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40. Scout'n About Pt. 2
Is this the seediest club sandwich I've ever had?
*** There is still time to win a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques. See the bottom of issue #39 to find out how to enter.***
Early in the fall (and late in the summer) (and early in the summer) I had some downtime between freelance jobs. I took the opportunity to visit some of the places I’d always been meaning to check out. In contrast to Vienna Meats, which I wrote about last issue on a recommendation from CBC’s Suresh Doss, there was another place I had been keen to visit that hasn’t received the same attention.
It’s difficult to say, from the curb, if the Downsview Restaurant will either be dismal or a revelation. Two doors south is a bar called Saini’s Eastcoasters. It has a single one-star review on Yelp that says the best thing about it is the pool table. Google reviews call it, “a good place to get hammered,” and “small, dark, and creepy.” It’s the kind of place sometimes referred to as a “kick and stab” and in 2011 it appears to have lived up to its name. On the other side there’s Red District Adult Videos, whose window sign announces “private viewing,” and the various brands of, uh, apparatus they carry.
But we can’t judge a restaurant by its neighbours, can we? In London, thirteen years ago, I had a lovely plate of oysters in a Soho restaurant that overlooked a dirty bookstore and massage parlour.
But perhaps sometimes we can judge a book by its cover? Because the Downsview Restaurant’s storefront is magnificent.
A painted neon sign hangs above the storefront, suspended from a massive, rusty metal tripod. In the curtained windows, there’s a sign announcing a “Brake Fast Special.” The marquee across the front has lost the word, “Downsview” so only Restaurant” remains off to the left. It’s a look that only time, or perhaps Anthony Rose, could have created.
Just inside the front door there’s a handwritten sign saying that taking photos or videos is strictly prohibited. One look at the room and you can see why: it is simply frozen in time. One side of the black-and-white checkerboard floor is lined with booths covered in sparkly red vinyl. There’s a jukebox attached to the wall of each one with singles by Roy Orbison and Poison. Down the other side of the room there’s a counter with sparkly red stools. Behind the counter there are pumps from a soda fountain that, according to the menu, still turn out sundaes and milkshakes. There is a freshly stocked display of single-serving Kel-Bowl-Pak cereals. Without the “no photography sign,” it’s easy to see how the staff would be overwhelmed with Instagrammers crawling all over.
By “the staff,” I mean Betty and Bill, the married owners who are the lone server and cook, respectively. Now in their 80s, they’ve been here together for more than 50 years. The restaurant, which opened in 1951, has been in their family the entire time.1 Time has slowed and stooped them, but a combined century of experience still shows. I arrived for a late lunch, just as a few tables were settling up. Although Betty has no trouble stacking and balancing the empty dishes from one four-top, the guys at another, who clearly know her well, bus their own table on their way out.
The menu is exactly what you’d hope from a place that looks the way it does: non-stop diner classics. Eggs and omelets. Soups and sandwiches, including triple-deckers and hot open-faced varieties. Burgers, chicken fingers, and a section called “Bill’s Delicacies” featuring pork chops, cutlets, liver, and sausages. The double pork chop dinner costs $17, but nothing else is more than $12.
The chops were very tempting, but I have a hard time ever saying no to a club sandwich. Since I’m the only active table at that moment, Bill bangs it out in no time. Crisp bacon and what may be the most generous portions of chicken breast I have ever had in a club anywhere. And not slices of deli chicken either. One thick slab of meat. The thick slices of tomato are surprisingly decent for the middle of October. I’ve certainly paid more for a club with worse. The only curious thing is that my sandwich has no lettuce on it. It’s easy to think of a few leaves of iceberg as an inconsequential element, but I miss its crisp juiciness. Not enough to complain, of course. You’re allowed to miss an ingredient every now and then when you’ve been doing it for over 50 years. And it’s made up for by the mound of perfect oil-and-vinegar cole slaw and, possibly best of all, beefeater-cut fries that are slightly crisp on the outside and hot and pillowy inside. Bill can fry a fry. The menu promised a pickle as well, but it’s also MIA. Again, I’m much too charmed by the place and by Betty and Bill to care. With a pop, tax, and tip, I get change back from a twenty.
Downtown Toronto is lucky that there are still a few classic diners standing, including The Patrician Grill, The Skyline, The Avenue Diner, The Avenue Open Kitchen2, among others. I was initially surprised that The Downsview has quietly soldiered on for so long without being better known outside of its immediate area. I get the feeling that it will be just fine if it never becomes a destination for non-locals. But will you be fine if you don’t give it (and indeed so much of the northwest corner of the city3) a try?
What I’m consuming…
The World Series ended last week, but I’m still too neck-deep in a bunch of food-related things that I want to write about soon. So for now, included on the technicality that it is food-related, because Beth and I listen to it over dinner sometimes, is another podcast. This time it’s Slate’s series One Year, which devotes every series to a different single year from twentieth-century American history. The stories it tells are not the obvious ones that you will recall immediately, but they are ones that feel both uniquely of their time as well as often painfully relevant to today. The years they have covered so far include 1977, 1995, 1986, 1942, and 1955. Starting at the first episode, about Anita Bryant’s campaign against gay rights, is a good start, but the 1977 episode about the first female broadcaster in major league baseball is excellent. As is the 1942 episode about the campaign to fight wartime misinformation, the 1986 blow-by-blow account of how Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault on live TV came to be, and the 1955 episode about a black baseball team from Charleston and the everything they faced in their drive to play in the Little League World Series.4 Every story, on the face of it, seems straightforward but in every case, there is so much more at play. I cannot think of a single episode that we weren’t completely impressed by.
All of this biographical information is taken at face value from Google Reviews. I would have had to eaten here about fifty times before I had the nerve to ask for something as personal as their names.
I’m not the biggest fan of the renovation they did. Or when, for a while, they were cutting their club sandwiches into halves instead of quarters. But when I’m in the neighbourhood, I will definitely try to stop by.
A decent weekend mini-food crawl could hit the Downsview (Wow! Betty and Bill are open seven days a week!) before hitting the remarkably diverse food court at the Downsview flea market. There’s a Grocery Outlet at Sheppard and the Allen for all your fancy vinegar needs. Then maybe bulk food stop at Johnvince and a stop to load up on Eastern European groceries at Yummy Market? (I’m sure I’m missing a whole bunch of places in between. Your recommendations for the area are most welcome.)
I swear, those are the only two episodes about baseball so far.