But the decision to give the contract to Sals, which already has 20 restaurants in Winnipeg, angered some St. Boniface residents who had hoped for an exclusive eatery that celebrated Franco-Manitoban cuisine and culture.
As part of a five-year deal with the city, the Winnipeg fast-food institution known for its hamburgers and red velvet cake won the right yesterday to set up shop on the Esplanade Riel, beating three other bids.
Salisbury House's David Wolinsky plans to open a unique version of the restaurant, complete with a lounge where musical heavyweights such as Burton Cummings and Tom Jackson may one day play.
"When you drive by it and take a look at it, especially the roof, it almost looks like a Sals," said Wolinsky.
"We decided this would be a perfect place for us. It's a bridge between communities and we've always been a bridge between every community."
Mayor Sam Katz, whose executive policy committee approved the deal behind closed doors yesterday, applauded Salisbury House for its willingness to set up shop in what many call a white elephant.
"It's a great deal for all of Winnipeg," said Katz. "You have to remember where we were and where we are. We had an empty facility, a beautiful facility, with hardly anybody really wanting to come forward to do something with it. We now have a credible organization that's been around for 75 years that is committed to this project."
Harry Finnigan, director of the city's planning and property department, said Sals was chosen because it is accessible and affordable to all Winnipeggers, it's a local institution and Wolinsky was willing to open every day, all year round.
Several people interviewed by the Free Press yesterday said the news set St. Boniface abuzz, and a source close to Festival du Voyageur said many at the event were unimpressed by the city's decision.
Members of the neighbourhood's business community and community groups were outraged, saying the choice is at odds with the long-held vision for a high-end bistro that celebrated Franco-Manitoba.
"No way... no way," said a shocked Emile Chartier, past-president and current board member of the Old St. Boniface Residents Association. "How do we put any perspective on this?"
Salisbury House's general manager, Pat Panchuk, said signage, menus and staff in the bridge restaurant will be bilingual, and French-Canadian delicacies such as pea soup and meat pies are already part of Sals' menu, but there are no plans to add other Francophone touches.
Chartier said Salisbury House is not the right restaurant for the bridge, bilingual or not.
"Not only does Salisbury House not fit, but the group that worked for six years on the bridge would never have picked it in a million years," said Chartier, referring to the public advisory committee that helped guide the bridge's construction.
"It goes to show you (Katz) is a businessman and not a mayor. He obviously doesn't care what goes in there... It may as well have been a McDonald's."
Daniel Boucher, president of the Societé Franco-Manitobaine, said Salisbury House adds little to the vision of the Esplanade Riel as a bridge between the anglophone and francophone cultures.
"We recognize Salisbury House has a proud reputation in Winnipeg and that's OK, but it's not the symbol we were looking for. It won't draw anyone (into St. Boniface)," he said.
Katz brushed off that criticism, saying Winnipeggers should thank Sals for coming forward when few others were willing to shoulder the risk.
The city has been searching for years for a tenant for the circular plaza at the centre of the $22-million footbridge, which many say will attract few customers outside the warm summer months. In the latest call for proposals, the city received bids from Partners Delicatessen, which runs the city hall cafeteria, and Palatal BBQ, located on Pembina Highway.
Only one bid, from Storm Catering, involved an upscale bistro, but it was rejected because the company's owners asked the city to foot the $500,000 to $700,000 bill for a host of improvements to what's now just a shell of a building.
The details of the deal with Salisbury House were contained in a confidential report prepared by city planners that was added to a committee's agenda at the last minute. That angered several councillors such as Harvey Smith and Harry Lazarenko.
In a copy of the report, obtained by the Free Press, it's clear the city is still on the hook for most of the cost -- a total of $450,000. That will include plumbing, heating and ventilation services worth about $180,000, plus an additional $270,000 for other improvements.
Salisbury House will also chip in $270,000 for capital improvements, and will pay the city $24,000 a year in rent plus a possible cut of the restaurant's profits. The city is guaranteed $120,000 in rent from the building over the five-year life of the deal.
The 4,000-square-foot restaurant will include a 32-seat lounge and an 11-table patio. It will be modelled after a similar upscale Sals in Headingley.
The confidential report revealed that Partners Delicatessan, the second-place bid, expected the city to foot the entire bill for the building's improvements.
Since his election last June, Katz has been plagued by allegations of conflict of interest, and those questions resurfaced yesterday.
Katz is close friends with David Wolinsky, whose company Protos International owns a majority share in the Sals chain.
Katz also held a minority share in Protos when the company bought the Salisbury House chain from its Montreal owners in 2001.
The mayor sold his shares three years ago, and both he and Wolinsky said they did not discuss Salisbury House's bid for the bridge eatery.
Katz said his years in the entertainment business have produced friendships with the owners of half the restaurants in Winnipeg, from Earl's to Boston Pizza to Kelekis.
"I am long-term friends with thousands of people," said Katz. "And keep in mind this was the planning department's recommendation."
Katz said his relationship with Wolinsky had no influence on his decision to support the Sals bid for the bridge plaza.
"It's real simple. All you have to do is do what's best for the city of Winnipeg and you'll never have any problems sleeping at night."