Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/1/2015 (1897 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Talia Syrie is the ebullient owner of the Tallest Poppy, a new/old eatery that opened in the hip, West Broadway/Sherbrook Street area in October.
Five years ago, when the Tallest Poppy was located on Main Street, Syrie and a few of her friends took time off to drive to Burning Man, an annual festival staged in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. At some point during the trip, Syrie heard a "thump-thump-thump" coming from the rear of the vehicle. Sure enough, when everybody exited the van to investigate, they discovered one of the tires was flat.
Syrie called for a tow truck. The person at the other end of the line said it would be a four-hour wait.
"So there we were, standing on the side of the road wondering what to do next," Syrie said, pouring a visitor a cup of coffee. "That's when one of the people I was with turned to me and said, 'Uh, Talia, didn't you used to do this sort of thing for a living?' "
'It used to blow my mind when people would tell us they'd driven45 minutes for breakfast or lunch'
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Before Syrie opened the original Tallest Poppy; before she spent a year running the Come 'N Eat restaurant at Neechi Commons; before she and her current business partner, Steve Ackerman, resurrected the Poppy at 103 Sherbrook St., and before she successfully changed a tire on a van somewhere between Winnipeg and Reno -- Syrie was a heavy-duty diesel mechanic.
"I used to work on big refrigeration trailers, the type they use to haul food around in," she said. "I took an aptitude test in high school, and it came back saying I had a high mechanical acumen, apparently."
In 2000, the born-and-bred Winnipegger took a two-month respite from repairing rigs to plant trees in British Columbia. At the tail end of an evening Syrie describes as "a debaucherous night of poor choices," she stepped on a broken beer bottle while dancing barefoot around the campfire. Thirteen stitches and significant nerve damage later, Syrie's tree-planting days were done.
"Except I was really enjoying myself and didn't want to come back (to Winnipeg) yet," she said. "So I endeared myself to the camp's kitchen staff, and they put me to work cooking for 150 hungry tree-planters."
Syrie, then 23, eventually returned to her mechanic's job only to discover brake jobs and oil changes weren't her cup of tea any longer. What she enjoyed most about her B.C. experience, she found, was having to think on her feet. Too bad if the kitchen was out of a particular foodstuff or ingredient; there wasn't a grocery store within hundreds of kilometres of camp, so resorting to plans B, C and D was commonplace.
"Compared to that, my job suddenly seemed kind of monotonous," she said. "So that's when I went into catering."
Syrie, who lists celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and her Baba Bernice as her culinary heroes, was still catering in 2007 when space became available in the Red Rock Lodge (formerly the New Occidental Hotel). Syrie had been shopping around for a permanent kitchen for a while. Because of its proximity to her home in the North End, the retooled inn seemed like an ideal fit. There was one condition, however: The lodge's proprietor was OK with a catering biz, but he wanted a restaurant component included in the mix, as well.
"I was like, 'Sure, I'll open a restaurant,' " Syrie said, putting air quotes around the word "restaurant" with her fingers. "As if anybody was going to show up; We had maybe three tables at first -- it was a complete joke."
Here's the thing, though: If Syrie had opened on Corydon Avenue or Osborne Street, it wouldn't have been front-page fodder. But establish yourself in an area commonly perceived as the wrong side of the tracks, and don't be too surprised when every newshound in town comes sniffing around.
"The media was really good to us, and we were busy right from the get-go, so much so that it was a few years before we could get back to catering," Syrie said, admitting four- and five-star reviews didn't hurt, either.
"It used to blow my mind when people would tell us they'd driven 45 minutes for breakfast or lunch," she said. "Seriously, it was flattering to me that anybody came at all."
Syrie called it a day on Main Street in 2013. Not long after her contract with Neechi Commons ran out last summer, she and a pal were walking their dogs along Sherbrook Street. On their way past the Sherbrook Inn, Syrie's chum turned to her and said, "Talia, this place would be the perfect spot for you," pointing to what used to be a Chinese food joint on the hotel's ground level.
Although it is triple the size of the old digs, the second Tallest Poppy retains much of its predecessor's quirky charm. OK, maybe the entire staff, Syrie's brother included, doesn't show up for work in matching, pink dresses anymore. And maybe the bookshelves aren't lined with cheeky board games such as Chutzpah.
But the mismatched tables and chairs? The clever flower arrangements? The intriguing works of art? They're all still part of the package.
As for the fare, diners can expect the same upscale comfort food -- selections such as chicken-fried steak, bison meat loaf and Belgian waffles -- that landed Syrie a Season 1 guest spot on You Gotta Eat Here!. The program's parent station, Food Network Canada, recently cited the Tallest Poppy as one of this nation's 12 "must-try brunch spots."
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One thing Syrie misses about the Main Street location is the intimacy she shared with her clientele there.
"We used to do these family-style brunches on Sundays and at the end, when people were getting ready to leave, we'd line up and have this big group hug," Syrie said with a chuckle.
A couple of weeks ago, a regular from the old days who now lives in Toronto popped in for supper.
"I think (it was) more because it was a link to the past than because we were ever that close or anything, but I instantly ran up to him and gave him this big, huge hug. His poor wife had this WTF look on her face. He kind of hugged me back, but not really.
"Clearly I was more excited to see him than he was to see me," Syrie said.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.