By Robert K. Stephen (CSW)
(WINDSOR, ON) – November 22/2012 6:30 p.m.
Arrived in the newly located Panorama Lounge at Union Station in Toronto where I am waiting to board VIA 1 to Windsor. The Panorama Lounge has lost its former 1980 dowdiness and is in a beautiful setting with impressive Art Deco lighting, marble floors and columns. Comfortable leather and upholstered chairs with communal bench tables with bar stools. This is a lounge befitting the austere grandness of Union Station. It is quite grand in fact but wait a minute and pardon the vulgarity but where is the food? Porter provides roasted almonds and chocolate or shortbread cookies at its lounge in Toronto. No food here….not a shred. Nor is there any spring water with a cute racoon on it. But there is coffee, pop and juice and unlike the former Panorama Lounge at Union Station this one is spotless and gleaming. I have paid $88 for my trip to Windsor and we are off to a great start and no cumbersome airport security and constant flashing of identification. Hassle free but a crumb of food certainly would have been a token of good faith from VIA Rail.
The train departs on the button. While the Panorama Lounge has been updated the VIA cars are a bit gloomy, glum and depressing with their greens and browns. So many stops! You can board an express train from Toronto to Montreal but apparently not to Windsor. Pre-dinner cocktails begin to flow and more wine is available with the appetizer of Caprese tomato salad with prosciutto which is delicious but the whole wheat bun is so hard and stale it’s a dangerous weapon. The Lemon Pepper Salmon Cakes are scrumptious and the white and wild rice compliment it well. The “Prince Edward Island mixed buttered vegetables” look and taste like second class airline fare.
No shortage of great service and wine and swearing by a same sex couple in a bitter argument about how sloppy one of them is. Poor and vulgar manners of these passengers indeed and no VIA officialdom to stop the obnoxious and rude fellows with filthy mouths.
The red and white wine is from Palatine Hills in Niagara. The white is a thin and acidic 2011 VQA Niagara Lakeshore “1812” unoaked Chardonnay and the red is a 2011 VQA Niagara Lakeshore Cabernet/ Merlot with cheerful raspberry, cherry and cranberry notes and a slightly sweet tang. Jason, the cabin steward, tells me VIA 1 passengers prefer red wine particularly the older ones. As far as consumers go passengers just ask for red or white and few ask for advice as to what to drink with their meals. Liqueurs and chocolates follow the meal.
Two hours into the trip VIA 1 passengers are in a jolly mood apart from the squabbling swearers. Service disappears after London. Where are the stewards? The squabbling couple disembarks in London in a foul torrent of cussing. Unfortunately there are a couple of Willy Lomans in the rear full of tremendous sales plans and equally offensive filthy vocabulary but they quickly doze off leaving me as the only non-passed out passenger on his way to Windsor.
November 22/2012 11:15 p.m.
Windsor, the jewel in the Southwestern Ontario crown, has a metro population of 320,000, which is a decrease from its 2006 census population. Detroit looms across the Detroit River. Could this Detroit skyline be Windsor’s biggest tourist attraction? It sparkles in my eyes as Canada’s friendliest taxi driver takes me along a rather bleak and soulless looking Riverside Drive to The Windsor Hilton. Windsor is not a healthy city and it has a wounded semi-impoverished look similar to the poor suburbs of Los Angeles.
The collapse of its automotive industry, the high Canadian dollar, and the opening of casinos in Detroit has bashed this city over the head. However Mayor Francis has grand plans to put Windsor on the map as he jets to and fro brokering successful mega projects that will pull Windsor out of its economic mire. Huge airplane maintenance facilities and a world class swimming pool are crowning glories of revitalization!
I start to reflect on just why I am here in Windsor after so many people say, “So why on earth would you visit Windsor?” I am here to see a few friends from the Square and to catch up with some winery friends, but I also have a goal of portraying Windsor as a tourist may see it. I am focusing on whatever I discover to show surely there must be some good in Windsor, and I am sure conversely there is some bad, but at the end of the day there is Windsor.
Like it or leave it and when leaving it decide whether or not you like it.
As I leave the hotel to grab a 1.5 litre bottle of Evian water I turn right and run into a sign of one of “the greatest newspapers in Canada”, “The Windsor Star”. With its sharp, astute and investigative approach, particularly relating to municipal issues, it leads the citizens of Windsor towards a well informed and unbiased view of Windsor’s municipal government, which, aside from a credit card issue or two, is a beacon of responsible municipal government in Canada.
I pick up some water on Ouellette Avenue under the neon shadows of Caesar’s. Glad to see people out and about although one establishment that is particularly boisterous. With cold water in hand and the wonderful images of the Windsor Star in my head I head back to my hotel in the more or less cold and quiet streets of Windsor to The Windsor Hilton.
November 23/2012 7:30 a.m.
The Windsor Hilton is a strange beast. The boarded up windows and loose cable at the entrance and the closure and rebuilding of the Park Terrace Restaurant indicates better and more modern days are coming. However, none of this disruption is communicated on its website when I booked my $98 Zoomer rate room. I am not sure of its principal era but perhaps sometime in the 1980’s.
