12.12.07

CASSE-CROÛTE CHEZ ARCHIE



821 Rue Ste-Anne, Yamachiche, QC

Backstory 1: Sign-Based Eating co-writer Dave LeBlanc first tipped us off to the existence of this place, which he had heard about from a co-worker some years ago. Could it be true? Could an Archie Comics-themed snack bar (casse-croûte, in French) actually exist in the small Quebec town of Yamachiche… smack dab in the middle of nowhere between Montreal and Trois-Rivières?

Backstory 2: Exactly how did I end up with a huge box full of Archie Comics Digests stored away in my parents’ basement for years until I reached my mid-twenties? The same way I ended up with piles of Mad magazines and a box of assorted weird stuff from strange publishers like Charlton Comics… Blame it all on the newsstand at the Cavalieri Hilton in Rome!
I spent the summers of 1973 and 1974 in Europe — 4 months of each year, actually — accompanying my father who put in two years working on the launcher for a surveillance drone (the CL-89… look it up) in Italy. That first summer, on the days when I wasn’t out touring the sites with mom, I was stuck in a Rome apartment with nowhere to go and nothing to do as the city took its afternoon siesta. What was a shy, not-fluent-in-Italian, 7 year-old kid to do? The answer: devour any English-language reading material he could get his hands on. The Cavalieri Hilton Hotel, somewhere not too far behind our apartment on one of Rome’s many hills, was the most convenient place for me to get my fix of imported American reading material. Overpriced? Yes, it certainly was. Age-appropriate? I think so, in most cases. Was it stuff I would have picked up if I’d had a wider selection to choose from? Some of it maybe… but I was just so happy to find something — anything — to read that I bought it all!
I devoured so much stuff — from Archie to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers — and built up quite a collection… My dad later used a lot of it as packing material when he’d send stuff back to us in Montreal. And so he ended up re-exporting most of this stuff back to North America… where I packed it away in boxes in the basement.
Years later, when I met the woman who would go on to become my better half (named Betty, coincidentally), I discovered that she too had, for some reason, amassed a pile of Archie comics. I think that when I decided to dig out my old collection and give it to Betty for Christmas or her birthday or some other occasion, it clinched the deal between her and me… still going strong today, more than a decade-and-a-half later.
So you see how there was just no way to avoid making our way to the Archie Snack Bar…

“Licensing agreement… we don’t need no licensing agreement”: It’s a little disappointing that the Archie Snack Bar doesn’t go totally overboard in naming menu items after Archie characters and themes. It would have been great, for instance, to have a “Moose Mason Milkshake” or a “Coach Kleats Corn-Dog” but I guess a lot of this stuff doesn’t exactly translate too well into French, the language of choice in Yamachiche. However, the place is plastered with framed prints of various panels from the comic books, and the cooks do wear Archie t-shirts. This is all very surprising, since I seriously doubt that the snack bar holds the rights to use the likenesses of any of the characters in the Archie universe. Yamachiche is an out of the way place and is probably under the Archie Comics radar. But I’ll bet if we were talking about a certain big-eared, falsetto-voiced mouse, old Walt’s surveillance drones would surely home in on this joint and slap it with a cease and desist order faster than you can say “Hot Dog.”

The sign: Actually, there are two — one for the Archie Snack Bar and, facing it, across the parking lot, another for the Veronica Mini Golf Course next door.

Thought about 1: The things we do for love.

Thought about 2: There’s a little Forsythe “Jughead” Jones in all of us.

Video bonus: For a video featuring a few brief scenes shot at the Archie Snack Bar, go HERE.


26.10.07

ZINGBURGER

1670A Victoria Park Avenue, Toronto, ON

Long live the King of Zing: You started life as Zingburger, and you lorded over the weeds of your parking lot fiefdom for a half-century before you became the uninspired “Chicken & Rib Shack.” On behalf of all North Yorkers and Scarboroughites—since your border-straddling location meant you diplomatically doled out the greasy goodies to both former boroughs—we’d like to say farewell. We first heard of your demise when one of our moms (who lives a little closer than we do), sent this quick email missive: “Zingburger is coming down—thought you should know. Love, mom.” That was in the summer of 2007.

