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The more things change, the more they stay the same
How many times have you heard the expression, "Change is good" or "A change is as good as a rest"?
These idioms don’t apply to the Red Top Restaurant on St. Mary’s Road in St. Boniface, a friendly little diner that is happily caught in a 1960s or ‘70s time warp.
The place radiates with old school charm. The décor is circa 1970 and many of the servers have worked in the restaurant for a long time. The Lot-O-Burger and chicken dinner, two of the delicious staples, haven’t changed much over the years.
Neighbouring Nelson McIntyre Collegiate students and other audacious eaters occasionally plunk down the gauntlet and attempt the famous six-patty Monster Burger. The success rate is poor. As a Nelson Mac alumnus, I speak from experience.
Gus Scouras was one of three partners who began the restaurant in 1960. He bought out his partners and brought brother John onto the ownership team in 1967.
Gus retired in 1997. With the passing of John in 2007, wife Vicki and son Peter have worked to maintain the restaurant’s consistent family brand.
"We are known as a family restaurant, but we get many different people here," she says.
Business folks, students, sports teams, government officials, trades workers — a veritable microcosm of Winnipeg — fill the restaurant during its breakfast, lunch and dinner hours. The classic décor of the place has attracted film crews from notable movies such as The David Milgaard Story.
The Food Network contributed to Red Top lore by showcasing the diner on its You Gotta Eat Here program earlier this year.
The original Red Top of the ‘60s was a "car-hop" with female servers scooting out to cars with trays of food. Rumour had it that cars would endlessly circle the crammed car park looking for open spaces at the popular hang-out. The interior was a lunch counter with a dozen stools.
Boyd Kozak blasted out songs in a KY-58 trailer under the towering Red Top sign that looms over St. Mary’s Road today.
When the car-hop trend died out in the early ‘70s, the restaurant changed to its current incarnation as a sit-down restaurant. And the people kept coming.
In the last 10 years, there have been some minor upgrades to the menu, some exterior façade improvements and some washroom renovations. Vicky and Peter are also pondering future changes to tables and chairs in the interior.
But Vicky is reluctant to shake up her clientele. "Our customers have told us that they don’t want too much change. They like it the way it is."
Lydia Murray, senior employee with 36 years experience, echoes the sentiment: "The customers tell me if it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it."
Pete, part of the 3 to 5 p.m. regular crowd, has been coming for the last 52 years, since it opened. "It’s a place that doesn’t change, where we come to talk about the Bombers, the Jets, the government, family, life."
Bill, a 45-year Red Top veteran, nods in agreement. "Lydia and Evelyn [another long-serving employee of 28 years] make the place feel like home".
Gerry has been coming for the past 50 years. "I love the food," he says as Lydia places a platter in front of him.
Vicky, who immigrated to Canada from Greece in 1966 as a teenager, knows that her customers value "consistency, quality and affordable prices. We don’t freeze anything. All food is as fresh as possible."
One day, the reins will be handed to son, Peter, who has mom’s natural affinity for interacting with customers.
Peter has done every conceivable job in the restaurant, and is poised to take over. He understands the importance of maintaining its vintage identity. "It’s important to keep the character of the place, it’s an old school burger joint."
It looks like there won’t be too many big changes to this restaurant in the foreseeable future. And that’s just fine with Red Top customers.
Adriano Magnifico is a community correspondent for St. Boniface. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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