, just east of Pie IX, Montreal


A modest little box: Cozy was part of a once busy little strip of greasy spoons... The strip is still filled with businesses and houses and condos but most of the restaurants of decades back are long gone now. Back when I went to high school a few blocks away from here, you had your choice of Cozy’s, the snack bar in the Paul Sauvé Arena, the Pogo (that's Canadian for "corn dog") stand across the street, a place simply known to the high school kids as The Greek’s, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and – just a bit further east – Miss Hong Kong and another snack bar we referred to as Steve’s – the Grease Joint… to name only a few.

Thought about: Eating a grilled cheese sandwich at Cozy’s a couple of years ago – only the second time I’d been in the place in over twenty years – I remember thinking how the restaurant seemed too quiet, dark, and sad-looking to be around for much longer. Sadly, it turns out I was right.

Cozy joins the others in greasy spoon heaven: The second of two hand-scribbled signs in the window, barely visible in the photo above, reads as follows (in French):
“After 81 years of service, we are all sad to announce that Cozy Restaurant will be closing on Saturday, June 2, 2007. On behalf of the management and staff, we would like to thank all of our clients for making the restaurant a success. Thanks to you all.”
Hard to believe… that this place had been around for 81 years! It probably started out as a shack or a food cart in a field near the farms and gardens that used line Pie-IX Boulevard at the beginning of the last century.

Betty always says: We should support our local neighbourhood joints… give them a break… keep them around.

1.6.07

HOCHELAGA PIZZERIA



On Hochelaga, east of St-Clément, south of the Olympic Stadium, Montreal


Location, location, location: In an increasingly scary neighbourhood that’s not quite anywhere in particular... south of the Biodome and the Big O, west of the refineries, north of the docks, on a street that doesn’t quite make it all the way downtown to the west.

Sign: This is one of those places... one of those places where that Italian chef character you see on every pizza delivery box has a neon counterpart on the sign outside.

Decor: At some point in the past, maybe 25 or 30 years ago, someone decided that customers at the Hochelaga Pizzeria would appreciate their food even more if they could eat it in a rustic setting. A giant wooden fork and spoon hang on the wall above the cash register. Fake wooden beams are fixed to the walls... over the wallpaper... glued to the suspended ceiling tiles.

Ambiance: I’m certain the beige, water-stained wallpaper was white once... back when all the jukeboxes on the tables worked. As in many similar establishments, the music on the jukeboxes is regularly updated, but the little pictures of record covers remain the originals: Burt Bacharach, Mitch Miller, Hawaiian Favorites...

Thought about: There seem to be an infinite number of Greek-owned pizzerias in Montreal… and I want to eat at each and every one of them.

Phase 3

DA NUNZIO

Bélanger, near de Normandville, Montreal

Sadly, we could not get a picture of Da Nunzio’s sign, which is gone now, much like the restaurant itself…

The fourth stop in the Bélanger Pizzeria Project (see Belanger Pizzeria post).

Hey, is Nunzio around?: The cook makes his way into the kitchen as we come through the door. The waiter asks “Smoking or non-smoking?” even though there are only two other people in the restaurant, not smoking but sitting in the smoking section. We opt for the non-smoking section because that’s the section with booths... It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night and we just got out of the bar and it seems more like booth-time than table-time.

“So, is that Nunzio?” we ask about the cook. The polite, somewhat shy waiter looks like he’d been standing around all year waiting for someone to ask him about something – anything – other than what the special of the day was. He takes our question as an opportunity to open up... No, the cook is not Nunzio. But a Nunzio does, of course, figure in the history of Da Nunzio.

A little history: Nunzio opened his restaurant back in 1959 and ran it for 26 years before selling it to one of his employees. Ten years after that, the present owners – our waiter and his father – bought it. Nunzio, now an old man, still owns the building, however.

Sign: Attached to the front of a two-storey building, the sign at Da Nunzio (at least part of which is still original, we were told) is beautifully simple. A metal structure juts out from the brick wall to form a sideways V on which blue neon letters spell out DA NUNZIO vertically. Horizontally, in red neon... PIZZA... SPAGHETTI. The sign used to have flashing lights around its perimeter but they were taken down years ago, when Nunzio realized he’d rather be in the kitchen making pizza than up on a ladder changing light bulbs outside in the cold.

Stucco!: The back room is the better of the two rooms at Da Nunzio, featuring iron grillwork around its arched entrance-way, white stucco walls accented with a few exposed red bricks, framed prints of various scenes of Italy, and a bottle of wine and white linen napkins folded into cones on each table.