We won’t miss the actual burger: Heck, it was just two patties with the cheese slice fired in the middle for rapid melting—but we will miss the zingy architecture. A zig-zaggy glass-and-steel crown of a building, from its cozy, mini-jukebox-equipped booths we could gaze up at the undulating, folded-plate ceiling—with original sparkly paint and pin-holed light fixtures—or through the massive windows to see if it had stopped raining. When it opened in the mid-1960s it must have been a drive-in, since it looked to be designed for roller-skating waitress-accessibility, but when we first discovered it in the 1980s it was simply an alternative to Steak Queen up the street. While we ate at “the Queen” more often, memories of Zingburger are more vivid because it was an example of California “Googie” architecture.

So what the heck is Googie? It’s actually all about the sign, but not in the traditional sense of the word. The postwar era’s obsession with the automobile meant that the buildings themselves became signs for fear of being lost in the whizzing panorama of images through the windshield. In other words, a swoopy lantern-like building got noticed; in California, the attention-getting kings were architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, designers of just about every Jetsons-esque coffee shop and drive-in except, ironically, the one that gave the style its name, Googie’s on Sunset Blvd (John Lautner, 1949) next to the famous Schwab’s Drug Store in Los Angeles.

But in Toronto? While there was no Armet & Davis in Toronto, the style arrived via chains like Big Boy and, to a lesser extent, via television sets showing the space age architecture of Disney’s “Tomorrowland.” That a few local burger-preneurs asked their architects to come up with something similar is no surprise. What is surprising, to us anyway, is that no love is lost when one of these funny little buildings bites the big one. Will Orillia’s famous Sundial—another round Googiriffic diner that’s been sitting empty under lock-and-key for years—be next to fall? Maybe folks aren’t fond of Googie architecture because it’s not our own; maybe that’s the problem with the modernist movement in general—how can a style, born simultaneously in dozens of cities all over the world, stir our locally-obsessed hearts? Or maybe it’s yet another reminder that architecture isn’t very important to most people.

Architect Lloyd Alter writes on Treehugger.com: “It isn’t just historically notable buildings that should be preserved; perfectly boring and ordinary buildings from past eras make up the texture of our cities, and most have the bones to support renovations into modern, energy efficient and useful structures. Yet depreciation for tax purposes and high property taxes often encourage owners to demolish rather than preserve.” We don’t know for sure, but we suspect it was something just like Mr. Alter suggests that caused our little zing-thing to fall.

The King of Zingland is dead, and we shall miss its regal parking lot presence.

25.10.07

CHINA HOUSE


925 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto, ON

Happy anniversary, happy anniversary, ohhhhhhh! You'd have to have been a Flintstones fan to get that title, but, yes, it was our 4th wedding anniversary and we were off to see a show. Specifically, "The Drowsy Chaperone," but you're not here to listen to tales of the Great White (North) Way, are you? You want to know about China House. China House has been serving up the same fare in the exact same spot with the exact same dining room decor since 1958, which is, obviously, why we're here.

Location, location, location: is the reason China House hasn't changed, which was your next question. Y'see, this is Toronto's 2nd Jewish neighbourhood, and, as the old Jackie Mason joke goes, Jewish wives are afraid of their kitchens and the only appliance they use is the telephone to order takeout. He also asked where Jewish people ate for 2000 years since Jewish culture is 7000 years old and Chinese culture is only 5000 years old. Anyhow, when Toronto Jews moved up in the world--both psychologically and geographically--from Spadina and College (Kensington Market area, you know, "The King of Kensington") and started their slow climb up the Bathurst St. spine, the area between St. Clair and Eglinton was their first stop. Later, they'd march to Lawrence, Wilson, Sheppard and all the way up to Steeles Avenue and beyond the city's border. So, until recently, it was all those Jewish wives supporting the restaurant with their quick dialing fingers or with the traditional Sunday evening in-person visit to the dining room. In other words, if you had a steady, reliable clientele, why would you bother spending the money on renovating your decor?

