When Ami Hassan opened the Falafel Place in 1986, there weren’t many places in Winnipeg to get falafel.
More local restaurants are now serving Middle Eastern food, but the vibe at this popular eatery — which has moved a couple of times and is now in the Crescentwood neighbourhood — remains one of a kind.
The Falafel Place is a busy, buzzy, talky, vibrant spot. Hassan greets everyone and he knows his regulars, asking about spouses and kids, joking, teasing, gossiping and philosophizing. Almost every Falafel Place fan I know has a zany Ami anecdote.
Posted: 18/06/2019 7:00 PM
So... a hungry, A-list, Academy Award-winning actress walks in to a Winnipeg restaurant and, instead of being lavished with attention, is told to take a walk.
In his defence, Falafel Place owner Ami Hassan didn't recognize Julia Roberts. And, like most Sundays during brunch the place was packed. And it was Father's Day.
The brunch-rush lineups, well known among Winnipeggers, are now nationally famous. As Free Press arts writer Eva Wasney reported in June, Hollywood A-lister Julia Roberts was expected to wait along with the rest of the usual crowd on the packed Father’s Day Sunday.
So, what keeps the lineups so long after 33 years in business?
There’s the food, of course, which includes lots of reliably good dishes (and a few uneven spots).
The wide-ranging menu covers Middle Eastern specialties and Jewish deli staples such as matzoh ball soup, borscht and blintzes, as well as bacon-and-egg breakfasts and North American diner favourites such as onion rings and fries. With reasonable prices for heaped-up platters, there’s good value for hungry people.
More than that, though, the Falafel Place remains popular with both old-timers and young hipsters because of its irresistibly idiosyncratic ambience. Factors that might be aggravating at other venues — the noise, the wait, the crowded tables — all become part of the whole Falafel Place experience.
1101 Corydon Ave.
Go for: good Middle Eastern food and some wonderfully eccentric ambience
Best bet: falafel, of course
Big breakfasts: $9.00-14.50; falafel: $8.75-10.50
Monday-Sunday: 6:30 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Delivery: Yes, with Skip the Dishes
★★★★ out of five
The falafel, in keeping with the resto’s name, is great, crisped on the outside, moist on the inside, subtly spiced. Sane people probably order the plates, but I like the challenge of the pita option, in which the falafel balls are piled into a thin envelope of pita crammed with crunchy veg, garlicky tahini and house-made hot sauce. There are several variants going, including the terrific Middle Eastern option that adds creamy-smooth roasted eggplant.
As a piece of engineering, the falafel pita is hopeless, but as lunch, it’s a glorious, tasty mess. (Perversely, the tables are supplied with what seem to be the thinnest paper napkins on the market, and our pile just kept growing.)
The fresh-cut yam fries — not the super-crisped type, but the softer, homey variety — are served with tahini for dipping, an inspired combo.
Soups include a fresh, bright sweet-and-sour beet borscht (though the broth is slightly over-salted).
The breakfast menu offers the usual eggs and bacon options, but you can also order up eggs with falafel and tahini, salami and eggs, or the currently very trendy shakshuka (eggs poached in a tomato sauce).
The bacon is good, as are the hash browns, especially when loaded up with optional garlic, onions and hot peppers. Toast is served with homemade jam, such as a local rhubarb that was rosy-red and not too sweet.
There are occasional inconsistencies. The potato pancake on one visit was a bit stodgy, and a few fried foods crossed the line from nicely charred to outright burnt.
The coffee is straight-up, and the staff keeps it coming.
Service is brisk, gregarious and friendly. Lingering is sometimes discouraged — Hassan is known to hustle out customers during peak periods. (My response to this issue is situational. I find it unacceptable that some elegant, expensive restaurants will convey in hushed undertones that your table will be needed for somebody else in 90 minutes. In a busy, crammed diner-style joint, on the other hand, some shouty public encouragement to get a move-on seems fine.)
Middle Eastern food has always offered plenty of vegetarian and vegan dishes, and the menu has moved with the times by specifying some gluten-friendly choices. Halal meat options are available.
The 65-seat room is a packed mix of booths and tables. There are a couple of rips in the upholstery, but there is also lots of cheerful children’s art.
Falafel Place is open practically all the time, morning until night, seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. You might have to wait for weekend brunch, though, as Julia Roberts knows.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.