Reid Marshall pushes open the front door of Smoke's Poutinerie and stomps towards the counter with the urgency of a man on a mission.
It's 1:30 a.m. on an extraordinary Friday morning in the west Exchange District, where the streets are vacant and the air is still daytime warm. Marshall and girlfriend Jez Nepinak are coming from Bulldog Pizza on Main Street where a combination of cold beer and steamy punk music helped work up an appetite.
"Three times we've been on a date, and three times we've ended up here at the end of the night," says Nepinak, a vision with her pastel-colored hair, black lace mini-dress and torn fishnet stockings. "I've never been so smitten."
A tiny storefront tucked into the back edge of Old Market Square, Smoke's is Winnipeg's reliable outpost of late-night food.
"I've never been so smitten." -Jez Nepinak
Regardless of the day of the week, the time of the year or the shortage of people still walking the historic streets of the Exchange, Smoke's is open till the wee hours of the morning.
Manager Derek Brizard smiles when he's asked about Smoke's stubbornness about staying open late.
"People rely on us to be here," says Brizard as he prepares a cardboard takeout box with the staples of poutine: hand-cut fries, gravy, and cheese curds. For this order, he's added a devastating cheese sauce and bacon.
"This isn't on the menu, but it's one of my faves."
Well back from the street, in a neighbourhood with a notoriously short business day, you wouldn't think a restaurant could survive. But for the last seven years, Smoke's has thrived solely on the post-party pangs of barhoppers, nightclubbers and even staff from other restaurants that don't have the courage to stay open quite as late.
"Most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, by 3 a.m., it's packed in here," Brizard says as he gestures towards the still-vacant restaurant. "And it can get a little crazy."
Smoke's crowd tends to be diverse, he says, but patrons share a couple of qualities: they're well-lubricated and not entirely ready to call it a night.
"We had a huge crowd in here and everybody wanted the lights turned out for some reason. So, we turned them off briefly and they went nuts. Not sure what the attraction was, but they sure liked it."
The third-daters don't stick around to savour their poutine. With a large box of steaming potato-gravy-and-cheese goodness in hand, Marshall storms back out of the restaurant as urgently as he came in.
Nepinak flashes a smile befitting a truly smitten woman and follows him out the door.
— Dan Lett
Photography by John Woods