DO OR DINER: GREASY SPOONS OF TORONTO'S WEST END
by Phoebe Todd-Parrish
Theme: Arts & Architecture, Food and Entertainment, History & Culture
Toronto has seen many diners come and go but the ones on this list have been around for decades. There is something unequivocally “homey” about a local greasy spoon. What memories does imagining the feel of vinyl booths, the taste of bottomless coffee, and the sound of a sizzling flat top stir in you? On this walk we’ll acquaint ourselves with some local foodie gems; learning about their history, their owners and patrons, and –of course– what’s on the menu! This walk will foster further appreciation of the diner as an enduring and important community feature (and a reliable hangover cure)!
STOP 1: AVENUE DINER, 222 DAVENPORT RD, TORONTO, ON M5R 1J6
Near the busy corner of Avenue Rd and the bend in Davenport rd sometimes referred to “Ave and Dav”, we begin our walk with the aptly named, Avenue Diner. Established in 1944, for the past 77 years this diner has been serving locals and celebrities alike. If you need proof of the celebrity clientele, look no further than the cozy faded photographs that adorn the wall behind the breakfast counter inside, lovingly hung by current owner Louis Klasios.
Here we find ourselves located somewhere at the intersection of Rosedale, Forest Hill, and Yorkville neighbourhoods which might be better known for their luxury goods and expensive real estate prices, but at this diner, you can still rely on a fairly priced slice o’ pie and a cup of coffee, or a classic eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns breakfast that won’t break the bank. A one-story building is certainly becoming more rare in any Toronto neighbourhood, so it might not surprise you to learn that a neighbouring condo development might post a very imminent risk to this diner. While you still can, soak in all of it’s awesomeness! On the exterior there is so much to be admired: the dynamic tin sign, with it’s rounded edges, and unique stencil font, on the outer west wall you can see the remains of a mural painted in 1999, immortalizing (although it is quite worn) the happy customers that sit at the formica counter within.
As you walk west on Davenport and Dupont, you’ll pass a spot with a large vertical sign that reads “PASTRAMI”. This location used to be another classic diner: “People’s Foods” which was opened in 1963 and sold to make way for a new restaurant in 2013.
STOP 2: VESTA LUNCH RESTAURANT, 474 DUPONT ST, TORONTO, ON M5R 1W5
This one is hard to miss. Probably the first thing you’ll notice about Vesta Lunch is that distinctive yellow and red sign that wraps around the corner of Dupont and Bathurst. What is also striking about Vesta is it’s truly inviting layout. From the outside of Vesta Lunch, you also get a great panoramic view of the entirety of interior: the serving counter, stool seating, and the bustling kitchen behind it.
The counter is a distinguishing feature of the classic diner and Vesta is long and narrow - nearly all counter! In the early days of diners (early 20th century) this counter might have been tile, but into the middle of the century formica or arborite became the surface du jour. The counter is not unlike the bar top, the chef is not unlike the bar tender –but this friendly face serves the cure rather than the cause, of your hangover. Comforting and quick, you can get anything from their extensive menu (displayed on the back wall and also spanning nearly the entire length of the restaurant) and owner Miriam Reinoso, or a member of her friendly staff (some family members) will serve it as you like. Although they’re not open 24 hours during lockdown, I’m sure they’ll be back to the hours advertised on the corner with around the clock service as soon as possible.
STOP 3: MARS FOOD, 432 COLLEGE ST, TORONTO, ON M5T 1T3
As you turn down Bathurst, you’ll pass a pizza restaurant called “Detroit Pizzeria” - formerly “Apollo 11 Restaurant”. After 51 years of cheap and cheerful diner fare, Apollo 11 closed last year amid the pandemic.
Stroll South until you get to the intersection of College and Bathurst. Turn east and you’ll find our next stop: the iconic Mars Food. You’ll be sure to notice the super-retro atomic-theme marquee hanging (somewhat threatening if it’s a windy day) above the pedestrians wandering this stretch of street between Kensington and Spadina/China Town. The sign is adorned with the requisite mostly-burned-out-by-now bulbs and a depiction of some utopian planet with a banner assuring you that it’s “JUST OUT OF THIS WORLD” (side note: I’d like to think a tenet of life on Mars would be greasy diner grub for every meal). The blue and white striped awning invite you inside to be coddled by the diner’s cozy interior: a comfortably cramped space, a counter runs along the west wall, lined with chrome stools, a couple of booths run parallel on the East wall, with a handful of tables at the back.
Mars Food was opened in 1951 and has been operated by the Tseclars family since the mid-80s. True to form, any hungry passer-by could grab American-style breakfast or lunch any time of day when the restaurant ran the standard, easy-to-remember-when-google-didn’t-exist diner hours of 24/7. More recently, they do close in the evening, however they’re open reliably early unlike many of the decidedly more leisurely coffee-shops in the area.
