Toronto’s vanishing diner culture

The era of Toronto’s diners appears to be winding down. On December 31, 2023, The Rosedale Diner, a local institution for 45 years, closed its doors, adding to the list of cherished diners bidding farewell to the city. Just weeks ago, Flo’s in Yorkville announced its closure by the end of March due to a denied lease extension. The challenges facing old-school diners, from shifting consumer trends to evolving tastes and the rise of fast-casual dining and food delivery services, seem to be mounting.

Toronto’s diner culture traces back to early establishments like The Senator Restaurant, founded in 1929, which paved the way for the city’s diner scene. Over time, these establishments evolved into iconic landmarks like The George Street Diner (1954) and The Avenue Diner (1944) adding to Toronto’s food scene and cultural identity.

@therosedalediner/Instagram

In 2023, the closure of OK OK Diner, in operation since 1952, marked another loss. The owner expressed the difficulty of the decision, acknowledging that every run must come to an end.

The year 2021 saw the heartbreaking closure of two of Toronto’s oldest diners. Motorama, a beloved breakfast spot on the Danforth for over 40 years, shut its doors. Housed in a historic 1922 building, the diner was known for its exceptional service and reasonable prices. Shortly after, the Bloor Jane Restaurant, serving Torontonians since 1972, followed suit. Frequented by hockey legends like Borje Salming and Tie Domi, as well as members of Blue Rodeo and Jeff Healy, the diner boasted a vintage 1950s cash register and a cozy retro counter encircling the grill. For 30 years, they served the same brand of coffee, offering free refills with every meal.

But miraculously we have a few of the old diners left. Here are five that are definitely worth saving.

Fran’s

@fransrestaurant/Instagram

There’s a few Fran’s locations around the city, and the mini-chain is one of the most famous diner businesses in the city. Open 24 hours, the historic eateries offer up breakfast, lunch and dinner alike, with milkshakes, pancakes, steaks and salads all populating the menu. The first Fran’s was opened at Yonge and Dundas by Francis “Fran” Deck in 1940, and the place has been iconic ever since.

Patrician Grill

Family-owned and operated, Patrician Grill has been a staple in Toronto’s diner scene since the 1950s. “Eat here. Diet at home” is the company’s slogan, and they stick to their word. There’s an assortment of jams that make the restaurant unique, but the massive menu is exploding with hearty options, like homemade soup, fried eggs, fish and chips and meatloaf. There’s also soda floats and milkshakes, perfect for washing down a slice of homemade apple pie.

George Street Diner

Jay Baruchel at the diner in Dec. 2023.

If you’re a Shawn Mendes fan, you might recognize George Street Diner from his “Life of the Party” lyric video. In it, Toronto plays backdrop as the Canadian singer sits at one of the vintage red leather booths found in this “wee” Irish-Canadian eatery. But, seeing it on screen isn’t enough. You won’t want to miss the chance to try the signature Ultimate Irish Breakfast, which wouldn’t be complete without Farrelly’s Famous Irish Soda Bread.

Mars Uptown Diner

This no-frills, uptown diner is nothing if not old school. There’s the neon decor, red vinyl banquettes, and an open kitchen that screams retro. Come for the vintage vibes and stay for the food, where breakfast is served all day, and the food categories are given out-of-this-world names like satellite sides and planet poutine. Lunch and dinner fare, including burgers and hot dogs, are also available.

The Senator

@thesenatorto/Instagram

Whether you call them trinkets, knick-knacks or tchotchkes, The Senator is full of them and diners at 2 p.m. on a weekday. Not bad for the oldest restaurant in T.O., built in 1860, with several incarnations since. Coffee is perfectly bold, and for a reduced price before 11:30 a.m. daily, try the special of butter-fried eggs, perfectly crisp bacon, homemade jam and a side of beans (on the sweet side) with challah toast. What a deal! If you’re planning a long walk, try the hearty chili cheddar omelette. Sit in classic vinyl diner booths and enjoy the jazz-inspired decor in an old school place with a decidedly new school food feel.

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