Remembering Toronto restaurants of days gone by
Used to be when it came to family dining out on a budget, Toronto was spoiled for choice. The Gods of frugal yum smiled down on us, bestowing fabled chains which offered affordable eats for family friendly visits and left behind indelible impressions in our minds and taste buds even long after they had shuttered, gone into receivership or been chewed up by corporate garburators.
Toronto based chain Frank Vetere's Pizzeria was one such magical eatery: Started in 1972 by Frank Vetere, the red and green shutters and offbeat interior (mixing Carnival mirrors, cartoons and great moments in Pizza history) provided an imaginative setting, bested only by their Chicago style deep-dish toppings heavy Pizza which oozed that authentic Italian touch and was rightfully branded "the best Pizza you've ever tasted". In fact, Frank Vetere's actually trademarked the name "Deep Dish Pizza".
Frank Vetere's menu also included mouth-watering Italian sandwiches, burgers, pasta and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. Arcade games (usually Asteroids, Pac-Man, Dig-Dug or Zaxxon) lined the walls and could be operated with plastic tokens that also worked in the gumball machines, and of course every kid got a free token with their meal. Dads were happy to sink their $2 steins of house lager while the legendary free-with-dinner Frank Vetere's soda glasses can still be found at local thrift shops.
After a massive expansion which saw over 40 locations arise in Ontario (22 in Toronto alone), the chain was crippled by the 1982 recession, forcing owners Foodex Inc. to sell most of their locations to Pizza Hut, who wasted little time in aping Vetere's popular Deep Dish style Pizza but without the pizzaz.
Another fondly remembered chain also owned by Foodex Inc. of Toronto was Ponderosa. Named after the ranch in TV's long running oater Bonanza, Ponderosa offered up affordable chopped steak, baked potatoes, all-you-can-eat salad bar, coconut cream pie and mushroom gravy smothered fries.
The restaurants housed an authentic Cowboy styled atmosphere with saloon doors, stag horns, wood walls, yellow and brown uniforms for the staff and red and white checkered table clothes. Ponderosa was a popular birthday destination in the 80s, owing to the group friendly prices, kid friendly zones and fun-tastic birthday hats. Also, the deserts on display were always a sight to behold.
Sadly the same issues which had affected Frank Vetere's ultimately brought down Ponderosa, which still survives as a US chain but saw a total collapse in Canada in the late 1980s when the majority of their locations were converted into Red Lobsters (run by the General Mills Canada) at a time when our country was experiencing a massive renaissance in seafood)
Chi Chi's Mexican restaurants - catchphrase "A celebration of food!" - also score high on the nostalgic food-o-meter, primary thanks to their yummy deep fried ice cream, piping hot plates and cheap margaritas. It helped that before Taco Bell got a stranglehold on the GTA in the mid-1990s, Chi Chi's was the only ubiquitous Mexican game in town.
By the 2000s, Chi Chi's fell apart thanks to a combination of bankruptcy and a fatal hepatitis A outbreak traced back to green onions served at one of their Pittsburgh restaurants. The majority of their remaining locations were unceremoniously gobbled up by Outback Steakhouse, with nary a drop of salsa left behind. Not much of a happy ending for that "celebration".
Thankfully not all of our beloved retro chains have sad endings: Mothers Pizza Parlour & Spaghetti House, another fondly remembered family joint - recently returned from the grave in April of this year. Businessman Brian Alger acquired the expired trademark to Mother's Pizza - one of his favorite brands growing up (along with the Pop Shoppe, which he also acquired) - then teamed with Restaurateur Geeve Sandu to reboot the franchise using the same original formula.
It's not hard to see why Alger was so enamoured with Mothers - Like Frank Vetere's, the ambiance was crucial to the experience. Roaring 1920s style décor with wood and decorated glass, Tiffany lamps, red and white gingham, and Black & White silent films playing on screens all around the restaurant guaranteed Mothers was a place that once visited was never forgotten. Also like Vetere's, the Pizza was phenomenal, and their 99 cent Root Beer floats with take home glass were the stuff of playground legend.
The 1980s were unkind to Mothers, and even though Blue Jays Ernie Whitt, Loyd Moseby and Cito Gaston invested in the company (there was even "Ernie Whitt Specials") and helped market it along with Duel dodger Dennis Weaver! By 1989 Mothers had gone into receivership and was bought up by Little Caesers, who disposed of the classy Mothers style and helped usher in the era of cheap tasteless cardboard Pizza (aided and abetted by other chains who shall remain nameless).
Many other deceased or decimated chains not mentioned here - The Olive Garden, Lime Rickey's, JJ Muggs, Harvey Wallbangers, Bo Peep, Eddie Shack Donuts, Bobby Orr Pizza, etc - live on in our memories and through dusty promotional glassware found at garage sales or old commercials on YouTube. Will the cookie cutter family restaurant chains of 2013 - Boston Pizza, Montana's, Milestones, Eggsmart, etc - ever be as fondly remembered as the likes of Frank Vetere's, Ponderosa, Chi Chi's and Mothers?
Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.