Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When I moved to Toronto from Winnipeg over 20 years ago, numerous film types from Toronto who’d be in Winnipeg would ask me for tips on where to eat, what to see and what to do, so I began to compile a guide, one I had to revise constantly because everything in Winnipeg was changing for the worst. The following are excerpts from the 2010 edition of Greg Klymkiw’s Guide to Winnipeg. Burt’s Buzz director Jody Shapiro was the last to receive it in its present form when producing Guy Maddin’s Keyhole in Winnipeg. I note what is now gone since 2010.
The most important thing to remember about Winnipeg is this: when in Winnipeg, rent a car! You do not want to walk or use transit in Winnipeg. Only losers walk or use transit in Winnipeg. Winnipeggers will complain about a lack of parking, but as the entire city is a fucking parking lot, this will not be a problem. It will be plentiful, cheap and occasionally even free. If you wish to cycle in Winnipeg, don’t. You will invariably die. Do what Winnipeggers do. Strap your bike to the roof of the car, drive to a park and then do your cycling in the safety of the wooded bike trails.
The best thing to do in Winnipeg is eat unhealthy food. The best Winnipeg restaurants guarantee heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure or (at the least) clogged arteries. When Australian director Paul Cox visited Winnipeg to act in Guy Maddin’s Careful, he constantly made note as to how large the patrons of Winnipeg eateries were.
Dine at Salisbury House – the only remaining Sals’ with a smidgen of the original atmosphere is the North Main Sals’ near Matheson Street across from the Transit terminal and Perth’s Cleaners [now gone] and on the same block as the now-defunct Deluxe/Hyland Theatre, which is now a synagogue (at least the building is still a temple of worship). Most mornings former heavyweight Olympic boxing champ Al Sparks [now deceased] dines at this location. Do not bother ordering anything on the menu that appears remotely healthy. Order only the following items: Mr Big Nips or Cheese Nips (preferably with fried onions) or Egg Nips (with regular fatty bacon, not the healthy back bacon). For some reason, the word ‘nip’ in Winnipeg signifies a hamburger (or burger-like sandwich). And remember that Salisbury House is owned by lead singer for The Guess Who, Winnipeg’s own original ‘American Woman’, Burton Cummings.
Dine at Alycia’s [now gone] – this is the best Ukrainian food since my Baba died. John Candy absolutely swore by this restaurant and he’s dead. ’Nuff said.
Dine at Shanghai [now gone] – true 50s-style Chinese joint. Last time I went, they still used the magnificent all-natural chemical flavour-enhancer MSG. Specialty of the House: Golden Dragon (deep fried pork wrapped in deep fried bacon, surrounded by golden deep fried batter – in pig fat, ‘natch, and lovingly glazed with a gelatinous sweet goo.
Dine at Kelekis [now gone] – order the Split double dog with cheese and bacon, the Yale burger and shoestring fries with gravy. While there, imagine the story my Mom told me about when she worked there as a teen. A wizened old man sat in the basement peeling potatoes, waiting for young waitresses to come down so he could rape them. Sit in the back and marvel at an array of celebrity photographs of people you’ve never heard of.
Dine at Wagon Wheel [now gone] – the best Clubhouse sandwiches in the world, bar none.
Dine at Skinner’s – Lockport, Manitoba – just north of the city. Skinner’s has great hockey paraphernalia on the walls. You’ll find pictures of my father in there when he played for the Detroit Red Wings and the Winnipeg Maroons, Canada’s National Hockey team in the 1960s, managed by none other than Guy Maddin’s now deceased father Chas. The spécialité de la maison are the exquisite hot dogs from Manitoba Sausage. The dogs are boiled. The skin is crunchy, the innards tender and juicy. A first bite should squirt hot grease. After you’ve done eating, take a short drive to the Selkirk, Manitoba Asylum and climb up the huge water tower on the grounds. Here you can imagine the hundreds of inmates who’ve also climbed the tower. Try not to do what they’ve all done, which is, to take a suicidal plunge from the top. I personally knew four people (one friend, one cousin and two close acquaintances) who, as inmates, climbed to the top and took deadly dives. (Tidbit de cinema: one of those acquaintances was to be the cinematographer of Guy Maddin’s first film, the immortal short The Dead Father. On Day One of shooting, the young gentleman did not appear. Guy went to visit him and found him in his bedroom under the blankets. He graciously instructed Guy on how to use a Bolex – under the blanket, ’natch. Just before the fellow’s incarceration at this esteemed mental hospital, he bestowed upon me a play about Jesus and his sexual relationship with a horse. He placed it in my hands and ordered me to direct it. ’Twas the last time I laid eyes upon him.) The Water Tower is easy to access and climb. Considering this is a loony bin, its continued presence makes little sense.
Best bakery for pastries, bagels (pizza bagels) and breads (onion pumpernickel) is Gunn’s. Avoid Bingo night. Too many drunks, glue-sniffers and child prostitutes on the sidewalk in front of the Ukrainian hall next door.
Best kosher butcher: [now gone] L. Omnitsky and Sons.
Best Ukrainian garlic sausage: Tenderloin.
When patronizing ANY Winnipeg Watering Hole, pack heat and/or a blade. In fairness, I’ve yet to be shot and/or stabbed whilst patronizing any of them.
St Boniface Basilica – late at night with jars of open liquor, walk through the graveyard, pay your respects at Louis Riel’s grave, stumble towards the imposing basilica wall, cover three of the four floodlights with coats, dance in front of the uncovered light. Marvel at your shadow thrown upon the mighty front wall, which can be seen by anyone on the other side of the Red River.
Driving pretty much anywhere in Winnipeg with jars of open liquor is a goodtime since it is one of the few places where drinking and driving is still socially acceptable. A familiar farewell at the end of most social evenings will be a hearty, ‘Have one more for the ditch.’ This, of course, is accompanied by the friendly action of your host sloshing more alcohol into your receptacle (preferably a jar). Ditches on the sides of roadways are designed as wide and shallow as possible for alcoholics to receive as little impact/trauma/damage as possible when they occasionally careen gently off the road. The ditches also prevent rollovers.
You’ll find many Winnipeg ladies willing to walk right up to your car and talk to you. They’ll sometimes get in your car and direct you to back lanes where, for a nominal fee, they’ll provide tension-relief services. This is especially fun with jars of open liquor.
Let a mosquito land on your arm, bite you and suck as much blood as possible before you smack it.
Any street in downtown Winnipeg bearing a woman’s name is named after a hooker from the turn of the century. Detailed in the famous non-fiction book Red Lights on the Prairies.
Go to the Belgian Club in St Boniface (the largest French-speaking population in Canada outside of Quebec) to drink with malcontent veterans.
Go to the ‘K’ (Kildonan Motor Hotel) and ask if Fat April still works there. She doesn’t, but you’ll be amazed by the startled reactions from those now manning the doors.
Ask a Winnipegger to explain to you how to get to ‘Confusion Corner’. They will confuse you and if you get there, you will be confused.