Yes, Gaston, you can eat out in Winnipeg, where not so long ago a hamburger known as a nip was the highest cuisine in town. Now they’re flying cheesecake to Texas and calling local boys M’sieur Pierre. Hem’s what happened
UNTIL THIS FALL I seldom dined out in Winnipeg. where I live, and when I did I made for a Salisbury House and ordered a nip — which is to say that I went to one of a local chain of all-night short-order stands and ate a good hamburger. Those days are behind both Winnipeg and me. In October I took my wife on a ten-day trencherman's tour of discovery around my own home town. We ate continental, oriental and honest home-grown cooking in a score of good restaurants, at least half a dozen of them the equal of the country's best. Winnipeg, we discovered, is suddenly second only to Montreal as a place to eat in Canada — or so say most of the continental chefs and food-fanciers we met, to our surprise, as we ate our way around town.
We began at Pierre's Café Magnifique, on west Portage Avenue. "How' long." 1 asked when 1 saw the menu, "has this sort of thing been going on?” "Not long enough,” said Maurice Pockett, maître de, and a part owner of the café. He went away with orders for pheasant under glass and Cornish hen. both of them birds not native to Winnipeg until recently.
“This w'ine would be nice with your dinner,” said Pockett, carrying a bottle back w'ith him. and it was. That bottle of wine was a sign and symbol of a happy accident that took place five years ago when the Manitoba Legislature passed a new liquor control act. The legislators are mainly small-tow n people; some are strong teetotalers and those who aren’t feel sinful. They all accept the general principle that food is good, liquor is bad. If they w-ere going to allow' liquor to be served at all (and the Winnipeg city slickers had persuaded them that
they should) then, by cracky, they were going to make sure that no restaurant would be allowed to serve any more of the sinful stuif than it served of good wholesome food. Dollar for dollar, the food and the liquor accounts had to balance.
The result has been miraculous. Most restaurateurs will tell you they make their money mainly in the bar. but Winnipeg restaurateurs are obliged by law to tempt their customers into spending just as much money on food — otherwise they lose their licenses. To sell for that much money, the food had better be good. In Winnipeg, it is.
Perhaps the most surprising result of having good food forced upon them is that Winnipeggers are actually spending more on meals than on drinks — a situation probably unique among North American cities. Many of the better restaurants, instead of having a struggle to hold the balance between liquor and food, find their meal checks bring in twice as much as their drink checks. Having been introduced to haute cuisine, the new prairie gourmets are reveling in it.
Two hours after we sat down to that first dinner in Pierre’s Café Magnifique, we finally reached the coffee stage and we asked Pockett to join us. He was in high good humor.
THREE FACTORS; WINE AND TWO DUTCH CHEFS
"When we opened, seven years ago. there wasn't a good restaurant in town — nothing." he said. “Today the city is full of good dining rooms. Why? For the past four years we've all been able to serve wines and to use them in cooking. Wonderful, the difference. You should talk to Hans." The three of us drifted out to the kitchen where Hans van der Horst, the chef, was overseeing the cleaning up. He poured us coffee and w'e sat and chatted.
"I emigrated from Holland in 1954. Louis van Loon came about the same time and we were both told at the immigration office, and again at the employment office, that we’d never get jobs as chefs. Louis gave up and went back to Holland. 1 got a job as a short-order cook and later got work with the CPR, odd-jobbing around food. Nobody in Winnipeg wanted a chef. And then in 1955 Pierre's opened and I've been here since."
“Sure," said Pockett. "Then we needed a good assistant chef to help Hans. ‘I here was no one here but Louis van Loon heard about us anti came back from Holland. He w'as with us until he left to take over the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club. These days there’s just too much demand for talent for us to hold him.” When Hans van der Horst and Louis van Loon reached for the seasoning it was the beginning of cooking as an art in Winnipeg. The man who put them to work, Maurice Rockett, started life as Maurice Pokidalo at Canora, Sask. When he went to get a birth certificate he learned that the municipal clerk, with an easy tolerance toward Russian spelling, had registered him as "Pocket.” Instead of changing it back, he tacked on another “t” and has been Pockett since.
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“Here, enlightened men administer the liquor act. In Ontario, it's like going before a parole board’'’'
ON THE SECOND day of our dining-out tour, two friends suggested we join them for dinner at The Paddock, west of Pierre’s on Portage. One of the party had a steak; the others ordered lobster tail. As we finished, Hans Fread, the chef, came in from the kitchen with Mel Orestes, a part owner, to join us for coffee.
