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A Winnipeg couple leaves Kelekis diner for the final time as the venerable institution prepares to close. (JOHN WOODS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A Winnipeg couple leaves Kelekis diner for the final time as the venerable institution prepares to close. (JOHN WOODS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

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Last call for Winnipeg’s iconic Kelekis diner Add to ...

The distinctive orange lunch counter. Hot dogs split down the middle. Shoestring fries. The photos on the wall.

No restaurant is more closely associated with Winnipeg’s mythologized North End than Kelekis. For more than 75 years, this family diner has fed the famous and the less famous, never straying from the salty comfort food favoured by its long-time patrons. In the process, it became an icon of a working-class, multicultural neighbourhood.

But the restaurant’s proprietor, Mary Kelekis, daughter of the original owner, is retiring. She’s 88 years old and says it’s time. The last hamburger and fries will slide over that Formica countertop some time around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, she said.

For the past few weeks, customers have flocked to the restaurant at Main Street and Redwood Avenue to say farewell to an institution that is intimately linked with some of their happiest family memories.

“Massive numbers have been coming in,” Ms. Kelekis said by telephone from the restaurant on Tuesday. “I warn you, if you think you’re going to show up [Wednesday] night and just walk in, forget it. It’s going to be a bunch of cattle all walking around. It’s going to be terrible. Really wild. It’s bad enough as it is.”

Saul Cherniack, 96, brought four generations of his family to the restaurant a few weeks ago. He ordered a hot dog split down the middle and fries, just as he has done for decades. He resisted any temptation to check whether his photo still hangs next to those of the celebrities who have dined there (it does), but his son got a snapshot to save for posterity.

Mr. Cherniack, who represented a North End riding in a long and distinguished career in provincial politics, can remember eating Kelekis’s famously thin and fresh French fries from their chip truck when he was a teenager in the early 1930s.

Chris Kelekis, who arrived in Winnipeg from a Greek community in Turkey in 1913, was one of tens of thousands of immigrants trying to make it in the hardscrabble neighbourhood north of the railway lines. Ms. Kelekis said he had an idea about French fries, and turned an old Ford Model T truck into a chip wagon that he could drive to events around the city. The idea caught on. He opened the restaurant about a decade later, in the 1940s.

Ms. Kelekis said the secret was that the food was always of the highest quality and the menu never changed. Families came back year after year, generation after generation, because it was a link to their own past.

“The fries today are identical; we fry them the same way in the same type of oil. Nothing has changed from those days, and when you do something like that, people appreciate it. A lot of people don’t like change,” Ms. Kelekis said.

Winnipeg is a city fiercely attached to its history, and the past 12 months have given nostalgic Winnipeggers much to mourn. The Paddlewheel restaurant in the Hudson’s Bay building downtown closed in January, as did the Wagon Wheel last summer. The Shanghai restaurant was torn down to make room for a seniors’ home. It feels as if all the old institutions are going at once.

The closing of Kelekis also opens a window on the changing nature of the North End. Once populated by Poles, Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans, it’s increasingly a neighbourhood of more recent immigrants from the Philippines and aboriginal families from Manitoba reserves.

Mr. Cherniack left the North End nearly a decade ago. Today, the area is represented by Kevin Chief, a young aboriginal cabinet minister. Mr. Chief made his own last visit recently, stopping in for a cheeseburger and fries. As always, the food was fresh, the portions were the right size and the familiar tastes evoked his childhood.

Whenever he could scrape together some money Mr. Chief and his friends would buy fries from the takeout counter, he said. And when he’s had guests from abroad who wanted a taste of Winnipeg, or a meal crucial to his political career, it’s often been at Kelekis.

“Places like that mean so much to people,” Mr. Chief said. “It’s one of those jewels that you feel good about having.”

In a neighbourhood known as one of the toughest in the country, Kelekis always represented hope and possibility, he said. Its closing is sad, but it provides a moment to reflect on what the restaurant has meant to the area, he said.

Follow on Twitter: @FriesenJoe

 

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