Regulars here are familiar with their muffins (bran in particular) but I’m partial to the classic 2- eggs, toast and home fries and “infinite” (sounds more appropriately space-themed than “bottomless”) coffee.
STOP 4: BARN RESTAURANT, 598 QUEEN ST W, TORONTO, ON M6J 1E6
Once you’ve made it to the intersection of Bathurst and Queen St, turn west and keep to the north side of the street. This area might seem like a strange place to spot a barn but . . .
Keep your eyes peeled for the blue and white marquee with lots of those classic bulbs we saw earlier, these will be pointing you toward stop number 4: the Barn Restaurant! For some reason, I find that this storefront gets overlooked in its trendy Queen-west surrounds to the extent that, whenever I tell anyone about it, they seem skeptical that we’re talking about the same intersection and the same century. However, once you’ve taken note of this classic spot you’ll see there is a lot to love about its exterior (that amazing mix of typefaces on its sign! The aging hand-written “poutine” note in the window!), but if you get the chance to venture inside, you’ll truly understand why it’s called the barn. Roomier than others on this walk, the Barn is wide and the ceilings are adorned with exposed beams painted white and green (okay, not exactly authentic rural decor but it’s a welcome surprise on such a busy strip of urban streetscape). The owners here have kept their fare classic, with prices to match - most of the menu is still well under $10 (save for the T-bone steak which will set you back a whopping $14+tax). However, I suggest you treat yourself to a home-style BLT!
STOP 5: UFO RESTAURANT, 241 NIAGARA ST, TORONTO, ON M6J 2L5
Continue on Queen West until you reach Tecumseth, then head south. Jog west on Adelaide St West and continue on until you get to the pleasant spot where it intersects Niagara St. Look toward the south-west corner and you’ll see another blue and white sign. The freshly painted crosswalks seem to guide you to this neighbourhood gem, it’s stop number five: the UFO Restaurant. This restaurant/diner-in-a-house is equal parts cute and confounding.
From the outside, the diner’s sign is less razzle-dazzle than others on this walk, but it is still intriguing, set amongst the plethora of other signs on the facade that harken back to when it was mostly a convenience store that served food, rather than a diner with occasional conveniences (after-school sour candy-straws, please!). [Note the sizeable Kit-Kat advertisement, and a lively mural promoting community through sport on one of it’s exterior walls.]
The pattern and colour choices here would suggest that the cuisine served within might be Greek, while the name “UFO” hints at another out-of-this world culinary experience, so you might be shocked to find that, among the usual greasy American breakfast fare you can also dine on loads of Vietnamese staples. Inside, UFO has the recognizable diner counter (faux wood-grain!) and green vinyl stools, some table seating, and a few remnants of its former days as a convenience store including pay-by-the-candy offerings and an ice cream chest freezer near the cash register.
Some of the mystery behind the signage can be understood once you know that the business and building was established by a Greek family who still lives in the apartment above. However, UFO is currently operated by the Nguyen family who took control of the flattop a few years ago. Most days, when you’re popping in for your Bahn mi or your toasted western, a member of Nguyen family will greet you with a familiar smile.
STOP 6: THE LAKEVIEW RESTAURANT, 1132 DUNDAS ST W, TORONTO, ON M6J 1X2
Take a stroll north-west through Trinity Bellwoods and continue west on Dundas st. Another large sign hangs over the sidewalk here, but you might be more drawn to the sparkling chrome exterior and neon signs in the window twinkling at all hours of the day and night. We’ve arrived at the final diner on this walk: the Lakeview Restaurant. This is the longest-running dinner on our walk, established in 1932.
If you’ve never been inside this classic spot, you must not have been a Toronto-dwelling, 20- something. The interior is generous, with a sparkling counter, stools and built-in wood features along the wall, and booths abound! Because of it’s truly quintessential throw-back looks, the number of movies that have been filmed here are too many for me to list (but I should mention at least David Cronenberg’s somewhat-recent film Cosmopolis that had a scene filmed here). If you’re curious though, you can see a comprehensive list on their website or ask a staff member when you order your Disco Breakfast Poutine and relive your youth. Just ask around and it won’t take long for you to be flooded with stories about late night or early morning encounters at the Lakeview. (I recently posted a photo of the Lakeview on social media and my childhood best-friend’s dad shared a story with me about that time when he met Tom Cruise while working security on the set of the 80s dramedy, Cocktail).
This walk is estimated to take about between an hour and a half to two hours, with careful consideration of the diners (and maybe grabbing a bit to eat!).