Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/3/2010 (3896 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
This is not because I was a close acquaintance. I said hello on a couple of occasions and might have engaged him in a bit of small talk.
I just deeply appreciate the man for performing an invaluable service to a city that's long on history but short on people willing to perpetuate proud traditions.
Louis Mathez ran an authentic diner that was as much a part of downtown Winnipeg in the spring of 1958 as it was in the winter of 2010.
He didn't do this to preserve the soul or character of this city, although that's precisely what he wound up doing. He was simply running a restaurant that was originally owned by his dad and uncle.
But since very little of what downtown used to be perseveres -- it used to be the centre of not just commerce, but everyday life for the people of this city -- Wagon Wheel Lunch existed as a bridge to another era. And I'm not just talking about the city's mythical glory days.
Louis Mathez's Wagon Wheel Lunch was a living monument to an age when even modest restaurants made most of their food from scratch for a clientele that appreciated the effort.
This might sound inconsequential if you're not obsessed with food and don't appreciate the success of a small, independently owned business in an industry now dominated by corporate giants.
I would argue the diner is one of North America's most treasured but endangered institutions. All across the continent, authentic diners have been disappearing from small towns and major cities alike, the victims of rising rents, declining profit margins and changing public preferences about food -- both in terms of what people eat and whether they value a communal experience when they eat it.
A real diner has to have three things: Most of the food must be made from scratch. There has to be a lunch counter to facilitate interaction between customers and proprietors.
And the place has to have character, a less tangible quality that can flow from the people who run the premises, the building itself, or both.
According to these criteria, Winnipeg has only four real diners. There's the Falafel Place on Corydon Avenue, run by the irrepressible Ami Hassan. The C. Kelekis Restaurant on Main Street has endured over the decades. The Eye Opener up in West St. Paul is the not-so-new kid on the block.
But the Wagon Wheel, which occupied the same Hargrave Street cubbyhole for the entire 511/2 years of Louis Mathez's tenure, was the diner that looked and acted and felt most like a diner, thanks to its food, counter and character.
As most patrons know, Mathez got up early in the morning to roast the turkeys he would carve into his famous club sandwiches. But he also prepared roast pork and homemade soups and slabs of meat loaf.
My personal favourite was the humble "hot hamburger," a fully dressed burger that was slathered in gravy and had to be eaten with a knife and fork. It came with fries, a sweetish coleslaw and a bowl of soup that would arrive within seconds of your order, provided you did not come during the busy lunch rush.
This might sound mundane, but in the hands of a kitchen that takes pride in its work, the preparation of even modest food approaches an art form.
And modest food -- not high cuisine -- is what defines a great city or town or dot on the map, whether it's a smoked-meat sandwich in Montreal, a street taco in Los Angeles or a chicken-fried steak at a Texas truck stop.
The culture of a city does not depend on a ballet or a symphony orchestra or some art galleries; its greatness is defined by what people do every day.
Winnipeg, for all its quirkiness, is in grave danger of being just like anywhere else in the western world. We have our fast-food franchises, our big-box stores and our movie mega-plexes. We have some cookie-cutter suburbs. We have some new downtown buildings that pay zero respect to the design principles of the structures they've replaced.
But we also have institutions like Wagon Wheel Lunch, which quietly resisted the homogeneity of corporate culture for decades. And again, this had nothing do with any desire by Louis Mathez to make any form of political statement.
The man got up every weekday morning and made turkey sandwiches from scratch. And in doing so, he made this city a better place.
Go ahead an idolize the millionaire hockey players in Team Canada jerseys this afternoon. My hero remains Louis Mathez.