Counter Culture


The Great Canadian Lunch Counter as a threatened species

No one is really sure how the concept of fast food got started. History suggests that, a few generations after Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were eating and drinking their thoughts into literature at the famous Mermaid Tavern in London, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, a man of doubtful reputation, had developed a compulsive habit of eating meats between slices of bread so that he wouldn’t miss a bet at a local gambling establishment. From such varied roots does success spring.

Today McDonald’s has opened up a burger stand on the Champs-Elysées in Paris and, if that isn’t enough, Colonel Sanders will soon spread 280 Kentucky Fried Chicken joints across Britain. Right now France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain are experiencing the cultural impact of Snacky, Pic & Pac, Chicken Shops, and Bake ’n’ Take stands.

American fast food franchises are nothing new. Not only does Colonel Sanders have 445 chicken joints in Canada but Canada now has Colonel Sanders himself. He moved here. Canadians are big eaters. They spend $2.5 billion a year on eating out, and by 1975 the average Canadian will be grabbing one meal in three away from home. Yet, lest that great dictator time betray us again, it is important to remember that we have always had an indigenous alternative to the fast food stand — namely, the great Canadian lunch counter.

Anyone who has taken an unhurried meal at Palmer’s Lunch in Toronto, Camille Fish and Chips in Halifax, Al’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Winnipeg, the Stockyard Coffee Shop in Edmonton or the Cathay Café in Vancouver will understand the value of good food at low prices served by people who care.

The great lunch counter is, like so many national landmarks, already a threatened species. Apparently a lot of people would prefer to have processed food, warmed under infrared lights, served with a clatter by an irritable waitress (who no matter what you say won’t hold the onions from the banquetburger) and listen to Percy Faith on Muzak.

The Canadian lunch counter differs from the American diner-greasy-spoon tradition in that it often has a tidy English tea shop influence or is likely (more recently) to be owned and proudly operated by a New Canadian who home cooks his own specialties from the old country. Lunch counters most often cater to regular, neighborhood customers who treat the counter as a dining room away from home. Valerie the waitress usually knows what Sam wants when he comes in, knows his life story and many of his personal habits, such as dunking toast into tea and eating a nice dish of rice pudding at ten in the evening before bed.

Such places have a lexicon all their own that goes back to Depression days when most people, when they ate at all, ate in good, economical lunch counters, where guys on the road, if they had the talent, could always get a job as a short-order cook (or “grill man” as they like to say in the trade). An order such as “BLT down, keep off the grass, easy on the mayo please,” interprets as a toasted bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with little lettuce and not too much mayonnaise please. In Toronto “radio” might mean a tuna fish salad sandwich (because you tune a radio, get it?) but it might mean nothing in Regina. A W estent sandwich is often called a Denver on the Prairies and a Western in the Maritimes. An “Adam and Eve on a Raft” could mean two poached eggs on toast in Winnipeg but something else again in Vancouver. You have to know about these things.

In a lunch counter that seats 50 people there are usually three short-order cooks, one salad maker, one chef and a service staff. Specials of the day are usually the tastiest and most wholesome, and are prepared fresh at 5 a.m. each day. A good lunch counter menu should be typed each morning and mimeographed and placed in one of those wonderful plastic-covered menus in a chrome holder by the salt and pepper shakers and ketchup bottles. The fastest tip-off to lunch counter quality is whether or not the ketchup is watered down. If it is, beware. And don’t bother using the bathroom.

Steve Tscaris (below) of the Mars Restaurant in Toronto, is known amongst his regular customers as the “muffin king.” He has reached the position of chef at the Mars, a top job which has its satisfaction after a career that began at the bottom as dishwasher. In his day he was a sensational short-order cook (or grill man as they say in the trade) and rumor has it that he could have an omelet at your table within three minutes. He makes his own bran muffins three times a day. “They take 20 to 25 minutes to mix and after that they never fail,” says Steve. “I make everything myself (except what the grill man makes) and if I don’t like it myself I won’t make it. Then I rotate the menus so my regulars won’t know what to expect. If, say, chicken wings move well I keep them on the menu; if they don’t, then off they go.” Take heed all you pizzeria owners.

One of the sure signs of a first-rate lunch counter is the quality of its soup or, as it is most often referred to, its “soup of the day.” A canned soup opener is hostile to the aficionado’s eye because it is the homemade aspect of lunch counter culture that separates the amateurs from the pros. A good lunch counter should have its own baking facilities (no cellophaned boxes full of butter tarts please) and a large, bubbling pot of homemade soup. A truly fine soup is one with carefully prepared stock, large chunks of meat and vegetables and just the right touch of spices. In the trade there is a saying that if the aroma of homemade soup fills the kitchen, then the kitchen is good. When soup is borsch or turkey gumbo with rice it can be a meal in itself, as they say.

The hamburger is the staple snack of a lunch counter and above all the meat is important. It should be freshly ground as below. One of the horrors of the fast food business is the rising popularity of frozen food caterers. Visit any chain burger joint on delivery day and watch the man place box after box of frozen meat patties in the freezer. The patties usually come with pieces of thin wax paper underneath so that each pattie can be torn free while thawing. Quite often this meat contains cereals and chemical preservatives and is only edible when its essence is drowned in ketchup, mustard and relish. But remember, places still exist serving fine food at reasonable prices in a genuinely warm atmosphere — namely, the good old Canadian lunch counter.

We can thank the Earl of Sandwich for something. Thanks to the evolving tastes of mankind we now have the toasted bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Consider the proportions of the perfect BLT below. The toast is dry because the lettuce is crisp and not damp, the tomatoes are firm, grease has been removed from the bacon by a paper napkin and the mayonnaise has been applied with a certain delicacy. The classic BLT’s most pathetic and unforgivable downfall is its wetness. When the bacon is greasy, the lettuce wet, the tomatoes overripe and the mayonnaise too thick, the toast is made soggy. The perfect bacon, lettuce and tomato is not difficult to prepare. Steve Tscaris takes exactly two minutes and 10 seconds to make one.