Halifax’s dining mainstays
“It’s closing? But they have the best burgers!” That’s an all-too-familiar refrain in a town where restaurants come and go.
But there are at least a dozen that have been here for 30 years or more. They’re more than chow huts; they’re historical institutions, alive with memory. Here are three of the oldest.
Midtown Tavern and Grill
Guy Dauphinee founded The Midtown Tavern as a men’s bar in 1949, inside an already historic meat market building at Prince and Grafton streets. In 1971, Dauphinee sold the drinking establishment to Douglas Grant, a teetotaler who’d worked there since it opened. Women were now allowed but they didn’t get their own washroom until 1973, and it was notoriously hard to find.
“Members of the Dauphinee family still come visit us here,” says Colin Grant, Douglas’ grandson and employee-of-all-trades at the Midtown. His father, Eric, and Uncle Robert are co-owners.
Douglas died in 2012. A former boxer and softball player, he was a familiar sight at sporting events, pulling up in his Grand Marquis Wagon with post-game beer and burgers. He was inducted into the Nova Scotia Softball Hall of Fame in 2005.
The Midtown was perfectly situated when the Metro Centre opened in 1978. Folks came before and after games to celebrate or commiserate. It still sponsors teams, but these days with equipment and uniforms.
The Midtown moved down to the corner of Carmichael and Grafton streets in 2009. The Grants sold a hundred old bar chairs for $20,000 for charity—collectors’ items.
Workers demolished the original building in March 2010, but the spirit remains the same. Grant says the secret to its success is simple: treat everyone like part of the community. Midtown staffers go to several funerals a year for their long-time customers. Some have been coming here since the 1950s.
“Everybody’s creating a burger joint now,” Grant says. “But here they know it will be fast, good, and cheap.”
Willman’s Fish and Chips
When George Willman approached Lucien Nehme in 2004 asking him to buy Willman’s Fish and Chips, Nehme hesitated. All he knew about the restaurant business was that it was hard work.
But Willman was concerned that the Hydrostone restaurant he’d started in 1946, and sold in 1990, wasn’t the success it used to be. In the 1960s he’d even had a second location on Sackville Street.
He was confident Nehme could bring it back. When Willman died later that year, Nehme bought the business. He added a patio and in-store washroom and made it accessible. He kept the fish, scallops and clams but added an array of menu items, creating a (fully licensed) family restaurant.
But for those who grew up in the Hydrostone, Nehme’s Willman’s still feels like home. “They come back from everywhere,” he says. “They tell me great stories about this place.”
Like the couple who got married and came here in full wedding attire for supper. They still come here every anniversary. Or the fella who lived in the building before it was Willman’s. Or the 70-year-old woman who remembers swinging on the front porch rails as a child. Boomers remember coming here after dances and buying 10-cent cones.
To Nehme, those memories give him a big responsibility. “People have to feel in their place, where they know they will get attention and good food.”
The Garden View Fong
Greg Fong’s great-grandfather was one of tens of thousands of Chinese men who built the Canadian railway. He settled in Dalhousie, New Brunswick and started the China Café and Laundry with his son.
In 1923, the family moved to Halifax and re-opened the business on Sackville Street. It had two levels, both with dance floors. It was called the Bonton, a bastardization of the French bon temps.
In 1945 a fire forced the family to relocate to Spring Garden Road. The Garden View Restaurant was born. In the 1950s, people asked why the Chinese employees ate their own food rather than the hot sandwiches the customers ate. They wanted to try it. Fong’s grandfather set up a private dining room for people in the know. Word got out and Garden View became a Chinese-food restaurant.
The Garden View Fong runs today on Dartmouth’s Main Street was originally an expansion, opened in 1981. The Spring Garden location closed in 1989.
When Greg took it over from his father, Dow, he added Asian foods he’d learned while traveling. “I’ve eaten Chinese food in Morocco, Latin America, everywhere, and it’s always fun to share recipes,” he says.
But the Garden View is most famous for its all-meat eggrolls, developed by a man known as Chef Fatty. Expats return just for this taste of home. “Flavours trigger memories,” Fong says.
He’s watched his clientele age along with the population of Main Street. For them, it’s like a community centre, a gathering place. That is why Fong plans to build a six-storey, multi-generational residential building and social centre atop the restaurant. “My father loves the idea,” he says. “He wants to live here.”
CORRECTION: Due to fact-checking errors, the originally published version of this story mixed up the names of Colin Grant’s father and uncle. The original story also mistakenly said Douglas Grant had been inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame instead of the Nova Scotia Softball Hall of Fame. The information above is correct. Halifax Magazine regrets the errors.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.