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Eat & Drink

Remembering Toronto restaurants of days gone by

Posted by Ed Conroy / December 13, 2013

Ponderosa TorontoUsed 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.

Frank Vetere'sAfter 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.

PonderosaAnother 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.

Ponderosa TorontoThe 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 RestaurantChi 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).

20131212-EDDIE-SHACK-DONUTS.jpgMany 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.

Discussion

59 Comments

Breaded Shrimp / December 13, 2013 at 08:43 am
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Love this article. Brought back so many memories for me. I grew up in another town in Ontario, but I remember my parents taking me to Ponderosa when they opened one in my home town. My parents were excited because they heard the steak was really good, but it wasn't much of an event for me personally (I was 4 years old) until we got to the restaurant and was presented with their breaded shrimp with seafood sauce. I can still remember it to this day, and my lifelong cravings for shrimp started at that very moment! I also remember when the Ponderosa closed down and turned into a Red Lobster.

Keep up the awesome work, Ed! You, Liora Ipsum, and Chris Bateman have really upped blogTO's game in the last year.
Glorpo Nut / December 13, 2013 at 09:22 am
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Does anyone remember a chain called "The Counter" or something like that? It had orange and white logos with sort of a smiley face. I remember one at Fairview Mall and the Science Centre. Served cheap hot dogs, burgers and fries.
Scott Highet / December 13, 2013 at 09:49 am
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This is cool
Mark / December 13, 2013 at 09:54 am
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Any ads for Red Barn, Arthur Treachers Fish n' Chips, Diana Sweets or John Anderson Burgers?
BH / December 13, 2013 at 09:57 am
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I remember Frank Vetere's growing up--loved it for pizza. It probably wasn't as good as I remember, but this was the 80s, so we took whatever we got.
Nina / December 13, 2013 at 10:01 am
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I don't care how high up on your nose your nostalgia goggles are sitting, Ponderosa was gross. The Olive Garden is still alive and kicking out in the western provinces I believe, as is recently departed Arby's, a chain I deeply miss.
Peanut Gallery / December 13, 2013 at 10:01 am
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I totally remember the UFO-pizza TV advert. Well done!
Andy in TO / December 13, 2013 at 10:01 am
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What about STEAK & BERGER
Torontonian / December 13, 2013 at 10:01 am
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Anyone remember Murray's at any of their locations?
Front Street, the Ford Hotel, and Yonge and St. Clair
come to mind.
CT / December 13, 2013 at 10:02 am
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The remnants of a former Red Barn live on as a Mr Sub in Mississauga n Dundas st.
Oddly enough its the only Mr Sub I know of that has a liquor license!
RS / December 13, 2013 at 10:08 am
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Who else started singing the jingles for Chi-chi's and Red Lobster? Just me? okay then...
Thomas / December 13, 2013 at 10:14 am
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Red Lobster is at Bay and Dundas is Toronto.

Frank Vetere's Pizzeria
750 Queenston Rd
Hamilton, ON L8G 1A4

Mothers Pizza
http://mothersrestaurants.com/
701 Queenston Road Hamilton, ON L8K 1A1


Pizza Delight
http://www.pizzadelight.com/
Jeff / December 13, 2013 at 10:15 am
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Pat and Marios!!!
Nina replying to a comment from RS / December 13, 2013 at 10:20 am
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I always wondered why that Mr. Sub (or Mr. SubMARINE, as its sign read until about a decade ago) looked like a barn! Also on Dundas St. (at Tomken) in Mississauga are the remnants of a Ponderosa. It was a plant nursery for a while, but I think it's now empty completely.
Todd Toronto / December 13, 2013 at 10:26 am
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I can't believe The Old Spaghetti Factory is still around. Not that there's anything wrong with it (I used to love it as a kid), but I haven't been there nor seen an ad for it in thirty years.

It's like discovering that the video arcade at the base of the CN Tower is still around.
Steven / December 13, 2013 at 10:43 am
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Toby's Goodeats.
aisha / December 13, 2013 at 10:46 am
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This article brought back so many memories. To this day I've dreamed about the chi chi's fried ice cream that I never got to try. Though I wonder if at the time many small restaurant's thought of these chains in the same way I look at today's corporate franchises. Keep coming with more retrontario!
Tuli / December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am
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Yes the old Spagett's is still around- it is a national chain NOT just the Toronto Location

http://www.oldspaghettifactory.ca/

http://www.oldspaghettifactory.net/
Sam / December 13, 2013 at 10:48 am
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Taco Bell is few and far between. They used to have locations everywhere, locations up Yonge St. ,etc.

Now I only know of 1.
Kate replying to a comment from CT / December 13, 2013 at 10:50 am
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Saw another one the other day - maybe along Bloor West (?) that had the LLBO sign in the window and was momentarily confused. Guess some are licensed, go figure.