Check in was entirely friendly and sincere. The lobby is simple but not as retro as the room I am in (1203). Red carpet with black stripes running through it and two chairs, one with a stool. A huge writing desk with a comfy swivel chair. The bathroom is really dated but not dilapidated, just old.
My room overlooks the Detroit River and I can see the GM Towers. The skyline of Detroit at night is one of the highlights of a Windsor scenic experience!
Speaking of experience the wood panelled elevators of the Windsor Hilton look like a bit of old world luxury all the more bizarre stepping out of them into the orange, brown and yellow striped carpet in the hallways. History doesn’t have to be from the 1850’s. It can be the 1980’s so sit back and enjoy. And speaking of history the “honey” and “dears” I hear the wait staff say at breakfast at The River Run Restaurant takes me back to a small town years ago. Windsorites are a terribly friendly bunch.
The $16.95 breakfast buffet is a ”wee bit” on the expensive side and the watermelon and pineapple is heading this side of soggy.
I can find far superior less costly breakfasts in Kitchener or Montreal. I am as happy and comfy as can be at the Windsor Hilton! It’s a nice little cocoon in a bustling metropolis and all the staff are so friendly I really feel at home. Perhaps it was because the phone was not working in my room so who cares about missed calls!
The Windsor Hilton offers a decent room service menu and as in room wine choices there are 4 whites, 5 reds, two rosés and three sparklers. There are two Canadian whites and reds with one rosé all from Pelee Island Winery. As the River Run Restaurant goes it’s a ghost town at dinnertime.
November 23/2012 9:00 a.m.
I am invited to attend a Hospitality Management course at St. Clair College Downtown Campus overlooking the Detroit River. The topic of the lecture, delivered by Michelle Plunkett of Colchester Ridge Estate Winery, is how to deliver a presentation. The students are eager, honest and a pleasure to be with. If this represents the future of Windsor’s hospitality industry all it requires are more tourists. The Downtown Campus is a former convention centre. I add my two cents and no doubt the students quickly sense my brilliance!
November 23/2012 11:15 a.m.
Enough education and food. Let’s see what Windsor is made of . I head up Ouellette Avenue to Wyandotte Street and in the direction of Walkerville. Ouellette is not a particularly endearing street especially on a cold and blustery grey day. Cheap eats, cheap merchandise and on the low side of urban. Quite frankly this may be why Windsor gets a bad rap with a downtown looking so shabby and devoid of any sense of community. It’s not pretty tourism for sure but it shows the shabby state of urban planning and perhaps of the economy of Windsor.
Matters do not improve with the walk along Wyandotte Street with cheque cashing stores and deserted streets and a rather crumbly looking Holy Family Chaldean Church at the corner of Marentette. Windsor can’t be seen as ethnically homogenous. By the huge amount of shops, mosques and grocery stores peppered with Arabic signs you quickly conclude this is a pocket of new Canadians thriving in Windsor. Behind English and French as the language spoken at home Arabic is the most spoken language in Windsor at 3.7%. Italian is next at 3.3%.
Finally at Gladstone the promised land of Walkerville hits the senses with a small town original feel to the buildings, and in many ways in the spirit of those who live in this emerging new area of Windsor clustered about the Hiram Walker Distillery; hence the “Walker” in the “ville”. And it just isn’t the stretch along Wyandotte that charms the senses and spirit. Head to the side streets and see some pretty amazing residential buildings. You will know you have arrived in Walkerville when you see the old Bank of Nova Scotia building and the Old Walkerville Pharmacy. Love the sign at a local tavern indicating a “ladies and escorts” entrance. Sounds racy indeed!
November 23/2012 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Beaming with happiness at seeing some pleasing architecture I head to The Twisted Apron at 1833 Wyandotte Street East for both lunch and dinner. This is a real charmer of a restaurant with its large window at the front and at one side which lets light and the outside world permeate in. To the side are two panelled off dining areas. Basic chandelier lighting and exposed brick walls keeps the mood low key and Walkerville revival industrial hip.
It is very animated and lively at both lunch and dinner so if you are looking for a quiet low key dining experience the energy of this establishment is not for you. Line ups are common and reservations are accepted for groups of 6 and up. Kate Robinson, owner, tells me she remembers the comforting utility of her grandmother’s apron and her excellent basic home-style cooking.
The good cooking remains at The Twisted Apron for sure but the “Twisted” means the variation on classic standards such as eggs benedict atop quinoa patties with roasted red pepper and hollandaise with hash ($13).
Or a truffled Grilled Cheese with white cheddar and brie, pan fried truffled butter served with a choice of basil, apple bacon or roasted vegetable spread ($10).
For lunch I have a Barking Squirrel Beer Lager from Hop City Brewing in Brampton Ontario ($5) and the Vegan Burger made with chickpea, barley quinoa, beet, kale and sweet potato patty with heirloom tomatoes,smoked ketchup, Dijon mustard and mixed greens on a Kaiser ($12).