Judging by the earth-tone colour scheme of the front room, it looks like it was last remodelled in the early to mid 1970’s. Booths in shades of orange and mustard, brown tiles on the walls, clay shingles above the entrance to the kitchen...

Strange bedfellows:
“Okay, so we’ll take a medium all-dressed and a large with capicollo and olives.”
“Would you like some home-made fries with that?”

Phase 2

CICCONE'S RESTAURANT


On King Street West between Spadina and Bathurst, Toronto

Lights, Camera, Pasta!: If you always thought you were a shoo-in for a Scorsese picture or perhaps Big Night, Ciccone’s is your place. Opened by Frank and wife Mary in 1943 under the name the Trocadero, the restaurant changed location in 1951 and has been known as Ciccone’s ever since. Ciccone’s is like walking onto a movie set, inside and out. The bright stucco building sports an olive and rusty-red colour scheme belted by a cream stripe between the windows and painted white script above. Perhaps just quaint by today’s standards, back in the 50s this joint must’ve projected an air of classy, Big City night-out kind of attitude—better put on a jacket and tie and make sure the wife wears pearls and long gloves. The interior is exactly what you’d expect: red and white checkered tablecloths, Chianti bottles like tiny wax volcanoes, midget lamps, stucco archways, wall murals of Italian cityscapes and Opera music oozing like olive oil from hidden speakers.

The Sign: Large, vertical green neon letters spell out “C I C C O N E ’ S” on a geometric Art Deco background of red. “Restaurant” runs in red neon along the bottom. Stunningly beautiful in its simplicity.
The Matchbook: Unfortunately the design doesn't live up to the restaurant. Must have been a cheapo batch made after everyone stopped smoking in the 1990s. I can't imagine it was this boring back in the 50s.

The Food: Who cares in a place like this? We enjoy the feeling that the Mafia might come in for a little snack at any moment. For the record though, it’s fantastic. The pasta is al dente, the sauce is rich yet light. The veal is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The house wine is fruity and bright. The homemade tiramisu is the best we’ve ever eaten. Ciccone’s is not just a pretty face.

Phase 1

Overheard: “There’s a romance to this place…”

Obit: On January 31st 2000, Mary Ciccone cooked up her last pot of sauce, unlocked the big wooden doors for something like the 20,000th time and waited for her first customer. After everyone had eaten, drank, sang, cried, danced and then kissed and hugged their goodbyes, she cleaned up as usual and walked over to the window. Her deeply lined face—a roadmap tracing a lifetime in her adopted city—was tinted a soft shade of green by the giant neon letters outside, as were the fluffy snowflakes that swirled and fell lazily to their concrete and asphalt beds. As a red and white streetcar clanged and rumbled by, she turned a switch and darkened her family’s proud neon name, causing a long shadow to stretch across King Street that night.

(Note: Ciccone's is now the location of hot celebrity chef Susur Lee's place, called, predictably, "Susur." On a good note, although taking down the neon "Ciccone's" letters from the sign, the sign is still there, and the exterior has been altered only slightly)

-D. LeBlanc

SKYLINE RESTAURANT



Queen Street West, neighbourhood of Parkdale, Toronto

The Sign: Nice 50s turquoise script at top and a blinking arrow at the bottom to usher you into the front door. The sign on the face of the building states, simply, “RESTAURANT” in faded red paint.

Ate: I wanted to order the Skyline Special, a triple-decker with chicken salad, bacon and tomato (it’s always a good rule-of-thumb to order anything the management deems worthy of naming after the establishment), but since I had tuna salad for lunch that day, I go for the souvalki plate.

Ambiance: The standard greasy spoon layout: counter and cash at front and booths at the back. The tacky “crystal” chandeliers and abundance of beige suggest the last reno was sometime around 1978. Thankfully there are no framed supergraphics on the walls. The only survivor from the Skyline’s heyday is the china. Half an inch thick and well-worn Canadian “Syracuse” plates and cups with the swirly swan pattern grace the tables of the few that are eating. Since this is Molson Canadian and Export ‘A’ country, most are just drinking.

Thought about: How a skyline is like a city’s signature. It can be delicate and graceful, angular and aggressive, messy and incomprehensible or it can document a split-personality. Toronto’s skyline, which cannot be seen from the windows of the Skyline Restaurant, has a decidedly split-personality. Toronto is an accountant who, due to a mid-life crisis, burns his ledger books and becomes a Las Vegas entertainer. Peeking from behind all of that 1970s leisure-suit flash, chest hair and braggadocio, there are still glimpses of a mild mannered sweater-vest with milk stains and clinging cookie crumbs.

Overheard: “He’s lost 9 jobs in 2 years but he’s working now. It could be worse….”

-D. LeBlanc