The resurgence and timeless appeal of the Toronto diner
"When you sit on an old stainless steel diner stool, it's always going to feel good," says Greg Boggs. He owns the The Ace in Roncesvalles, a 1950s-era diner he salvaged a few years back. Boggs is just one of many restaurateurs who have transformed these classic formica-filled eateries into go-to (and dare I say trendy) neighbourhood hot spots.
And arguably, there's no one who does it better than Anthony Rose. Along with his original Rose and Sons Diner on Dupont, he bought the old Swan Restaurant on West Queen West and eventually put it under the R&S brand.
"I'm attracted to old shit quite a bit and I love making stuff new," says Rose, who used to love diners when he was a self described "fat kid." And while he's making diners modern with more upscale ingredients and dishes, for him, it's all about the familiarity of these inherently nostalgic spaces.
"You kind of walk into a place where you know what you're going to get and for the most part, it's not outside of the box," he says. And that's what makes diners endure.
Maggie Ruhl, who recently bought the Skyline Restaurant with her brother Judd, also understands this feeling. She and her brother both live near the Parkdale institution and took it over when former owner Louie decided to retire after 40 years behind the counter.
They updated the menu to include premium ingredients, but they pretty much kept the place intact - Louie's still there most days and customers seem happy with the modest changes.
And that's important for Ruhl because she sees diners as spaces that are welcoming to people from all walks of life. "It's this certain kind of restaurant that everyone likes to go to. It's a comfort place," she says.
And that's how Boggs sees The Ace too. Prior to opening his Roncesvalles restaurant, he was in the music industry. He was looking for a way out when he found 231A Roncesvalles Ave., a beautiful old diner, sitting empty.
For years the space had papered up windows. A sign reading "Ace Restaurant, Fine Chinese and Canadian Food," was the only clue as to what was inside.
Boggs - who has fond memories of visiting the various diners that populated his home state of New Jersey - and his team restored it to its 1950s glory. He estimates 85 to 90 per cent of the interior is original. Though he did modernize The Ace's refrigeration system and in January, he replaced the floors.
Like many new restaurants, these new, old spots satisfy our cravings for nostalgia. They remind us of simpler days, whether real or only just imagined. And at a time when it feels like some of our cities oldest diners are shutting down, we'll have to hold on to these newfangled spots.
Photo of The Skyline by Jesse Mins.
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