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Nostalgic patrons flocking to iconic Paddlewheel for one last repast

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THE last special at the Paddlewheel restaurant before closing the buffet? Nostalgia, with a side of regret.

 "It’s always sad to see something you grew up with disappearing into the woodwork," said Carole Kurdydyk. "It takes you back to a kinder, gentler time."

 The self-serve restaurant, on the sixth floor of the Bay, will close today, joining a growing list of iconic eateries in Winnipeg — including North End mainstays Kelekis (closing Jan. 30), the Wagon Wheel and Alycia’s — that are now the stuff of folklore.

 The Paddlewheel was first opened in 1954 when the Bay was a retail beacon, and many family sojourns downtown weren’t complete without lunch or dinner at a place where everything from turkey dinner to jello cups were served to generations of Winnipeggers.

 In fact, since the closure was announced earlier this month, customers have been flocking back to the Paddlewheel like the swallows to Capistrano. And swallowing, they have been.

 "If they have a shepherd’s pie, that’s what I’m getting," announced Ronnie Prynne, as he trained a hand-held camera on his mother, Ursula, and brother Vince as they joined a long, snaking queue just before noon on Wednesday. Vince was holding out for fish and chips.

 Indeed, it seemed as though every other patron was holding an electronic device, taking photos by the wheel or just scanning the wall murals and fellow customers. They were still dropping coins in an empty pool that once held water for the paddlewheel to churn.

 They were still tasting memories of red jello with whipped topping and a Santa’s breakfast that continued until last Christmas. Shared recollections stretched back to the 1960s, when the restaurant had a women’s-only "court" — complete with a white picket fence — and a gentlemen’s "salon" for smokers.

 "It’s the end of an era, almost," said Margaret Wilcock, whose family would drive in from Reston for shopping trips. "It’s the end of good times we remembered as kids."

 "It's a nice memory," added Vivian Mayer, 54, who particularly enjoyed the turnips. "It’s really nice to see Winnipeggers come out for the last hurrah."

 If only, as one restaurant employee noted to a diner, the lineups were just as flush before the announced closing. In early January, The Bay and the company it hired to run its in-store food operations, the Compass Group, announced the renovations, saying there were no plans to replace the Paddlewheel with another restaurant.

 So Csilla Przibislawsky bundled up four-yearold daughter, Mia, and made sure to head to the place where she came with her own parents as a little girl. She conceded, "This is probably more for me than for her."

 Food, however, was not a factor in the 44-yearold mother’s nostalgia.

 "Everything is such a strong visual memory," she said. "The lights, the murals, the faux buildings (designed to serve as the boardwalk). It’s exactly the same. That’s what I remember about it."

 Everywhere there were plates filled with roast beef and pudding and mothers posing with children, and sons escorting mothers. Most photos used the paddlewheel as a backdrop, like Linda Nelson and her daughter Celene Miles, who insisted on "one last goodbye" to the restaurant where, as a child, she had a "Cabbage Patch" birthday party.

 "It’s one of the cornerstones of Winnipeg," said Nelson. "I know you have to move on, but..."

 If that paddle could talk. Back in the early 1960s, when the Bay was bustling, teeny-boppers flocked to the restaurant for shakes and chips, perhaps getting a peek at a young turk named Burton Cummings. It was the scene, man.

 "It was the cool place to be," fondly recalled Judy Baran, who with lifelong friend Patricia Holmes, both in their mid-60s, gobbled down one last turkey dinner (their favourite) on Wednesday. "Once you’re going to lose something you just want to grab it more. Isn’t that the truth?"

 Some visits were more specific. In a far-off corner of the restaurant, John Waagenaar was posing in front of a large scenic mural with his son, Wes. The mural was painted in 1978 by Waagenaar’s late father, Nicholaas, whose other artistic claimto- fame was designing the windmill logo of Old Dutch potato chips.

 "One last look," Waagenaar said. "It was important for us to see and remember. This was his (Nicholaas’s) pride and joy."

 There were as many memories as mouthfuls, and the line where customers picked up their trays and chose everything under glass from salads to lasagna to scalloped potatoes didn’t begin to dwindle until 2 p.m.

 Restaurant workers expect the final spread today to be historic.

 More swallowers are coming.

 Kurdydyk, now 58, wasn’t certain about her "one last stab" at the buffet.

 "I might get the special," she said. "But I’m leaning towards the hamburgers and fries because that’s where the memories are."

 Then Kurdydyk considered the long line ahead of those equally hungry for nostalgia, and smiled. "I’ll take what I can get," she concluded.

 Isn’t that the truth?

 randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

 

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