Find old Toronto charm with your next order of breakfast.
Some people seem to think Toronto’s diners are a throwback, the way things were, before Toronto got all cosmo.
But Tony Boey thinks they’re a reflection of the city’s best qualities.
Boey lives in Singapore and is spending his retirement travelling, eating and trying to understand places. He spent two months in Toronto recently, and his favourite thing about it was Vesta Lunch.
“It’s very local, very friendly, very warm,” he says of the counter diner in the Annex, on the northeast corner of Bathurst and Dupont, “reputable since 1955,” according to its famous sign, gone dark during the pandemic. “It’s a place where you can just walk in and speak with anyone and have a meal that is inexpensive, any time of the day.”
It’s easy to forget that diners were what people like the McDonald brothers were trying to emulate when they came up with their burger joint. The qualities that have drawn billions to their namesake chain, and so many others like it, are the essence of the diner experience: cheap and predictable.
The sort of diner I’m talking about here is as much a historical and cultural landmark as it is a place to get cheap food, a marker of a certain strain of Western European dishes, cooking techniques, decor, and typeface choices originally aimed at a largely working-class clientele.
There are now many places to get cheap food in Toronto, stemming from dozens of culinary traditions, from New Hong Fatt BBQ, where you can get a chopped-pig lunch for about $5, to the Grill Cottage with its halal burgers and backlit illustrated wall menus.
In another way, Toronto’s diners are as close as we come to the French bistro, with their menus such a national standard that the French rarely look at, or are even offered, menus when they sit down to order their coq au vin or croque monsieur and their glass of Côtes du Rhône.
Here, they’ll probably give you a menu, or point to a board on the wall, but you don’t have to look. It’s grilled cheese, or western omelette and home fries, or maybe eggs over with white, extra butter, and a coffee, black (save the double-double for Timmy’s).
Toronto’s diner scene has existed at least since The Busy Bee opened downtown in 1929, or the Lakeview on West Queen West three years later.
But the scene didn’t really get going until the Greek diaspora started landing on our shores, fleeing political instability back home, starting in the 1950s.
By the early 80s, more than 100,000 had made it here, and Toronto’s culinary scene would never be the same.
They took the basics from the Busy Bee (which became The Senator in 1948) and Fran’s (founded 1940), and like so many first-generation immigrants, became more Torontonian than the people who were here already.
Places like The Stem, People’s, and Skyline were not only the soil out of which Toronto’s culinary culture grew, but a distillation of what made Toronto Torontonian.
Very local, very friendly, very warm.
“The city got fancier,” says David Sax, resident diner and deli expert and author, most recently, of The Soul of an Entrepreneur, “but diner culture is shaped by the people who own it.”
“The George Street Diner, for example, the owners are Irish, and they have Irish staff, so you can get Irish fish cakes and eggs, soda bread, and all these Irish-specific things.”
Which is precisely what makes it about the least retro thing about Toronto. Fran’s is now owned by the Kim family, Lakeview by Fadih Hakim, and classic Richmond Hill stalwart 3 Coins Open Kitchen by Raj Varathalingam.
Every one of them an oasis of old Toronto comfort and charm, ease and fellow-feeling. And toast.
“We have such things too in Singapore,” Boey tells me on Whatsapp from Singapore, referring to the classic Singaporean coffee shops, called kopitiam, that were originally run mostly by Hainanese owners, then the Fuzhou community, and now are pretty much everywhere and run by everyone.
“It’s a very open, welcoming concept, the menus are simple and quite standardized, it’s all around a cup of coffee and coconut jam on toast.”
According to David Sax, breakfast is the “bedrock” of Toronto’s diner culture. Where else can you get breakfast for supper, or breakfast for lunch, or even breakfast for breakfast for that matter.
And if you call up any of these places, you can even get them for takeout or delivery as a sort of pandemic version of room service.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door
there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.#OPENYOURCURIOSITY
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