In Where We Ate, critic Gabby Peyton tells the story of Canadian cuisine through 150 restaurants, from pre-Confederation to present day

Get the latest from Laura Brehaut straight to your inbox

Article content

Our cookbook of the week is Where We Ate by Gabby Peyton. To try a recipe from the book, check out: fried oysters, the Tojo roll (a.k.a. California roll), and Acadia wheat honey cake with gooseberry sorbet, bay and birch syrup, and hazelnuts.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Cultural thinkers have long contemplated the question, “What is Canadian cuisine?” As important as the what, though, is the where and the who. Iconic foods such as butter chicken rotis, ginger beef, poutine, smoked meat sandwiches and wood-fired, honey-poached bagels didn’t appear out of the ether — someone created them. Much more than menu items, they tell stories of place and time.

Food writer and restaurant reviewer Gabby Peyton has penned many pieces on the history of celebrated (and sometimes contentious) Canadian dishes, such as the California roll, Halifax donair and Hawaiian pizza. In her first book, Where We Ate (Appetite by Random House, 2023), she found an opportunity to connect the dots between these foods and the places where they came to be.

Advertisement 3

Article content

“Not many people are sitting at home on a Friday making a donair. That is very much a restaurant food, but it’s still so (much a) part of Canadian culinary canon. So, I thought there was a gap there.”

An appreciation for restaurants and the people behind them underpins Where We Ate, a chronological look at 150 spots from pre-Confederation to present day interwoven with 15 recipes, old menus and archival photos. “It really is my love letter,” says Peyton. “Working in restaurants (through university), I got to see behind the scenes. And when I started writing as a critic for The Telegram, interviewing people who ran all these restaurants, I wanted to showcase the people behind all those foods that we talk about.”

When Peyton pitched the book in 2017, she had planned to travel across the country visiting some of Canada’s most beloved and historically significant restaurants. When she started writing it in 2020, in the midst of reviewing takeout boxes for her restaurant review column, she ended up interviewing food writers and historians, and researching the archives instead.

Article content

Advertisement 4

Article content

Where We Ate book cover
In her first book, Where We Ate, Gabby Peyton tells the story of Canadian cuisine in 150 restaurants. Photo by Appetite by Random House

The pandemic’s blow to restaurants meant this time was filled with uncertainty. Of the places she profiled in the book, 12 have closed permanently. Others shut their doors for lengthy periods of time; whether they would eventually reopen was an unanswerable question. One such restaurant, 94-year-old The Senator in Toronto, reopened in August 2022 after being closed for 884 days.

Right up until the book went to press, Peyton was confirming restaurant closures. “It felt like I was rushing to write it a little bit because I was kind of scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

In St. John’s, where Peyton lives, restaurants reopened a bit earlier than in some other parts of the country. The excitement was palpable. “That, for me, just really rang true of the work I was doing and the love letter that I was writing. Because it really is a third space for so many people, especially in big cities. If you meet friends, you’re going to a restaurant. They’re so much more important to our daily life than we think they are.”

Advertisement 5

Article content

One striking aspect of Where We Ate is just how many of the 150 restaurants are still open today, a testament to the role they play in their communities. These are the places people return to again and again — that make up the fabric of our everyday lives. You could pay a visit to more than half, including three that have been serving meals since before Confederation: Auberge Saint-Gabriel in Montreal (est. 1754), Olde Angel Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake (est. 1789) and Six Mile Pub in Victoria (est. 1855).

The restaurant story in Canada, for the most part, is an immigrant story.

As part of her research, Peyton dove deep into archival material: newspapers and menu archives at the Culinary Institute of America, University of Toronto and University of British Columbia. The more restaurants she found, the more she wanted to include. Ultimately, she was tasked with whittling down a list of 400 to the final 150.

Advertisement 6

Article content

The biggest challenge, says Peyton, was making sure the book had a wide cross-section of cuisines and types of restaurants. “It was important to get a balance of the unique ones that really epitomize how multifaceted Canadian cuisine is but also ones that could be in any town across Canada.”

Peyton included at least one restaurant from every province and territory and made an effort not to lean too heavily on major cities. “Because small-town Manitoba has some cool stuff.” (Case in point: West St. Paul’s Filipino brunch destination, Grassmere Family Restaurant.) She organized the book chronologically to highlight how sociopolitical changes affected what Canadians ate in restaurants. The Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, which barred Chinese immigration, and labour laws that stopped Chinese owners from employing white women, and the internment of Italian Canadians at “enemy alien” camps stymied success for restaurateurs facing anti-Chinese and anti-Italian sentiments.