Re Bo Peep - that was a chain? There is almost-century old Bo Peep in Scarborough. I believe Diana Sweets is still around.
valerieinto / December 13, 2013 at 10:58 am
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The Olive Garden is gone in Canada? They're still definitely a thing in the States. I think the Olive Garden on Keele fed many a York U student with free breadsticks back in tha day.
Mike / December 13, 2013 at 11:26 am
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I miss Ponderosa. The original building is still there in Mississauga at Tomken and Dundas. It was a garden center for a while, not sure what it is now.
Holden / December 13, 2013 at 11:26 am
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Prior to JJ Muggs was simply "The Mug". My mum used to take me there. Never to be forgotten :-)
Holden replying to a comment from Steven / December 13, 2013 at 11:27 am
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OMG Toby's! Of course they couldn't be left out!
Skye replying to a comment from valerieinto / December 13, 2013 at 11:39 am
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That used to be an Olive Garden? It turned into a Kelsey's by the early 2000s...and still fed many a hungry York U student. That's where we went for an "upscale" dinner whenever any of us got a big paycheck!
Grant L.J. McMullen / December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm
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The last Ponderosa in Canada -- in Moncton -- lasted until 2010, believe it or not. The new Mother's in Hamilton is great: totally different decor and atmosphere, but the food is exactly how you remember it. And here in Winnipeg, we have not only an Old Spaghetti Factory but also two Olive Gardens.
W. K. Lis / December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm
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There used to be a Red Barn restaurant on Dufferin Street, south of Yorkdale. The building (and its shape) is still there, but not the restaurant.
Paul Lancaric / December 13, 2013 at 01:30 pm
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I have fond memories of the Organ Grinder in the Esplanade. A little part of me is sad whenever I'm at the Bier Markt down there as it took its spot. Such a unique and wonderful place!
Xavier / December 13, 2013 at 01:47 pm
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There's still a Eddie Shack Donuts in Caledon
This is the Future / December 13, 2013 at 01:51 pm
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I'm not one to be overly nostalgic or to talk about the so-called "good old days". However, I have to admit that even though the food wasn't excellent by any means in the 80s and 90s, I do miss a time when things weren't so pretentious. Back in the mid-90s, if I said to my friends, "I'm going to go grab a burger from Harvey's" or "Let's go to Pizza Hut for dinner tonight", no one would have raised an eyebrow. These days, you can be ostracized from your social group for considering such options.
Cynthia / December 13, 2013 at 02:01 pm
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What about Steak&Burger? I remember going to one at Fairview and another at Towne & Country mall (now CentrePoint). I think the Fairview location is now (or was, for a long time) a Michel's Baguette (or whatever they call themselves now) and the CentrePoint spot is a Pickle Barrel. And speaking of Town(e) and Country, there's Town and Country Buffet. We went there quite a bit when I was a kid just to have their prime rib.
Highlife replying to a comment from Grant L.J. McMullen / December 13, 2013 at 02:35 pm
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There is still one Ponderosa left, in Fredericton. Corner of Prospect & Smythe.
pearlD. replying to a comment from Cynthia / December 13, 2013 at 03:07 pm
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TOWNE & COUNTRY......the last of the great buffets!!!
Dianna Sweets....best rice pudding ever
Fran's at Yonge & St.Clair......one of the best Breakfast places in town...
The Noshery...on Eglinton Ave West..certainly did well in its day!
Peter's CHUNG KING on College
The original SHOPSY's on Spadina
Jack / December 13, 2013 at 03:07 pm
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Love the article - Mothers Pizza was the best! Other defunct restaurant memories: The Magic Pan, Fuller's, Scott's Chicken Villa (aka KFC), St. Hubert (in the GTA at least), Kenny Roger's Roasters and Ed's Warehouse (I know this last one isn't a chain, but...)
pearlD. replying to a comment from Cynthia / December 13, 2013 at 03:08 pm
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These were just a few of the restaurants I remember as a youngster growing up in Toronto...lots more come to mind...
timely replying to a comment from Xavier / December 13, 2013 at 03:59 pm
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No there isnt.
Changed years ago.
Ponda / December 13, 2013 at 04:13 pm
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Ed... Ponderosa was alive and kicking in Belleville, Ontario until 2003-04ish. One of the last. Vacant building still stands with sign.
Rick replying to a comment from Ponda / December 13, 2013 at 04:25 pm
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The Ponderosa actually closed down in 2010. And yes after seeing it there I went in. What a trip.
Hosekopf / December 13, 2013 at 04:29 pm
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What about birthday parties at Ginsberg & Wong at Village By The Grange? Their monster sized egg rolls were a big favourite for kids back in the 70's and 80's!
Jeff / December 13, 2013 at 04:30 pm
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Chicago's Diner on Queen St.
Adam Sobolak / December 13, 2013 at 09:53 pm
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As far as "endangered chains" go, Lick's ought to be mentioned--or, for that matter, if you *really* want to get scuzzy, Coffee Time (never mind those that are being reborn as Eggsmart).