And what decor! Except, perhaps, for the wallpaper, which is of the 1970s flocked (meaning fuzzy) kind and the carpet, which is of the bad 1980s hotel variety, this place has not changed one iota. After walking in, we cross a little bridge over a pond (with coins on the bottom, of course) and into the magnificent dining room, where everything is Chinese red and black lacquer. Past the bar-cum-cashier area, we're whisked past the beautiful "key hole" door and seated at a small table by the wall. Last time we were here with a party of four and so were seated at one of the bigger tables under the fake, and very large, paper mache tree with lanterns hanging off the branches (this tree, in fact, is what they use for a logo on their literature). These larger tables have a built-in lazy-Susan so all diners can twirl and access the various dishes to their heart's desire. Can you imagine all those little Jewish boys spinning these things around every time their little sisters tried to go for the Moo Goo Guy Pan?

Speaking of food: There's another reason this place has lasted so long and it's got nothing to do with the remaining Bubbies and Zadies of the neighbourhood. The food is fantastic! Yes, it's your same old Pork Fried Rice and Sweet-n-Sour Everything, but it's prepared in such a way that we agree it's unlike most we've had. For one thing, it's not greasy: chicken balls are 90% breast meat and the batter coating is crispy yet light; the fried rice has the pork all cut up so there's a morsel in every bite; the spring rolls have huge pieces of meat, not bean sprout filler. It's one of the best crappy Chinese meals we've ever had.

They know how to make a drink, too: Because this place is old school, waiters wear jackets and bow ties and know when to bother you and when to receed into the background. They don't get orders wrong and the proportions of our libations are correct. We were stuck in traffic on the way over so this is important. Happy anniversary to US!

Thought about: Well, it was our anniversary, so I guess we thought about marriage. But we also discussed how these kinds of restaurants can't live on forever. As the remaining Jews leave the neighbourhood, will the new Bathurst & Eglinton folk love Chinese food as much? There's quite a strong African-Canadian community to the west that will probably expand, so will it be more jerk chicken and less General Tao 10 years from now?

Overheard (the first time we were here about two years ago): A guy in his mid-40s, to his two kids as he paid for his takeout: "I remember eating under that tree when I was your age!"

21.8.07

PARADISE CLUB

7068 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL

No photo, since we were warned that pulling out a camera might not be such a good idea in a place like this.

Sign-based drinking? We came here to drink... not to eat (no food in Paradise it seems… at least none that we would want to ingest). However, we chose Paradise Club for the same reason we choose to eat in the Sign-Based Eating joints featured in this blog… for its magnificent non-ambience! Actually, Paradise Club was the last stop on a mini-tour of north-end Chicago tiki bars led by none other than James Teitelbaum – author of the essential book Tiki Road Trip. Paradise Club was suggested as a fine way to bring the evening to a close.

The sign: Actually, there are two simple signs, one that says Paradise Club, and another that reads Club Paradise. So which is it? Who knows… who cares. The large painted mural of a hula dancer on the side of the building is more eye-catching than either of the two signs.

Carded! Upon making our way through the door, we were stopped… by a surly, bleached-blond, Eastern European-accented hostess no less, who asked to see some ID. A Canadian driver’s license meant absolutely nothing to her. Thankfully, a Canadian passport seemed to pass the test, but not before being ripped out of my hand and taken behind the bar for closer inspection.

This business of getting carded in the U.S. is getting funnier and funnier to me… especially as I continue my slow waddle into middle age. I realize these people are legally obliged to check each and every person who walks into their drinking establishment but it seems a bit ridiculous to ask for proof of age from a salt-and-pepper-haired (what’s left of it!) 42 year old.

The best line I heard recently – regarding getting carded in mid-life – came from my friend Stan, who is in his early 50s, and who was asked for ID (along with the rest of us) upon entering an Irish pub in New York: “Well, I can show you my AARP card…”

But back to Paradise Club…

Through the pearly gates: Once we’d all been granted access to Paradise, we paused for a second to get used to the dead silence… no music in Paradise, no TV in the background, not much talking (except for a few quiet exchanges – in Polish – between the four or five guys sitting at the bar)… in other words, no nothing. After just enough time to let the black light/bare bones/last vestiges of tiki ambience sink in, the surly hostess re-emerged from behind the bar and escorted us to one of the two tables in what could be called “the back room.”

