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Why I’ll miss Dangerous Dan’s: Comfort food with attitude

James McKinnon, owner of Dangerous Dan's, laughs while working behind the counter at the iconic east-end burger joint in Toronto on Tuesday, February 3, 2015. Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

I go to Dangerous Dan's to chew the fat, about twice a week. It's good fat, too – all natural, and I'm not just talking about the food.

Dangerous Dan's Diner, for the uninitiated, is a burger-famous institution at the northeast corner of Queen Street East and Broadview Avenue. The owner and order-taker is James McKinnon, a burly and grudgingly charismatic man who barks at his staff and occasionally at customers. Many people figure him as being Dangerous Dan himself, but this place of auto-yard bucket seats and excessive calories is actually named after his grandfather. The mistake is an easy assumption to make – Mr. McKinnon looks hazardous enough, with a Brillo Pad goatee and withering deep-fried stares.

After 16 years, though, the home of the Big Kevorkian – a burger with fried mushrooms and onions, an extra onion ring, two slices of bacon, garlic dressing, mayonnaise and a why-not deep-fried pickle – is on death's door. Mr. McKinnon, 48, is looking to sell his lease (for $225,000) and relax a little. The buyer would have the option of keeping the Dangerous Dan name, signage and idiosyncratic menu, but it won't be the same without the big man behind the counter. He calls his cuisine "comfort food," and I and the other regulars are very comfortable here indeed.

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"I know it's hard to believe," Mr. McKinnon tells me, "but I like dealing with the customers."

It is true that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and that sometimes he won't serve them either. But while there are snarky messages written on a chalkboard behind the counter – "If you sit at a dirty table, you are proving that humanity has reached an evolutionary cul-de-sac" – the jibes are not meant to offend. "If a customer can't have fun with that, they're probably not people who are going to enjoy it here anyways."

His grouchy exasperation is part of the show. He comes off as sarcastic and long-suffering when dealing with his employees, but he actually treats them well. "He pays them an actual living wage," says his wife Amy, who pitches in when the place gets busy, and whose welcoming manner is more traditional than her husband's. "They're not the most employable, but they work hard and show up on time. James believes in giving them a hand up, rather than a hand out."

The staff, as I see it, is likeable, accommodating, enthusiastic for body piercings and probably not over-educated. They're misfits, really, and I suppose some of the burger-eating loners like myself are as well.

My order typically involves small fries and a bacon cheeseburger with chipotle mayo to go, and a Steam Whistle pilsner or two while I wait. I chat with Mr. McKinnon about this and that – sports, local politics or the news of the day.

As much as the food, I dig the soundtrack of the place. The milkshake machine whirls, the deep fryer bubbles hot, the radio blares Barracuda or Hungry Like the Wolf, and Mr. McKinnon's instructions rise above the hubbub: "Can you give the front a quick dry-mopping" and "I need a Big Pig and a small poutine" and, to every customer who walks in the door, "Order here – we do not do table service."

Asked about what he'll miss if he's able to flip his lease, the burgermeister guesses it will be his long-term clientele. "I served teenagers who used to go to concerts at the Opera House, and now they've grown up and they bring their kids in," he says. "It's fun to see them moving on with their lives."

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And now Mr. McKinnon looks to move on with his. His 16 years of selling such extravaganzas as the Colossal Colon Clogger Combo – a 24 oz. mound of beef, topped with two eggs and a quarter pound each of bacon and cheddar, served with a large shake and a small order of poutine – have afforded him a Scarborough-moored sailboat and a condo in Florida. "I'd like to have some time off," he explains, "so that I can actually enjoy them."

Fair enough.

Things change; the Queen-and-Broadview intersection is just another example. We remember the Real Jerk restaurant on one corner and strip joint Jilly's on the other. Both are gone, and now the future of Dangerous Dan's is up in the air. The food can be replaced. But the comfort? I'm not so sure.

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