It was with a good deal of public sentiment and fanfare that Kelekis restaurant served its last meal last week, the latest in a string of local culinary institutions to fade into memory, including the Wagon Wheel diner on Hargrave Street late last year. With these beloved greasy-spoon operations gone, one prominent local journalist wondered aloud (ie, on Twitter) how many legitimate lunch counter diners were left in this city.
Very few, and even fewer that the average Winnipeg might feel comfortable setting foot in. Most of the remaining ones are found in the city’s thinning ranks of old hotels on and around Main Street: the Yale, the Garrick, the Mount Royal.
In the earliest years of this century, I would wander the Main Street Strip, that notorious skid row which extended the six blocks between City Hall and the CPR underpass, where a number of these hotel diners were found. This was after a dozen buildings at Higgins and Main were demolished in 1998, but before Centre Venture Development Corporation came in 2006 with the half-baked, opportunistic belief that monstrously ugly office buildings and parking garages could save the neighbourhood from itself.
There were few businesses left on this strip then: Mitchell’s Fabrics, Monty’s Furniture, the Exchange Cafe, two small grocery stores, and a pawn shop. Then there was the four remaining hotels that did so much to define skid row: the McLaren, the New Occidental, the ManWin, and the Bell. And with the hotels and their barrooms were the hotel restaurants, each with a menu of typical diner fare, and bad coffee for 50 cents, served in white mugs whose insides were scarred grey from years of stirring spoons. I wasn’t often up for the potential adventure of drinking at the bar, but I would often take a seat at one of the diners’ lunch counters.
When it opened in 1910, the seven-storey McLaren Hotel would have been second only to Canadian Pacific’s Royal Alexandra Hotel in terms of size, opulence, and modern amenities. (It would be another three years before a new rival came along, the Fort Garry on Broadway.) Located at Main and Rupert on the southern end of skid row, the McLaren held onto a level of respectability longer than most of the smaller, older hotels on the strip.
As passenger rail service in an out of the CP Sation on Higgins began to decline after 1945, the McLaren strived to remain viable. A number of its floors were extensively renovated, and it was the first hotel in the city to have a direct telephone line and shuttle service from the airport.
In spite of these efforts, the McLaren couldn’t hold on forever; not in an age when elevators and fireproof rooms were foregone conclusions rather than added perks. By the time I started coming around in 2000, the McLaren had become solidly established as the largest of the city’s single-room occupancy hotels, a warren of illness, addiction, and despair.
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On the ground floor, in the space that had once been a Salisbury House, a diner was run by Dino, a stout Greek with a head of curly hair. Dino would often open up at 4:45 am, in order to catch skid row’s day labour crowd before they went off looking for temporary employment. Obsessive in his efforts to keep the diner clean throughout the day, he would often be seen scrubbing everything down behind the counter. This probably would have been why the coffee always tasted soapy, and I soon learned to avoid it altogether.
It was 2000 or 2001 when I first wandered in to the place, after a haircut at the barber shop next door. “You’ve heard of McDonald’s,” a blonde woman working with Dino behind the counter said as she handed me my order. “Well, this is McDino’s.” Dino looked on, expressionless.
“Who needs McDonald’s,” she said to an old man who sat down at the end of the counter, “when you’ve got McDino’s?”
A couple walked in took seats in the booth at the far end of the diner. “No need to go to McDonald’s…”
On another visit, the atmosphere was less jovial. A homeless man who I knew as a skid row regular and partaker of all things non-potable came in, ordering a sandwich. “You get out!” Dino yelled, throwing his hands in the air. “You stink! The smell of glue is making me sick!” After the man shuffled out without protest, the blond woman scoffed. Main Street Project and other social service providers in the area enabled substance abusers like that man, she said.
Epilogue: Jeepers Creepers II
Dino and the queen of the one-liner closed down around 2006, but a new diner soon took its place. The counter was then staffed by a guy with wild eyes behind a thick pair of 1980s eyeglasses, a dishevelled ponytail, and a t-shirt promoting the horror movie Jeepers Creepers II — a title that my friend and I gave him after the first few visits. Jeepers Creepers didn’t clean up as religiously as Dino, but the food did taste better. I even ventured to try the coffee.
Not long after, this second incarnation of the diner closed down, and was replaced by a Japanese restaurant, Yuki Sushi. The barber next door was the first to tell me about this impending change, bemoaning the fact that his beloved place for a cup of coffee would soon become a “shooshee rest’rant.” “You gonna go to there?” he asked gruffly as I paid him for a cut one day. “That stuff’ll make you sick.”
Eventually, the barber learned to head over to the Tim Horton’s on Princess Street for his bland coffee fix. Jeepers Creepers is still around, hanging out in front of the ManWin Hotel up the street, his wild eyes and ponytail looking more distressed than ever.
Yuki Sushi continues to operate in the old diner space of the McLaren. After 103 years at Main and Rupert, the old hotel is a living, multilayered symbol of Main Street’s boom years, desperate poverty, and unknown future.
Robert Galston likes to write about Winnipeg, urbanism, and other very, very exciting topics. Follow him on Twitter @riseandsprawl
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