Take a chance… on a not-so-exotic cocktail: James had informed us that he’d never seen the same waitress twice at Paradise Club… but that each successive one was young, gorgeous, and Polish. Was this a halfway stop in some sort of white slavery ring? A training ground for “new girls” brought over from the old country?

Once we were seated at our table in the back room, it didn’t take long before a waitress – young, gorgeous, and with a heavy Polish accent – showed up with the one and only copy of the exotic drink menu… an ancient scrapbook filled with photos of cocktails, each of which was somewhat more bizarrely-named than those found in other tiki bars. Since the back room was so dark, we were also handed a small flashlight with which to read the menu in the pitch black. I will admit that I played it safe and ordered a Polish beer but a couple of others took a chance and selected some mysterious concoctions from the well-worn menu. My better half – perhaps out of fear – decided to order the suggested Banana Spider, which both the waitress and the surly hostess claimed “ees good for da girls.”

As the drinks were being made, the four drunks at the bar – having heard we were Canadian – began serenading us with a rousing rendition of O Canada. One of the guys then dropped by our table to reassure us that he “meant no disrespect.”

Thought about: Don’t know if Charles Bukowski was interested in tiki at all, but he would have felt right at home in here.

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

31.5.07

SYLVIO ROI



On Jean-Talon, just west of St-Michel, Montreal
(Sign is now gone)

Look, up in the sky! It’s a... chicken?: Why does a huge chicken sit atop this sign? Is Sylvio the “Roi du Poulet” (“King of Chicken”)? Actually, the sign at Sylvio Roi is wonderful. One of the last of the great big signs, it sits on a huge pole rooted in the pavement in front of the restaurant. It seems to me there used to be many more of these amazingly oversized signs that would attract your attention to a restaurant from blocks away... that is, until it was decided that signs like these were a blight on the city’s landscape and should be attached to buildings rather than standing out on their own in the asphalt. Now people complain that signs are covering up the buildings, so maybe they’ll find their way back up onto tall poles again some day.

Sub-signs: The big sign at Sylvio’s includes a series of smaller sub-signs beneath it: PIZZA, HOT DOGS, SUBMARINES... practically the entire menu is up there for you to read before actually walking into the restaurant. Surprisingly, BBQ is at the bottom of the list, despite the giant chicken up top.

Return of the chicken: Greek short order cooks and French-Canadian (or Québecoise) waitresses wear t-shirts featuring the big chicken from the sign along with the phone number for deliveries.

Someone should order a gin and tonic: A standard interior for this type of place: a few steps above street level; long and narrow; booths on one side; stools, counter, and grill on the other. But at the front, behind the cash register, someone, at some point in time, went through the trouble of turning part of the shelving and surrounding wall into a black, padded leather bar. I’m certain that no one has ever ordered anything harder than a beer to go with his or her hot dog.

The right appetite at the wrong time: I eat French toast and sausage at 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday, as all around me hot dogs and poutine are consumed.

CHEZ LINDA



Beaubien, corner of 9th Avenue, Montreal
(now a Portuguese churrascaria)

Which one’s Linda?: Two white-haired, over-65-year-old ladies hobble around in orthopedic shoes behind the counter. One makes her way out to take my order. “We’ll be able to get some air in here now,” she says, “the air conditioner is working again.”

Old lady colour scheme: It’s the last day of my summer holidays. I read my newspaper while listening to the clinking of a spatula on the grill. I patiently wait for my French toast and bacon. The walls are painted yellow... a chalky-coloured pastel yellow that seems to be a favourite of old ladies everywhere. There is no eavesdropping to be done; the only other customers are two old ladies at separate tables, each reading a tabloid newspaper, and a group of 4 guys (from the meat department of the supermarket across the street) who are draining their last cups of coffee soon after I sit down.

