There are no words to describe one of the most memorable places to eat and it is in an industrial area in a lumberyard, on top of a hardware store. There are rickety stairs going up to it. The floor is that of the classic Asian Canadian diner, with black and white alternating linoleum tile, booths and booth seating of another time, vintage tunes being played, and the most extraordinary ambience imaginable.
When you walk into the cafe there is a black and white photo on the wall to your right of Bert Thomas, who used to own the lumberyard located at 1640 East Kent Avenue. The cafe was opened by Mr. Thomas six decades ago to ensure his workers had a place to eat near where they worked. The restaurant is existing non-conforming in its perch above the lumberyard hardware store, and we are all better for the fact that this restaurant use has never lapsed.
Since 2008 Jimmy and Connie Mah have run the restaurant with their son, Raymond. There is a trained Red Seal Chef in this tiny restaurant that provides extraordinary classic eats. Everything is old school, “fresh and hand cut” as Mr. Mah will tell you.
The sirloin in the hamburgers is fresh ground and the patties made by hand. In a hamburger the cheese freshly sliced on the patty, the bacon is crispy on top, and the lettuce actually looks fresh picked. The french fries are hand cut. The food is simply divine, evocative of another era of care, pride and culinary grace.
The restaurant still serves its purpose, of providing very good food at low prices to the surrounding industrial community. It is open from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with shorter hours on Saturdays and closed on Sundays.
The Mahs’ attention to detail in the legendary provision of classic Canadian cuisine means this little cafe is internationally ranked and known. In 2019 the restaurant had a five star ranking on Yelp and was ranked as number three in Canada. You can also take a look at the Northern Cafe and Grill on instagram as well as on their website.
You will get a cup of medium roast Colombian coffee, but not too big a cup. With a small amount of booths, a very reasonable cost and a large amount of clientele it is customary to eat and leave, not linger, so that others waiting can be seated. While I was there with the Duke of Data Andy Yan, there were two chefs, eating at an adjacent table. One is the chef with a well known local catering business, the other is a chef for Cara Operations which owns many restaurant chains.There was a family with toddlers. And there was a very long line up.
As Mr. Mah states in this interview by CBC’s Bridgette Watson “They try it out, they never forget, they always put a good review about my little restaurant”.
The food, service and ambience speaks for itself, as Mr. Mah has not paid for any advertising since he took over the business.
There’s no parking in the lumberyard, but you can park on the street. You can leave your bike below the restaurant. And you can go into the hardware store below the restaurant for a look, or as in the case of Andy Yan, a camping accessory. They had several.
Here’s a YouTube video by a tourist that describes the location, and surprisingly keeps the food a mystery.
Now we’ve told you the secret of how to to get to this oasis of surprising fresh, old school food.
See you there.