"Winnipeg amazed me when I came here from Toronto about a year ago,” Fread said. "It is second only to Montreal as a place to cat in Canada. There are at least a dozen places — Pierre’s, Rae & Jerry’s, The Paddock here, the Rib Room in the Charterhouse, Hy’s Steak Loft and others — that will compare with anything in Canada, and another dozen are really good. The speed of the switch from hamburgers to good food is unprecedented anywhere.”
"What did it?” we asked. Fread told the story of a food company that developed a new cake mix and, to help sell it, hired a railroad diner to serve free lunches in several cities. In Winnipeg the diner stood at the terminal, and cake and wines were served. In Ontario the liquor legislation states that liquor can only be served on a moving train, so the wines were served
"That’s your answer. Go down and talk to General Elliot Rodger, chairman of the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission. The liquor act here is intelligent and it is administered by a very enlightened man. They have used the cocktail lounge as a lever to force good food on Winnipeg. When a restaurateur appears before the liquor control people in Ontario it’s like going before a parole board. In Manitoba you appear before men who want to work with you to solve problems of mutual interest.” We talked to General Rodger the next day. Manitoba regulations, he said, require a restaurateur who wants a lounge license to have two chairs in the dining room for every seat in the cocktail lounge, and to sell a dollar’s worth of food for every dollar’s worth of liquor. If liquor sales exceed food sales for any period of time, the LCC will close the restaurant.
ON OUR THIRD night out Johnny Rae led us to a table at Rae and Jerry’s. "What’s the best thing on the menu?” I asked easily. We were starting to feel a little professional. “We think it’s all good.” He smiled. "I’ll put our roast beef against roast beef anywhere, anytime.” We ordered roast beef and a bottle of Beaujolais and settled down. Between bites I asked my wife, "Why don’t you cook roast beef like this?”
"Eat your dinner,” she said.
Johnny Rae and Jerry Hemsworth have been working up to this restaurant for twenty-five years, through a series of less imposing places. "A revolution has taken place in eating here in the last five years, since the liberalization of the liquor laws.” Rae said. "I’ve traveled the continent and I’d challenge anyone to find a city where restaurants are more competitive, or. for that matter, a city of this size with as many good restaurants.” He thinks there are more changes coming.
"If the smaller places are to prosper they will have to get some specialty, in which they’re better than anyone else. The main trade will always be steaks and roasts — this is a red meat town — but there should be room for national and special dishes, and good neighborhood restaurants. Now, we’re starting to get them, too.”
ON THE NEXT two evenings we went to the Bistro Parisien, for French food, and the Red Lion Inn, which now bills itself as Le Lion Rouge. The new' billing was coincidental w'ith the engagement of Yvon Kerguen as chef. Kerguen rolled his cooking bar to our table, and sprinkled seasoning and poured brandy and sherry while the flames leaped and the dinner cooked; the same with the crêpe snzette. We enjoyed the show' and we enjoyed the food. "Five years ago people in Winnipeg would have simply considered this amusing, but
today they taste and they approve,” said Cliff Drewitt, the host and a co-owner.
MY BATHROOM SCALE was sounding cautionary notes. My wife refused to go near the thing. She was now setting the pace and for the next three nights I followed her to three spanking new dining rooms
in three new motels — the Airliner, the Viscount Gort and the Carlton Motor Hotel with its exotic Polynesian room, none of them open more than a few months and all of them providing good service, atmosphere and food. 1 lunched alone at the Hilton and, for ninety cents, got more fried pyrohi and sour cream than I could handle. The large Ukrainian population in north Winnipeg flocks in to eat pyrohi and holubtsi, and the standard Canadian dishes.
THE TOUR TOOK US next, for German beer and German dishes, to The Happy Vineyard, where we ate to the clatter of beer steins and the German songs of the accordionist. The German-Canadian proprietor, Engelhardt Stelzer, said that close to fifty percent of his customers are of German origin. Here, as in the Bistro Parisien anti Le Lion Rouge (French), The Hellenic (Greek), the Hilton (Ukrainian), Zoratti’s and Mama Trossi’s (Italian), the New Nanking and the Shanghai (Chinese), was the evidence of the change in eating out
Johnny Rae had told us about. Now the specialized places can't side-step competition either. Jack Porter recently opened his Beachcomber Polynesian Restaurant in Winnipeg. He has a similar place in Vancouver. "The competition is very tough here,” he told us.
w'E HEARD THE same story the next night when, still working east through town, we reached Hy’s Steak Loft. "Our group has a similar place in Calgary to the one here,” said Jack Shatz. He shrugged. "We’re competing with one other top place in Calgary. Here we’re competing with half a dozen top places and a dozen more that are very good.”