Are bacon and eggs “Canadienne”?: From what I can tell, all that’s served at Chez Linda is breakfast fare: bacon and eggs, sausage, French toast, and pancakes. However, the sign outside bills the place as serving “cuisine canadienne.” The rest of the sign doesn’t make much sense either. At the very top: a coach-house lantern (the type I’ve seen on signs at some steakhouses in the US). And right below the lantern, above the restaurant’s name, the element that attracted me to this joint in the first place: two early-60’s-looking cartoon characters, a man with a huge bow tie and a woman wearing a cape and mortar-board, both jumping up into the air and clicking their heels.

Phase 0?: If the food here is really “cuisine canadienne” as the sign says, and Chez Linda is located here in Canada, does this make it a Phase 0 restaurant?

30.5.07

BELANGER PIZZERIA



On Bélanger (where else?), just west of St-Michel, Montreal

The Pizzeria Project: The first stop in our attempt to eat at every single pizzeria on Bélanger St. between Lacordaire and St-Denis.

Two sides to every story: Depending on your mood, you can choose from the greasy spoon room (turquoise colour scheme, old fashioned booths and counter, and a view of the pizza oven and cash register), or the dining room (featuring live music on Friday and Saturday nights).

What? No Greek food?: Although it looks like a typical Montreal-style Greek-owned pizzeria, Belanger Pizzeria is actually Italian-owned, making it a Phase 2 ethnic restaurant, which serves good, hearty, basic Italian fare. If you’re there on the right day, you might even be able to get an order of tripe…

The Main Event: Enrico plays the accordion in the back room on Friday and Saturday nights and, surprisingly, draws quite a crowd. His son Gino accompanies him on drums. The place is packed when we arrive... and everyone seems to know each other, like it’s a big party or something. Like in a lowbrow version of Goodfellas, a guy comes out of the kitchen carrying a table over his head, walks into the dining room and puts down the table for us right next to the drums, in the centre of the action. Enrico drinks and talks more than he plays. When he sees us fingering the air and discussing his technique, he stops singing, calls us up and proceeds to give us an accordion lesson in front of the crowd. There are guest performers too. Ms. Sicotte has just returned from a four-month engagement on a cruise ship and she performs her “around the world” medley for us. She puts her arms around us, sits on our laps, and asks for a kiss on the cheek. Luigi comes out of the kitchen, wearing his tomato sauce-stained apron, to sing us his favourite song. Enrico announces that his food is ready; it’s time for a break. But wait a minute... a big beefy guy walks in from the greasy spoon room where he has been sitting and smoking and looking off into the distance by himself for the last half-hour. He’s wearing a light grey double-breasted suit, a black shirt, a white tie, and a very large pinky ring. He looks like he’s packin’ a piece. He walks up to Enrico... maybe to tell him “There’s no way you’re taking a break before playing what I’ve been waiting to hear.” But no, he turns to face us, microphone in hand, eyes closed, a melancholy look on his face… and breaks into a stunning rendition of Mala Femmena...

Thought about: There is a little bit of Dean Martin in everyone.

THE BROWN DERBY



On Van Horne, west of Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal
Closed

Sign: Not much in the way of an attractive or vintage sign but we did have a long discussion about the faded gold lettering on the restaurant’s glass doors. Did it date back to the seventies? The sixties? It looked like a forties typeface but that would be impossible... this strip mall location could not have existed back then.

If not the sign, what then?: Overall ambiance is what draws us here. The huge dining area... the harsh, extra bright strip lighting, blinding customers as they make their way to a booth or table...

Thought about: The place always brings back memories of a similar joint in Florida... The Rascal House... maybe you know it.

Are you guys crazy or what?: The one waitress and the guy behind the counter look at us like we’re nuts, walking in here at 10:15 on a Friday night. The place is devoid of any customers save for two elderly gentlemen, sitting at separate tables at opposite ends of the room. This does not stop them from having a conversation between sips of their matzah ball soup. We are handed the menu that applies to this time of day, respecting religious and cultural tradition, and I order what must be the last matzah ball of the day.

Overheard #1: “When was your last chest x-ray?”

Overheard #2: “Where’d you get those shoes? ‘Cause those are some nice shoes...”

SIGN-BASED EATING

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