Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/5/2011 (3666 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One of Winnipeg's most cherished culinary institutions could become a casualty of a plan to redevelop an entire block of downtown Winnipeg on the north side of Portage Avenue.
But the movers and shakers behind a plan to revitalize downtown are vowing to carve out a new home for the Wagon Wheel Lunch -- should one be required.
One of the last surviving authentic diners in Western Canada, the Wagon Wheel has operated out of the Norlyn Building on Hargrave Street since 1958.
The narrow room is most famous for its club sandwiches as well as the dedication of former proprietor Louis Mathez, who got up at 4:30 a.m. almost every weekday for 51 years just to roast turkeys from scratch.
After Mathez died in 2010, longtime server Franny Gomez kept the Wagon Wheel alive, with the blessing of her boss's children.
Now, she is concerned about the future of the diner, as the Norlyn Building is earmarked for demolition as part of a plan to build a new hotel, commercial building and possibly a parkade over most of the city block bounded by Portage Avenue, Donald Street, Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street.
"I have no idea what's going to happen," Gomez said on Monday, sitting at a booth in the diner where she's worked ever since she emigrated to Winnipeg from El Salvador 25 years ago. The spartan decor has barely been altered since the 1960s. "It's hard to imagine not being here. People like it because of the way it looks. It feels comfortable."
Gomez acquired the Wagon Wheel in 2010, armed with an intimate knowledge of Mathez's recipes for everything from club sandwiches to the homemade soups he prepared every day.
She concedes she is a novice at the business side of the restaurant and she relies on her children to help her deal with red tape.
"The kitchen doesn't bother me at all. Dealing with government and business, that's the hard part," she said. "I'm just trying to go day by day and pay my rent."
Gomez's business venture coincided with a broader plan for the Wagon Wheel's block. Over the past two years, downtown development agency CentreVenture and the Forks-North Portage Partnership have been working with the Chipman family-owned Longboat Development Corporation to assemble land on the downtown block.
Longboat purchased the Norlyn Building and is expected to demolish it as part of a redevelopment plan that's slated to be made public before the end of June.
At the same time, CentreVenture is expected to announce more details about a sports, hospitality and entertainment district that would cover 11 blocks of downtown, including the block that includes the Norlyn Building.
CentreVenture president and CEO Ross McGowan said it would be prudent to include the Wagon Wheel in that plan.
"Of course it would be. They are an institution and an asset to the community," McGowan said of the 53-year-old diner. "We often lose sight of these things. But why can't we accommodate the Wagon Wheel?"
No specific plans, however, can be made until the Longboat plan for the block is complete, McGowan said.
Gomez said she is not averse to moving the Wagon Wheel, even though she doesn't relish the thought.
"It would be nice if I can relocate around here, but I would still want a small place, something I can manage," she said.
There is a certain symmetry behind the redevelopment, as the late Mathez was a diehard Jets fan who had season tickets behind the home team's bench.
With another Chipman-owned company, True North Sports & Entertainment, expected to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg, Louis Mathez may even have approved.
What makes a diner authentic?
1) Most of the food must be made from scratch. That means preparation on site, from whole ingredients. Diners don't serve processed food.
2) It must have a lunch counter. If there's no counter seating, it's not a diner. The lunch counter allows interaction between the proprietor and the clientele.
3) Independent ownership. There's no such thing as a diner franchise. The owner is the usually on site and often is the chef.
4) Character. This is impossible to define, but usually flows from the people who run the premises or the building itself.
How many diners remain in Winnipeg?
Four, based on the criteria above: Wagon Wheel Lunch, C. Kelekis Restaurant in the North End, Falafel Place & Deli in Crescentwood and The Eye Opener in Riverdale.
-- Bartley Kives