The West Kildonan "downtown" strip surrounding iconic Lisi's Ranch House is enjoying a surprise renaissance.
With two exotic bakeries -- one French, one Lebanese -- and a rockin' independent toy store, they share a lively few blocks with a dozen shops and services owned by a cast of real-life Winnipeg characters including a lady barber.
KING'S CUTS: "No, I don't do women's hair!" says Linda King of King's Cuts, at 1787 Main St. Even if male customers love her cuts so much they insist she cut their wives' hair, she sticks with her loyal male clientele.
"Women can be so fussy," she says, recalling her early nightmare days in women's hairdressing having to make every woman look like Farrah Fawcet. You can fix the hair but you can't fix everything.
LISI'S: The two-block strip in the 1700 area of Main Street is anchored by well-known Lisi's Ranch House restaurant and bar. City councillor Ross Eadie was seen on his way in to Lisi's for a Friday night dinner -- a place that's special to him for a reason. Downstairs in Pinto's bar, they have a photo of Eadie up on the infamous mounted fridge door eating a square pizza made especially in his honour. "We made one for him because he just couldn't believe it could happen," says Tony Lisi, a ball of energy. The West Kildonan restaurant, which has spanned six decades, is plank-panelled, with red checkered tablecloths and is famous for its pizzas. To get in the establishment, you grab onto horseshoe door handles.
Pinto's still has a working jukebox and the serving bar is totally covered with a layer of heavily lacquered dog tags bearing the names of special birthday customers.
It was the tradition that on your birthday, if you came in for a drink with Lisi's staff, you got your own little plaque on the bar with Happy Birthday greetings, your full name and birth date, says barkeep Chantelle Kessler.
"Before the smoking ban, this bar used to be full all the time. Back in the old days, when the hotels used to close at 6 p.m., people came here," says Lisi. "Percy -- one of the original Inkspots -- used to come in sometimes at happy hour and play the piano and serenade the customers."
Although West Kildonan is joined with Winnipeg these days, and there are no fields to separate it from the city, jeans and a cowboy hat and spurs would look mighty fine in this perfectly preserved blast from the past.
BARAKA: The eight-year-old Baraka Pita Bakery and Mediterranean Deli at 1783 Main St., operated by the Aboumrad family, serves up savoury home baked pita pies and pockets, donairs, falafels, shawarmas, and kebobs plus three kinds of baklava desserts, regular and exotic. The first thing you see is an open fire pit behind the counter, and the three tall shawarma meat machines. Chef Saeed Abourmrad, who worked in a 1,500-seat restaurant in Lebanon, emphasizes everything is baked and cooked fresh inside their establishment with special recipes and spices.
"Everybody in the family knows how to do everything here," he smiles. "But Madi (his father-in-law and the owner) and I taste what everybody makes."
With 11 tables, the place is humming. Saeed looks a little tired around the eyes, but it's not because of the restaurant -- a second baby arrived in the family just three weeks ago!
"We are very, very busy here. People come from all over the city -- lots from St. Vital, but we also get people from Brandon and Steinbach and all over. Then there's the people who stop here on the way to the lake and again then on the way back. Some people come here three times a day."
And they're very inexpensive. Many dishes cost $7-$8, and they have delicious soups and appetizers.
"Urban spoon voted us best food at the cheapest prices in 2012,"says Chef Saeed.
FRENCH BAKERY: Oddly enough, the second important bakery in this little strip offers no competition to the first. The French Bakery, at 1757 Main St., is all about glorious pastries and special French breads. This large patisserie, formerly Hartford bakery, is owned and operated by a charming couple who recently immigrated from France. Coming from a long line of bakers, the dynamic Nathalie Gautier -- born in the Marseilles region -- told her about-to-be husband Gilles, "If you love me, you will have to become a ba-kerrr!" And he did. She says they got sick and tired of being taxed to the max in France.
"About 70 per cent of what you make. Oh yes, that much counting all of the taxes, some of them hidden." Plus, she was worried about the economy, Nathalie said she had a desire to come back to Canada, where she had been a nanny in Toronto for one year, about 20 years ago. So, once she had established two bakeries in France, "for experience," she and the family moved to Winnipeg to make a new start. Judging by the line-ups, she made the right choice. "It may cost a little big more here, but the food is so good it's worth it," volunteered Bill Addley, a carnival worker who came for his last baking fix before going on the road for seven months.
The minute you hit the front door the smell of croissants and pastries and special breads is enough to make a lady lose her polish. The stylish macaron (not be confused with a coconut macaroon) looks like two miniature cookies filled with a soft butter dream. Nathalie drops one in my fingers and it melts at first bite. "This is orgasmic!" I exclaim a little too loudly. The room grows quiet. She stage whispers, "Five or six women before you have said that!"
NEWBRIDGE TOY SHOP. "Mine was the last yucky building on the block," says the effervescent Twyla Motkaluk of her funky renovated shop at 1791 Main St. "We opened here in August. It's a real toy store and I should have done it 20 years ago." She runs the store with help from musician husband Vince Gatti and son Matt Gatti, 14. "I always thought I should have an 'important' store, but what I REALLY wanted was my own toy store."
Why does this Tinkerbell character, who flies around the shop, want to surround herself with great toys? "I grew up in a family with lots of kids -- seven siblings in all. I was the oldest and we had lots of stuff between us, but not a lot of toys of our own!" She confesses she still acts like a kid when she goes to the big toy shows to buy for her new store. "I walk in and say, 'Oh my God! Oh My God! Look at this! Look at that!'"
Her showiest toy is a $399 shiny miniature baby grand piano with 44 keys, plus she has puppet theatres and toy kitchens and lemonade stands. One tall display is filled with different birds that make their own authentic calls if you squeeze them -- a nod to her dad, who used to own the Bird House of Canada store in St. Vital.
The store offers a phone-in shopping service for relatives who want to buy toys for kids but haven't the faintest clue what kids like nowadays. She asks about the child, the age, the budget, picks out the perfect toy and gift wraps it before the gift giver slips in to pick it up.
Best of all, her toy store has made her super popular with every kid in the family. "I have 10 nieces and nephews and they are a lot more excited to come and see me now!"