Advertisement 7

Article content

People lining up in front of King of Donair
“There are eight King of Donair locations, including one in Saskatoon, three in Alberta, and others serving up Maritime-style donairs across the country, but many people still make the pilgrimage to Halifax to sample the real thing,” writes Gabby Peyton. Photo by King of Donair

Just as the restaurants included in Where We Ate tell a broader story of Canadian culture, economics, politics and society, so, too, do the absence of others. “The conspicuous lack of Indigenous restaurants until Chapter 13 (the 2010s) is also a part of our restaurant history; a consequence of systemic racism towards Indigenous people in Canada ranging from prohibitive game laws to forced assimilation,” writes Peyton.

The first Indigenous restaurant to appear in the book is Liliget Feast House, which operated from 1995 to 2007 in Vancouver. Mother-daughter chefs and cookbook authors Dolly Watts and Annie Watts are from the Gitk’san First Nation. Their longhouse, where they served foods such as alder-grilled venison and wild salmon, bannock and smoked oolichan, was the first of its kind in North America. In the 2010s, the number of Indigenous restaurants started to grow, with the likes of Toronto’s now-closed Keriwa Cafe, Vancouver’s Salmon n’ Bannock and Winnipeg’s Feast Cafe Bistro.

Advertisement 8

Article content

“(I wanted to show) the good with the bad. That is our history. I didn’t want to gloss over the fact that we didn’t include (Indigenous restaurants). They couldn’t be included because they didn’t exist,” says Peyton.

A key theme stood out as Peyton researched the book: how much of Canadian cuisine is the result of immigrant adaptation and invention. An influx of immigration after the Second World War coupled with an economic boom proved to be fertile ground for Canada’s food scene. The 1950s marked a shift between necessity and novelty, Peyton explains. More people than ever before were dining out for pleasure, going to drive-ins and picking up takeout.

“The restaurant story in Canada, for the most part, is an immigrant story. Ginger beef was an adaptation of a different dish that (Kwong Cheung, owner of Calgary’s now-closed Silver Inn Restaurant) cooked in Hong Kong. Donairs were really doner kebab, but everyone was scared of tzatziki in Halifax,” says Peyton, laughing. So, Peter Gamoulakos, Greek immigrant and restaurateur, adjusted.

Advertisement 9

Article content

Across the country, she found countless examples of how immigrants have shaped Canadian food culture by merging influences. Inspired by Caribbean roti, chef Avtar Singh created a Toronto phenomenon at his now-closed restaurant, Gandhi Indian Cuisine. Singh retired in 2020, but his signature dish — a flour roti parcel filled with Indian curries, such as butter chicken, chana masala and matar paneer — lives on at roti shops across the city.

Hidekazu Tojo in his Vancouver restaurant
Hidekazu Tojo created the Tojo maki, which he later renamed the California roll, while working at Vancouver’s four-seat Jinya in 1974. Photo by Tojo’s

Husband-and-wife pair Noriki Tamura and Misa Tamura moved to Vancouver in 2005 with plans to open a Japanese-style crêpe stand. The city’s bylaws would only allow for hotdogs, which spurred Noriki to push the boundaries of the bun. Dubbed the Terimayo, Japadog’s spicy cheese smokie with teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, fried onions and thinly shredded nori was a breakout hit. Eighteen years later, an expanded menu varies by location (all 10 of them) and includes yakisoba and okonomiyaki hotdog mash-ups.

Advertisement 10

Article content

“That idea of putting things together and adapting two cuisines, it’s a super-Canadian thing,” says Peyton. She highlights the mark Greek immigrants have made on Canada’s food culture, especially but not limited to pizza. An astounding number of regional styles were created by Greek entrepreneurs, from the dark-brown sauce of Nova Scotia’s Pictou County pies to matchstick pepperoni-topped Windsor pizza.

“A Greek guy invented donair, the Hawaiian pizza, Regina-style pizza, the Fat Boy burger in Winnipeg. Their influence is amazing. Greeks, they’re not known for pizza, but they came here, and they were like, ‘OK, well, my brother’s doing it. I’ll do it.’”

Peyton strikes a balance between unique and ubiquitous, including neighbourhood favourites alongside Canada-wide chains such as Boston Pizza and Tim Hortons, and regional ones like Junior’s, Mary Brown’s and White Spot. Unlike Michelin-starred restaurants and hot spots on “best of” lists (also included), these are the places Canadians visit most often.

Advertisement 11

Article content

Peyton mentions Noodles Express, a restaurant in Mount Pearl, Nfld. owned by Weifeng Fan and family. “It’s very inconspicuous and they make handmade noodles on order. It’s amazing. That’s where you eat every week or that’s where you get takeout from on a regular basis.”

Immigrants continue to shape Canadian cuisine, she adds. Families like the Fans are setting up restaurants in communities across the country. “That is still happening. It’s not a thing of the past.”

Article content

Get the latest from Laura Brehaut straight to your inbox


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation