This past Thursday I was checking in on Twitter and a rumour began circulating. Hours later it was confirmed. “Kelekis was closing”.
Kelekis is this small, almost hole-in-the-wall, restaurant in the “north end” of town, an area known for its rich immigrant history and working class ethic. There’s actually a roof-top as you cross over into the north end that has different coloured shingles that spell out “Welcome to the North End. People Before Profit”. It’s that kind of place.
This restaurant has been called an “institution” because it has been around for so long, and in cases of places that have been around for ever, you just expect that they will continue to do so. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be bringing my grandchildren to this place forty years from now, and telling them that my grandparents, their great-great-grandparents would bring my Mom, their great-grandmother, there when she was a girl. But Thursday night’s news has changed all of that.
All of a sudden there is this urgency to go there, and eat there, and experience it one last time, or hopefully more than one last time. Two or three times. We have til the end of January, but I don’t want to wait. I want to go now. And it’s not like one of those places that you remember from your childhood and feel nostalgia for, this is one of those places where I’ve been going for my whole life and have been continuing to do so. I was there only a few weeks ago.
Why is it closing? The same old sad story you hear everywhere else these days. Mary Kelekis, the youngest daughter of the restaurant founder will be turning 88 later this month and there isn’t anyone in the next generation willing to continue running it. Mary never married, and has devoted her life to the running of the family business. Day or night, you will see Mary behind the counter, overseeing the kitchen and handling all payments. Kelekis has always been “cash only”, much to the consternation of various Kelekis virgins who are forced to go out to the drug store next door to use the ATM. Anyone who knows anything knows that you need to bring cash to Kelekis.
Mary’s father, Chris Kelekis, came to Canada in 1917 from Greece and converted an old Model-T into a chip wagon from which he began selling chips and hotdogs in 1931. In the 1944 and 1945 they opened two “chip stands” on Main St, and in 1955 decided to close one and expand the other to include a dining room.
This restaurant holds a special place in my family’s personal mythology. My Mom, born in 1941 and raised as an unrepentant “north end girl”, remembers driving to visit her grandmother on the other side of the river. On their way home, they would drive over the Redwood Bridge in her father’s pickup truck and she and her brother would wait with bated breath to see whether the truck would turn right to go on home, or whether it would turn left, which meant a trip to Kelekis! In those days, my Mom tells me, vehicles didn’t have turn signals, so the custom was that you would actually open your door to show your intention to turn left. My Mom and her brother would cheer when their dad, my grandpa, would reach for his door handle at the stop light.
My Mom actually remembers going to Kelekis when it was just a window, which makes sense, because she would have been 14 when the restaurant was expanded. She tells me that every Sunday after church her lifelong friends, Val and Christine and her would head to Kelekis for lunch. Every Sunday.
I’ve been going to this restaurant for my whole life. Since I was a baby, really. I remember going there with my grandma and grandpa, with my Mom and Dad (a new convert since he grew up in the west end, not the north end. My Mom still loved him, though.) And later with my wife and now daughter.
The wonderful thing about Kelekis is that it never changes. I mean, it is exactly the same as it was when they expanded in 1955. The menu has been expanded a bit to include sandwiches and soups and salads and whatnot, but die hard traditionalists will order either a hotdog, a cheeseburger, or a Yale buger (a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato), and that’s it. Don’t even bother showing me a menu, because when I go to Kelekis I want one of those things. Oh, and of course the chips. The world-famous shoestring chips. The best in the city, in my opinion. The best anywhere, actually. The plates, the plastic bowls in which the chips are served, the glasses for Coke, all seem to date back to the 1950s. Same with the sizes. If you order a “large” Coke, the glass is roughly the equivalent of a “small” to most burger places today. If you order a small, God help you. Same with the chips. The large isn’t all that large. If you’re super hungry, Kelekis won’t do it for you, I’m afraid. I guess people ate less in the 1950s. But it’s not about portion size, it’s about tradition. Another tradition is the “wall of fame” in the dining room, which sits back behind the “counter” section at the front of the restaurant. I’ve eaten in both places over the years, but there’s something special about getting seating in the diner on the “wall of fame” side. The “wall of fame” is a wall of mostly black and white publicity photos of famous people who have eaten at Kelekis. (The opposite wall is a full mural telling the Kelekis family story: also very cool). The thing about the wall of fame is that Kelekis probably reached its height of popularity in the 1970s, and the wall of fame reflects that. Well over half of the celebrities up there are now long dead or forgotten. People like Al Waxman, or local politicians or sports heroes from back in the day. Apparently Kelekis had a rule that you had to be asked by the restaurant for your photo. If you happened to be a “celebrity” and dropped off a photo, it would go into the office, but not on the wall. Dennis Quaid found this out the hard way a few years ago when he was in town filming a movie. Our former (and probably most famous) Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, visited Kelekis in the 1960’s at the height of Trudeaumania, and was one of the first politicians to make a point of coming into the “north end”. Since then it has become trendy to visit the spot, and in fact some politicians have tried to get their photo on the wall for their own publicity, but the house rule still applies.
The waitresses are notoriously crusty, and you might just get yelled at if you’re not careful. My father-in-law was tossed from Kelekis as a teen for “causing a ruckus” and he does not share the same love for the place as we all do. You are to write your own order down on the pad at your table. If you want everything on your dog or burger you write “W” next to it for “the works”. That’s north end code, people. When the waitress gathers up the orders and reviews them, if she sees the “W” a look of understanding will sometimes pass between you and her. A knowing glance that says, “You’ve been here before.”
A quick word on the washrooms. First, DO NOT USE THEM UNLESS YOU’RE DESPERATE. Second, YOU HAVE TO USE THEM AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE. I was terrified of the washrooms when I was a kid. You had to go through the kitchen and down the back stairs into the cellar. You had to walk past these crazy looking, almost medieval devices used to peel and slice the potatoes that eventually become the world-famous chips, past weird prison-cell looking lockers that hold supplies until you get to the tiny washrooms in the depths of the place. There is a sign on the front door that says washrooms are meant for customers only, but seriously, they’re really not meant for humans, period. Still, it’s part of the experience.
I remember eating there one time and you could tell that this guy was taking his girlfriend there for the first time and he was trying to impress her. He was a north end kid, you could tell, and he was damn proud of this restaurant, his restaurant. “Ya gotta have the hotdog. They’re made special for here. Just here. See these pictures? All these people ate here, and they liked it. The queen ate here.”
It’s true that the queen’s picture is up on the wall, but it is separate, not grouped in among the rest. I’m pretty sure the queen DIDN’T eat here, or even visit here. I think it was just a sign of respect, especially back in the old days, and they never updated the photo. It certainly wasn’t signed or anything, but I wasn’t about to steal this kid’s thunder. He was on a roll, impressing his girlfriend, and it was really cute and wonderful to eavesdrop on their conversation. To hear this passion for this special place, a passion I shared equally. And what do I know? For all I know, the queen DID eat there, had the hotdog, and liked it.