Patrician Grill – Iconic diner celebrates 50 years

Most cooks don’t like working breakfast service and it’s no wonder - people prefer their eggs, bacon and hash browns a certain way. A very particular way in fact. Orders are usually accompanied with a handful of modifications ("dry" toast, "chewy" bacon, eggs "between hard and sunny side") that can slow down the line and service. And customers expect it to be not only consistent, but fast too.

Watch the cooks at Patrician Grill sometime. 

One of the busiest restaurants in the city pumps out hundreds or maybe even thousands of delicious breakfasts and lunches a month, all at a dizzying pace - and many times, during a full house. And the consistency is staggering: have a western sandwich today and it boasts the same textures and flavours you experience 20 years ago.

If that weren’t cause enough for celebration, the family of the long-standing diner celebrates 50 years this year - a major feat considering the restaurant turnover in the city.

After all these years, very little has changed at the Patrician. And here, that's a good thing.

The stand-alone building at 219 King Street East was built in the 50s. "In 1953," confirms co-owner Terry Papas.

His father Louie worked in the coffee shop at the Encyclopedia Britannica building downtown. When the opportunity presented itself, Louie and his wife Helen bought the diner. It was November 1967.

Over the years they made few changes – shortening the counter and adding booth seating. Louie and Helen pulled double duty working the grill and serving tables, both ending up mostly at the stove in later years. Helen's brother Bill Giotis started on the line back in 1968, retiring only recently.

Son Terry and sister Mary started working at the diner every summer when they were in public school. As a young adult, Terry went on to study at George Brown and took a job delivering wholesale coffee, but came back to the diner full-time when Louie fell ill in 1985. Louie passed away in December 2011. Helen still comes in occasionally.

Chris Slifkas, a cook, married Terry’s sister in 1990. He started working at the Patrician full-time in 2000 and he and Terry now run the joint, with the same passion, commitment and dedication of Louie and Helen. In fact, they make a great team – Terry calls out the orders, Chris writes them down, and then Chris and another cook known simply as "Santa," make your meal. 

The diner seats 52 across cozy booths and long 50s-style counter top. There is little décor - a few old movie posters lining the walls, some trinkets near the front cash. Terry’s collection of jazz and rock (and occasionally Black Sabbath) can be heard throughout service.

Menu items haven’t changed much either.

"We’re not about modern," Terry says. Recent additions to the menu include poutine, a veggie burger, chicken & Greek salad, and green tea, but otherwise it’s classic diner fare that has been pleasing the crowd for decades.

Everything is made to order, except on busy Saturdays. "Everyone wants breakfast fast, even on Saturdays," Chris says.

And it’s kept very simple, so don’t try and get fancy by ordering poached eggs or eggs whites (they’re cooking over 1,000 eggs a week). They do however serve "basted" eggs. 

Many items are made from scratch including burgers, daily soup, and Mom’s salad dressing (Helen still makes the pie, rice pudding and gravy). The club sandwich and other turkey dishes are made from real turkey, cooked in house (Chris cooks a half or full turkey every day just to keep up with the demand).

In addition to the extensive menu including Steak, Pancakes, and Omelettes, there are daily specials featuring the very popular Meatloaf Friday. Diner classics and comfort food such as Milkshakes, Three Egg Breakfasts, Liver and Onions, Hot Sandwiches, and Burgers. And they’re just as you picture it – creamy, comforting and delicious. The Louie Breakfast ($19.50) named after Mr. Papas, consists of items he ate throughout the day, all on one massive plate – three eggs, two bacon, two peameal, two sausage, three pancakes, and toast (coffee and tea is included). And where else in the city can you get Danish ($2.95) done on the grill?

Chris says,"Usually people have their mind made up before they come in. They like familiar items." Many customers, in fact, have "the usual," though sometimes Terry is bold and tells people what to eat (He’s often right, BTW).

As people’s habits and dietary preferences have changed over the years – the trend towards a lighter lunch, for instance - sliced chicken, turkey and salads move at a speedy pace. 

That said, "You cannot rush eggs," Chris asserts. "Eggs look and taste better when cooked slower. The whites are consistent. We leave scrambled eggs moist and keep bacon flat." Still, breakfasts come out in a flash.

And just because it’s diner fare and comfort food doesn’t mean it’s not carefully considered or plated. Thus, Patrician Grill is not a typical "greasy spoon." Chris says, "It can’t only taste good - it’s got to look good too." 

And that goes for the diner as well. They are meticulous about keeping things clean. The proof? Check the ketchup bottle cap at your table – spotless.

Prices are still good and cheap. Menu items include taxes, making it even less expensive than most restaurants serving similar fare. The most expensive dish? The Beltbuster Deluxe ($22): Two beef patties, bacon, peameal bacon, double cheese, onions, relish, tomatoes, served with fries and coleslaw, and topped with a fried onion ring and fried egg.

The food is not just a favourite of neighbourhood folks, and students from nearby George Brown College. Our city’s top chefs and food industry folks squeeze into booths on the regular for the comforting grub. And it’s not only foodies and tastemakers either - celebrities including Kevin Spacey, Jason Priestley, and Micky Dolenz of The Monkees have eaten here.

The diner gets screen time too, featured in many films and TV shows including "Due South," "Suits," "4 in the Morning," tons of commercials, and two videos of note – Lady Antebellum’sGrammy Award-winning "I Need You Now," and Wiz Kalifa’s "Remember." It even turns into an art gallery once a year with Terry’s modern paintings gracing the walls (Check out his website at terrypapas.com). 

Many things haven’t changed over the years:

 - The landline phone with old-fashioned ring adds to the charm of the place. Calling to place your order for pick up? You may encounter a busy tone - remember those? But not everything’s so antiquated – there’s a website, FB page and even Twitter. 

- It’s still cash only (there’s a ATM machine downstairs or bank down the block).

- Servers record your order on old-fashioned yellow "Guest Check" pads. Except for Terry. He remembers it 99% of the time.

- On Saturdays there are often lineups, but it moves quickly (sometimes you even make friends). Do not attempt to seat yourself. Not even at the counter. Follow the rule on the "Please wait to be seated" sign (during the week, they’re more forgiving). 

- The sandwich board outside is as much a reason to visit as the food and atmosphere. Some of Chris’ nuggets over the years have included:

> Eat here before it becomes a condo.

> Proudly not serving fruit since 1967.

> Eat here, diet at home.

> Nothing fancy since 1953.

- Staff has been with the family for a stretch too: Cook "Santa" has been on the line for three years and works Saturdays alongside Chris, servers Jamille and Roman (Chris' son), and Paul the dishwasher/busser.

- As it’s a family business, the heart and soul of the place can be witnessed from the moment you enter to your first bite. And there might be (read: probably) a few loud family squabbles mid-service, but that’s part of the charm and patina. What you see is what you get. Sometimes customers even chime in. Go long enough and you become “extended family." p.s. You should be so lucky to be part of this incredible, hard-working, standout family.

And lucky for us, they have no plans to move.

"We’ll still be here," Terry says. "We’re not going anywhere."

The family is likely to stay put for the next ten years.

Which means you’ve got time to go and try at least one of everything ten times. No doubt after the first visit, you too become a regular, and in no time, your order becomes "the usual." 

Just be prepared for Terry to tell you what you should have instead.

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Patrician Grill is open Mon to Fri: 7am-4pm and Sat 8am-2pm, with valet parking available soon (no it isn’t).

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(Photo credit: Roman Slifkas)