Or...Howard Johnson's.
http://www.roadsidefans.com/features/howard-johnsons
jb replying to a comment from Nina / December 13, 2013 at 11:02 pm
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Arby's was slop
jb replying to a comment from pearlD. / December 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm
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Oh Christ Pearl, Town & Country was shit on a stick!!
Beamer Smith replying to a comment from Jack / December 14, 2013 at 07:31 am
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FULLERS!!! I have the dubious distiction of haveing eaten in Every Fullers in Canada.. The Dundas & Kipling one over 500 times

I miss Pizza Patio too...
Steven / December 14, 2013 at 08:16 am
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I live near Lansdowne and Dupont, an area which is slowly turrning around and becoming quite liveable and still relatively affordable - Biggest eyesore however is the Coffee Time at the corner. What a dump! They must have the longest, cheapest lease in history. I swear if that would just close and be replaced with just about 'anything' , the transformation of that corner with it's crack crowd hanging out would be complete. Man it's depressing walking by that place. (I know, this is a bit off topic but just pointing out that the disgusting 'Coffee Time' franchise is still alive and well in a few locations). Please, somebody, please buy them out and tear that hole down
Mic / December 14, 2013 at 05:32 pm
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Two questions: 1) Why is it that there's no place in downtown Toronto to get a deep dish pizza? 2) SERIOUSLY. Why is it that there's no place in downtown Toronto to get a deep dish pizza?
Jane / December 14, 2013 at 08:16 pm
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How about Mr. Greenjeans? The original one on Adelaide at Jarvis, not the one at the Eaton Centre. Good times!
That was great food / December 15, 2013 at 01:39 am
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Man I really miss all those places! They were replaced by such crummy chains, with bland food and only profit in mind. I find I have to really think hard of where to go to eat these days. Back then you didn't have to think long, they were all great! I thought things were supposed to get better over time....not worse. Bring back the great food! But they can't because the places can't afford to serve it. I remember going to Ed Mirvishes Warehouse, the last year it was open. The food! And Bobby Rubinos Rib House! Back when the waitresses wore very politically incorrect uniforms (but I loved it, I was 11). Lime Rickey's in Mississauga was amazing! If the recession of 82 or the real estate bust in late 80's early 90's didn't kill them I don't know what did but food out is not the same anymore
Taco Hell / December 15, 2013 at 02:15 am
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Garbage, bring back chi chis!
David / December 16, 2013 at 12:38 am
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East Side Mario's!!!!!
Sandra / December 16, 2013 at 09:40 am
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Mister Donut - I still miss their cherry stick donuts
Zi / December 16, 2013 at 11:29 am
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I miss Chi-Chis, Ponderosa (my mother hated it and we rarely went), but my heart belongs to the Howard Johnson's across from the Eaton Centre. Their veal parmigiana made my little 10 year old heart pittar-pat.

Strangely, I've never heard of Frank Vetere's pizza. I recall Mother's and I think there was one near Maple Leaf Gardens.

I agree with the destruction of all Coffee Times. Gross, nasty places. There was one near us that never had more than a counter server and one sad looking customer, but it closed and was miraculously turned into a Starbucks that is never, ever empty.
memory lane / December 17, 2013 at 04:48 pm
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Hey,

Does anyone remember a restaurant in the 80s at Square One Mall that had a western jail theme? I have very fond memories of eating in a jail cell booth as a child and then playing on the swingset in the outdoor centre of the mall
Linda / December 18, 2013 at 07:07 pm
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Wonderful read! My father is Frank Vetere and I will be sure to pass this article on to him. He was also VP of Foodex as mentioned in the article which also operated the Ponderosa chain. It is great to know that people enjoyed not only the pizza, but the atmosphere and arcade games, beer steins, glasses etc. which were advanced marketing ideas for the times. Also the make your own sundae was a great hit as well. I would like to add that Ponderosa was the first restaurant in Canada to bring the all you can eat salad bar from the US. It seemed like a concept that would not make it in Canada and that food cost would be substantial but as we all know it remains a successful staple in many chains in Canada today.
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We stumbled over here different web page and thought I might check things out.

I like what I see so now i'm following you. Look forward to finding out about
your web page yet again.
Tomko replying to a comment from Linda / January 11, 2014 at 12:31 pm
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Linda - Please thank your father for his pizza. It was amazingly good. By far the best I ever had, with UNO the closest thing I know of available today. And I still have some of the glasses in daily use today.
Leslie M. Bliman-Kuretzky / February 2, 2014 at 02:47 pm
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Let us not forget

Steak N Burger
Smokey Deli on Carleton street
Town and Country Buffet
The Malt Stop
HoneyDew

the list is endless
Scott / March 6, 2014 at 01:21 pm
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Wonderful site! Frank Vetere's holds good memories of growing up and eating a real pizza with real toppings. I was fortunate enough to have a location in my home town of Georgetown.I collect tokens from Ontario restaurants and have 4 red plastic 'pizza pennies' in my collection. I acquired these recently and don't remember them at our location. Anyone have an idea what you would have used them for? Linda perhaps?
Nancy replying to a comment from pearlD. / April 11, 2014 at 11:24 pm
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Great read. Thanks for bringing back some great memories! We had a Ponderosa near us and I remember going there as a teenager. Loved it!! Visited the one in Fredericton in 2005 and my mom was SO thrilled to eat there again!!

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