When I was in my second year of the Culinary Skills course at Georgian College, I rented a room in a house on Sylvia Street just off Grove. I paid $200 a month to rent that room, which seems like a bargain now, but it ate up almost all of the money I made working part time at Smitty's Pancake House on Bayfield Street. Remember that place?
Around the corner from where I lived stands the Duckworth Plaza which in those days contained a Bank of Montreal, KFC, a laundromat, a dentist's office, a convenience store, a European deli and the newly opened Fil's Cafe. And who recalls taking their driver's test with Mr. Tucker out of this plaza as well? That was 1983. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Fil is the last remaining tenant here from those days.
The exterior is very unassuming — a door, a sign, and three narrow windows that don't give much away as to what the interior looks like. If the outside is unusually plain and unadorned, the inside more than makes up for it. Through three decades of collecting bric-a-brac, there is more to see than the eye can take in — more manual meat grinders than I have ever seen before, perhaps two dozen clocks, countless stuffed fish, witty signs, family portraits and all sorts of other doodads and whatsits. It reminded me of the wonderful I Spy books I used to buy for my children.
Our party of three arrived to an empty dining room, which was surprising. I usually see it filled and humming when I occasionally drop by. A few small groups of diners soon followed, and I quickly came to realize that we were the only non-regulars in the room. While Litsa, owner and server, asked us what we would like to drink, she simply brought teas and coffees to the other tables without asking. She already knew their preferences.
My teen son, who works as a host in a very busy Bayfield Street restaurant, commented "Is it just the two of them?" I think he was surprised to see Litsa work the floor by herself while her husband, Fil, functioned as the lone cook. With hard work, organization, and thirty plus years of experience, I am sure running this family eatery is second nature. This is a mom and pop operation in the truest sense of the term. A little after nine, their son, Taso, arrived to give them a hand.
The boys ordered bacon and eggs, as they always do. I ordered a Greek omelette, as I often do, but it was a must given that this cafe is run by a Greek family. I was not disappointed — large pieces of fresh tomato and generous chunks of feta cheese in perfectly browned eggs. The home fries served with all of our breakfasts were the real deal — soft potatoes with crispy edges, just like you would make for yourself at home.
With the recent closure of Player's Diner, I almost feel as if the small, homey family restaurants in Barrie are becoming endangered species. Very likely, this is the situation in most towns and small cities in Ontario and is not unique to Barrie. Progress is inevitable, I suppose. People retire, rents get higher, neighbourhoods change, buildings get sold and demolished, and tastes change.
Two years ago, the Barrie Examiner ran an article about Fil's Cafe and how both owners and regulars alike were concerned that major changes may be coming to the Duckworth Plaza, ones that may end up squeezing the cafe out completely.
So far, Fil's is safe. It will be a very sad day, and a very long day, when all those knick-knacks have to come down and be packed away. So, my message to you is, if you love your little diners and family run coffee shops, your favourite comfy-cozy go-to spots in Barrie, make sure to visit them often. Give these hard-working people a reason to stay in business. Drop in as often as you can and soak up the atmosphere because you never know when they might be gone.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.