Paddlewheel reboot sparks excitement, memories
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Manitobans are taking a trip down memory lane after learning a rebooted Paddlewheel Restaurant is part of an Indigenous group’s plan to revamp the former Bay building in downtown Winnipeg.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization’s announcement of a Paddlewheel 2.0 stirred nostalgia and memories of lunches with grandparents, comfort food and Jell-O for dessert at the original, which closed in January 2013 amid the building’s decline.
“When I heard about it I thought, ‘That’s a really great idea,’” said Christian Cassidy, a historian and Free Press columnist who has a blog called West End Dumplings. “The Paddlewheel has a lot of fond memories for people, and it was a big part of downtown. It was a hub within a hub at The Bay.”
He regularly visited the cafeteria-style restaurant when he was a University of Winnipeg student in the 1990s.
“It was a great way to get a homestyle meal like roast beef or a hot turkey sandwich,” said Cassidy.
With the reboot still in the planning stage, few details were revealed Friday as Hudson’s Bay Co. gifted the almost century-old building at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard to the SCO.
“The Paddlewheel is going to be reinvented,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels. “We’re obviously looking for partners who are experts in that area.”
Located on the sixth floor, the original restaurant opened as the Paddle Wheel Buffet in October 1954, when the flagship Bay store was 28 years old, as part of an extensive refurbishment.
It became known as the Paddlewheel Restaurant amid a renovation and expansion in 1967, which further propelled it as a Winnipeg icon.
The decor was inspired by Red River steamships and the prairie landscape, with a large turning paddlewheel in a corner of the dining room.
In its heyday, the restaurant was a busy destination which hosted everything from fashion shows to performances by popular bands. For decades, a breakfast with Santa Claus was held every Christmas.
Cassidy felt a wave of nostalgia when he toured the vacant space during Doors Open Winnipeg in May 2017. Chairs and tables were still set up, dishes were piled and the kitchen was outfitted with equipment.
The paddlewheel was still there, but it wasn’t switched on.
“It was as if the night before they closed up, washed the dishes and got everything ready to serve (the next day), and just left,” he said. “Everything was still there and in its place. Even the posters for this week’s specials were still on the wall.”
That day, visitors shared personal stories which demonstrated how the restaurant was an important part of Manitobans’ lives.
Cassidy said one person told how they moved to Canada and got their first job at the Paddlewheel, while another met her future husband at the restaurant.
“It was more than a restaurant,” he said. “It was definitely iconic.”
Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell is hoping the new Paddlewheel becomes a popular meeting place like the original.
She remembers visiting The Bay to “window shop” and have lunch at the Paddlewheel with her grandmother when she was a child. She would toss a penny into the restaurant’s wishing well.
“It was a big deal to go on a bus,” said Tugwell, who grew up in St. James. “My memory was Jell-O that was hard and whipping cream that never moved.”
Like Tugwell, Liberal MP Terry Duguid (Winnipeg South), who attended Friday’s handover of the building, would have lunch with his grandmother at the landmark.
“This was the place to go. For a boy from Transcona, it was a long journey — over an hour by bus,” he said.
City Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), who would lunch at the Paddlewheel with her mother, believes nostalgia will help to draw Manitobans to the new space once it opens.
“The nostalgic pieces of the Paddlewheel will be what pulls every person’s heartstrings,” she said. “I’m really excited about the reboot.”
— with files from Carol Sanders
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.