A recent issue of Ciao magazine toasted Winnipeg dining establishments that have stood the test of time, a rundown that included Bailey’s Restaurant and Lounge, Rae and Jerry’s Steak House and the Red Top Drive Inn, the latter of which has been dishing out some of the city’s tastiest burgers for 62 years and counting.
Ciao publisher Laurie Hughes should have raised a glass to herself while she was at it; 2022 marks 25 years since she and her late husband Brad Hughes founded the magazine, which, from the start, has showcased the best our fair burg has to offer in the way of restaurants.
"Seriously, I almost feel like we should be celebrating our golden anniversary as opposed to our diamond one, with all that’s gone on because of COVID," Hughes says, seated in the brightly lit boardroom of her stylish Exchange District digs, situated on the fourth floor of a five-storey building that once served as a saddlery.
Hughes, a mother of one, acknowledges any pandemic-related hardships she and her company, the Fanfare Magazine Group, faced pale in comparison to what restaurateurs were dealing with, owing to government-imposed restrictions that negatively impacted their ability to operate.
"The precise time restaurant owners needed to promote themselves the most was also the time many could least afford to," she says, adding it was challenging trying to sell ad space in her magazine to individuals who weren’t sure they’d even be open the following month.
"The way Ciao managed to stay viable was that we discovered we had fans of the magazine in different sectors, who began calling to ask whether their type of business would be a suitable fit (as an advertiser). They knew we champion restaurants and wanted to know what they could do to help."
The story of Ciao actually begins in the gastronomic hotbed of Swan River, where Hughes’ mother, a school teacher, was never the sort to reach into the freezer come dinnertime.
"Mom would ask what we wanted for supper and if our answer was perogies, she’d say, ‘OK, put on your apron and get the flour out.’ Everything was made from scratch," she says, adding her grandparents ran a farm and, because of that, she grew up knowing where the food on their table came from.
Hughes guesses she was 11 or 12 when she fell in love with magazines. Every time she visited a drugstore down the street from where they lived, she made a beeline to the news rack to peruse the latest issue of Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Teen Beat… she wasn’t overly choosy.
Raised in a small town, she viewed magazines as a way of connecting with the outside world, like she was part of "something bigger." Her friends would often chide her, she recalls, as there was as likely to be a photo of food or furniture on the cover of whatever mag she was leafing through as a shot of Shaun Cassidy.
Hughes moved to Winnipeg in 1984 to study human ecology at the University of Manitoba. Coincidentally, that was the same year her future husband, a vocal booster of the city, established Fanfare Magazine Group. She smiles, saying she was a big fan of Uptown magazine, one of Brad’s early successes, well before they met in 1989, when she successfully applied for an advertising sales job with Fanfare.
"Back then, he had a portfolio of magazines including WHERE Winnipeg, which was specifically designed to promote Winnipeg as a tourism draw," she says. "First I fell in love with his enthusiasm for the city, then I fell in love with him."
In 1994 the married couple spent two weeks in Maui. While there, they relied on a local publication that touted independently run, out-of-the-way spots serving authentic regional cuisine. On the plane ride home, they were discussing which meals they enjoyed the most when the subject turned to their home province; more specifically, is there such a thing as Manitoba cuisine?
Simply put, that question led to the creation of a brand new magazine, one meant to draw attention to restaurants that were incorporating ingredients native to our province, such as wild rice and bison, on their menus, along with immigrant-owned spots that used what was readily available in their kitchen; for example, a Chinese-run resto that substituted Lake Winnipeg pickerel for sea bass in a stir fry.
The inaugural issue of Ciao, a name that is both a nod to Brad’s Italian heritage and a play on the word chow, hit the streets in February 1997. Just as today, it included a multi-page index listing Winnipeg dining spots according to category: bistro, burgers, steak & seafood, etc.
After 25 years, how does Hughes continue to stay on top of what’s new and exciting? The old-fashioned way, she says: by keeping her eyes open when she’s driving here and there. If she spots an interesting-looking restaurant, or one she’s never noticed before, she and members of her staff will head there surreptitiously a few days later for a bite and a look-see.
"It’s not our desire in the least to damage any business. We won’t talk about anything pejoratively; instead, if we feel the standards aren’t high enough, we will simply pay our bill and walk away," she says, noting Ciao, recognizable for its digest-size layout, is published six times a year.
Scot McTaggart opened Fusion Grill at 550 Academy Rd. in June 1996, eight months ahead of Ciao’s debut issue. Looking back, he describes the relationship he forged with Brad and Laurie as reciprocal, what with the idea of "local" being such a big part of their individual mandates. (In a 2012 interview about Fusion Grill’s early days, McTaggart pooh-poohed the suggestion he and Geoff Kitt, his then-partner, created "haute prairie cuisine." They simply wanted to use the freshest ingredients possible and to them, that meant those that were close at hand — grass-fed beef from Arborg, for example.)
"Back then, anything deemed to be the best seemingly had to come from someplace else, be it Nova Scotia lobster, Idaho potatoes or U.S. prime," McTaggart says with a hint of sarcasm. "And it was the same thing with (food) magazines like Food & Wine, Gourmet … the list goes on. So it was kind of interesting how Fusion (Grill) and Ciao, a mag every bit as informative and well-written as Western Living, were able to shore one another up, in terms of local standing for quality."
McTaggart says appearing in the mag, either as an advertiser or via an editorial piece, had a direct result on sales. Not only did Ciao help get Fusion Grill’s name out there, it made him confident he and his team were on the right path.
"It was one thing for us to tell people how good we thought our food was, but it was a whole different ballgame for us to appear in print, in this beautiful-looking, glossy magazine that was being read in high-end, influential neighbourhoods throughout the city," McTaggart says, adding if you presently check the glove compartment of his vehicle, you’ll likely find a dog-eared copy of Ciao.
To this day, Hughes continues to get excited when a new issue comes off the press. The first thing she does — well, after triple-checking her page 5 editorial, First Word, to ensure she didn’t miss a typo — is flip through it, cover to cover, even though she would have already examined the individual pages and accompanying photos a few dozen times already.
"The thing about print — be it a newspaper or magazine — is that it has long been thought of as what officially validates a story… that it adds a certain level of credibility," she says. "I think back to when I was a teenager reading Vogue, when I’d stare at an outfit a supermodel was wearing and view it as an endorsement. To me, a story in Ciao or, for that matter, the Free Press still does that."
By the way, if you’re ever passing through her hometown of Swan River and are debating where to pull over for lunch, that’s an easy one, she says with a laugh.
"My mother’s kitchen is the best place to eat, hands down. She and my dad are both great cooks; you won’t go wrong with either of them."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.