Editor’s note: Meet Winnipeg-born writer Debra Smith – whose long term love affair with diners inspired the following post. If you’re ever road-tripping in Manitoba and you, too, have a thing for “crunchy hot dogs and cold milkshakes,” we invite you to take note. You might even learn a thing or two – like we did – about the delicious tradition of Blobs. Yes, Blobs.
From the time I was a little girl sitting in the back seat of the family car, I’ve always loved the excitement of cruising down the road on a hot summer’s night on a quest for a crunchy hot dog and a cold milkshake.
Hitting the highway in search of a treat is still my favourite Manitoba pastime. Every town has at least one colourful diner or drive-in with a hand painted menu and a unique, irresistable and no doubt fattening treat. Here are a few places within driving distance of Winnipeg where you can put the bite on everything from an upscale organic pizza to pickerel on a bun to an old school classic burger.
Winnipeg – Tucked in among the tall heritage buildings of Winnipeg’s downtown Exchange District, the tiny White Star Diner serves up home-style fast food, made daily from fresh ingredients. It has to be fast because line-ups are long. With only four seats inside and four seats outside, take-out is the name of the game. Bruce Smedts – the “owner, cook and bottle washer” – loves his 40s style creation. After a few years in the food industry, he learned to cook by “hanging around with chefs and taking notes from the Food Network” before striking out on his own. He makes all the items on the menu daily, from cookies to barbeque sauce. The building dates from 1917 and it’s been a diner since the 50s. The White Star launched three years ago and gets rave reviews for its pulled pork (4 variations) and the Mortimer, a cheeseburger topped with – what else – pulled pork.
Lockport – A debate is still raging over which is the best diner in Lockport. The Half Moon Drive-In? Or Skinner’s? Both have been around since the 30s. Both have the standard black/white/red/chrome/retro diner look. The Half Moon has its famous Moon Dog, a foot long crunchy steamed hot dog with crispy bacon, grated cheddar, fried onions, pickles and mustard, AND the out-of-this-world Saturn Burger with double cheese, double bacon, bbq mayo sauce and three onion rings. (Get it? Saturn…rings.) They also have 28 flavours of ice cream and 13 kinds of milkshakes and a choice location on the riverbank. And Skinner’s has two locations to choose from, triple bacon cheese dogs, perogies, huge portions of outstanding chili cheese fries, and, depending on the location, an attached fishing tackle and bait shop AND autographed photos of hockey legends Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Phil Esposito on the walls. Take the half hour drive from Winnipeg and decide for yourself which diner is best!
Around Gimli: About 90 miles from Winnipeg, on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, lies the heart of cottage country and prime diner territory. Leave time to explore Gimli’s white sand beaches, gaily painted seawall and charming country stores. Then head to the Beach Boy Restaurant for a menu that includes Manitoba walleye (or pickerel, as it’s known here). They serve their fresh pickerel burgers lightly breaded with a sprinkle of spices on a steamed bun. Large, tasty chicken gyros with tzatziki sauce come wrapped in soft homemade pitas. Dinner platters arrive heaped with mountains of greek salad and lemon roasted potatoes. A few doors down, you can catch a breeze on the patio at Kris’ Fish and Chips while you fill up on their all-you-can-eat fish and chips special or enjoy a serving of deep fried ice cream. About 15 miles south at Winnipeg Beach, Salty’s Drive Inn offers a few unusual twists on drive-in food – deep fried mushrooms for one, and their “Blob” – a mixture of ice cream, blueberries, hot fudge and bananas. Best of all, you can be at the beach with “Blob” in hand in minutes.
Riverton – Every Friday and Saturday night it’s Pizza Night at Integrity Foods in Riverton. Even though it’s a 2 hour drive north of Winnipeg, folks make the trek to Dora and Cornelius Friesen’s farm for the pleasure of dining in the middle of a beautiful flower and vegetable garden and watching custom-made pizzas rise in a wood-fired brick oven. Every pizza is made with certified organic stone ground spelt, an ancient grain, and toppings include locally sourced grass-fed Manitoba bison, Manitoba-made Bothwell cheese, and veggies plucked fresh from the garden. For dessert, try the delicious sunflower chocolate or cranberry oatmeal cookies that are magically sugar, dairy and egg free. After dinner you can stroll around the farm and visit the ducks, bunnies, alpacas and chickens tucked in their pens under the trees. Overnight camping with breakfast included is also available.
Victoria Beach – Drive one hour north on Highway 59 out of Winnipeg and you’ll find yourself on the beautiful shores of historic Victoria Beach on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. A walk through this unique community is like a trip back in time. Cars are forbidden during summer months and it’s so quiet the only noises you hear are dragonflies buzzing past and the soft thwock of tennis balls on the community court. The Moonlight Inn diner has been welcoming visitors since 1916 and you can wander straight in from the beach for a hot dog, a Moonlight pizza (chicken and spinach) or one of 30 flavours of ice cream. Just a short walk away is Einfeld’s Bakery. This family run establishment has been turning out delicious baked goods since the 30s. The glass cases in the whitewashed wooden interior are piled high with fresh fruit tarts, pies, buns, bread, cakes and cookies. Try their Dream Cookie made of a slather of raspberry jam between two layers of shortbread topped with white royal icing. Now, that’s a taste of summer worthy of the drive.