Here we ordered tw-elve-ounce sirloins, watched them tossed on the open grill and sat, wdth knife and fork in hand, as they came to our table. Hy’s claim the best steaks in town. So do Pierre’s, Rae and Jerry's, the Paddock and the Rib Room. There may be others. The preparation of the steaks in Winnipeg, if you are to believe what you are told and what you taste, has reached the pinnacle. The next step will have to come from the improvement of the meat before it reaches the kitchen.
The Ivanhoe on Portage, where we dined next, claims that if you don't get your live lobster there you’ll have to travel a thousand miles to find another one. We looked them over in the tank and the writhing creatures were later brought past our table for approval; on their second trip to the table they were hors de combat.
"We’re the biggest place in town." Auby Galpern of the Town N’ Country told us at our next stop. In the cabaret and the cocktail lounge upstairs high-priced entertainers lure and lull the customers. Dining rooms of different shapes and sizes leap out at you from various corners and levels. For dessert here we ordered cheesecake topped with black cherries. In the week past, Town N’ Country cheesecake had been flown to customers in Texas and Toronto and points between; how could we pass it up?
My wife asked Auby Galpern for the construction details on the cheesecake. “We never tell,” he said.
Another thing that the owners of Winnipeg's new restaurants don't tell is whether they’re making any money. Paddy Orestes, president of The Paddock and recognized as one of the shrewd operators in the business, states flatly that quite a few' of them are not. “The competition is fierce and already quite a few have gone broke,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll see a new place open up and it’s capitalized so high it can't make money. That operator goes broke, someone else takes over at a depreciated price. After this has happened a few' times the capitalization is down to the point where the last operator can make it go. And that, of course, means that the competition is as tough as ever.”
Certainly the mood of the restaurant business is one of caution. Several operators told us that an extension of the government liquor policy that was originally forced on good restaurants in Winnipeg is now making it harder for them to stay in business: the fifty-fifty split on food and liquor that applies to the public eating places is applied with equal firmness to private clubs. Even at the nineteenth hole in the city’s golf clubs, consumption has to include fifty percent food, by value, or the clubs will be shrunk back to eighteen holes. This is true of all clubs — golf, squash, winter clubs, service clubs and the like. These clubs have hired top chefs and brought real pressure on their members to patronize club dining rooms. This adds to the competition for the diner's dollar.
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WE ATE OUR second-last dinner of the tour at the Charterhouse Rib Room, where the Olde F.nglishe style and the roast beef and steaks arc the Rib Room’s justification for claiming, too, that it is the best of the best in Winnipeg. They serve a good Beaujolais, and Liehfraumilch in a carafe, and the economy of this compared to a bottle was welcome.
“The carafe will soon be general through the city,” said Gus Zoratti. 1 was sitting in his place lunching on spaghetti and meat balls and a carafe of chianti. "A carafe provides a nice little bit of wine for two people
and doesn’t cost much — a bit like the local wines of Europe.”
That was the day my wife and I decided the trencherman’s tour was over. As we sat at our own kitchen table at the dinner hour that night and sipped our Metrecal we agreed that Winnipeg chefs were wonderful and that dining has changed. Ah, how it's changed. We also wondered what had happened to the old Winnipeg of the hamburger and hot dog. the smelly beer parlor and the people who don’t or can't rise to the tenor fifteen-dollar dinner and might even he uncomfortable with
carpeted floors and soft-footed waiters carrying bottles of French wine. We went looking for this old Winnipeg in an old and favored haunt. The wholesome smell of stale beer hung over the beverage room. The television set. canted in the corner above our heads, flashed and squawked. A couple of thickset men in work clothes sat with glasses of beer on the table. I ordered beer and a couple of lengths of hot garlic sausage. We turned our attention to the TV where a train was rushing across the plains to a mountain. We both nodded, happily. ★
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