The house throws in a monstrously delicious and moist carrot cake that is just about as good as my own. I can say this is about the most satisfying comfort food I have had in years.
Who cares if it is snowing outside and the wind is howling. There are 12 beers mostly microbrew and Canadian. There are 8 red wines 2 of which are local Lake Erie North Shore wines and there are also 8 whites of which two are also Lake Erie North Shore wines.
For dinner the Fried Lake Erie Perch is served in a crispy batter with home fries and coleslaw ($12). A slice of peach pie from the oven crowns a glorious dinner. Hostess Carla rules the lunch crowd with a peppy Walkerville spirit. I am a bit shy to ask her about her tattoo.
All said and done this is a world class home-style restaurant. (The Twisted Apron, 1833 Wyandotte Street East, Windsor, Ontario, (519) 256.2665, www.thetwistedapron.com).
After lunch a walk around the residential area of Walkerville. Tremendous brick homes fitting in so well with the brick of the Hiram Walker Distillery. The Old Post Office at 420 Devonshire (shown here) is a marvel of restoration and right opposite to that is an old Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building.
Just around the corner is the Walkerville Brewery that has been open for just over 2 months sitting in a former Hiram Walker racking warehouse at 525 Argyle Road. Two beers are produced currently being a premium lager and a rye ale both of which are tasty microbrews. Chris Ryan a co-owner of the brewery explains that most of the brewing equipment was purchased from a defunct Waco, Texas brewery and there is capacity to quickly brew seasonal beers such as a chestnut lager that should be released before Christmas.
This brewery sells to the public in growlers and by draught at its bar and has some 20 local commercial establishments as clients. Chris hopes that the brew can make it into the LCBO for Ontario wide distribution. This is a cavernous space and has the feel of a real industrial establishment. Loads of space for wakes, weddings and corporate functions. More evidence of the power of Walkerville.
November 24, 2012 11 a.m.
While Windsor proper may be in the doldrums and infected with a pessimistic citizenry, the energy, enthusiasm and optimism is buzzing in Lake Erie North Shore wine country. Here no dream seems unobtainable and that spirit is contagious. Could this emerging wine area be the draw that Windsor requires to escape its doldrums? Perhaps this is a Napaesque question for its local tourist and development authorities to pursue, but with the departure of the chair of the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corporation good luck on any progress being made on developing an infrastructure promoting Lake Erie North Shore wine country.
Given the lack of a tourist infrastructure in local wine country now is the time for the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corporation to strike and have its wine country and Windsor become a wine-centric tourist destination. With some colleagues from the Windsor Square we hop into a van captained by Michelle Plunkett of Colchester Ridge Estate Winery (CREW). Sixty-five kilometres from Windsor centre is Lake Erie North Shore wine country with 14 wineries, most of them small but dynamic and upcoming.
We stop first at Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards in Harrow, Ontario with a super mellow and cozy tasting room with fresh top quality stemware for every pour. They are known for their Chardonnay and rosés but have expanded through purchasing grapes to produce Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer; they strike a big score with their Gewürztraminer. Ambitious plans are afoot for an entertainment venue.
Then to Oxley Estate Winery with a lovely California farmhouse designed tasting room. The last time I saw this winery it wasn’t a winery but a dilapidated barn. What a transformation. What excellent Riesling, Regent and rosé from its own grapes growing like happy maniacs in sandy loam soil. Demand has been so high the Riesling has been sold out and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wine had to be purchased and held for 90 days before it could be sold under the Oxley name. The Pinot Noir is rather attractive despite its lack of Oxley parentage.
Next stop is CREW in Harrow. A happy buzz with groups coming in. We are joined by owner Bernie Gorski as we sit in in a rustic tasting area with French oak barrels to our left and rear with loads of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon happily sleeping away. There is an authentic atmosphere here. No glitz and fancy trappings, but a feeling of wine production in your midst.
Bernie Gorski, the consummate host, takes a beaker and brings back a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend he has drawn from the barrel which will be bottled as a Grand CREW Reserve shortly. We are very satisfied to say the least and despite my pleadings Bernie will not let me take a bottle away for an advance tasting. This is going to be a monstrous Lake Erie North Shore red!
I should mention the meal prepared by Michelle Plunkett is top class as it always is.
November 24, 2012 8-10 p.m.
Is this Windsor or downtown Soho New York? I am not sure as we head into the Squirrel Cage at 1 Maiden Lane East in downtown Windsor. Co-owners John Ansel and Steven Thompson have just acquired a liquor licence and are over top with excitement and enthusiasm….the new spirit of Windsor so rarely seen in Windsor.
These guys have taken over a dilapidated former massage parlour with an Egyptian Room and a 69er table which is some reinforced contraption I am just too afraid to ask what it is. The place was in such bad shape it was purchased through foreclosure which included some 95 leaks in the roof.
John and Steven have done a fabulous job in transforming the wreck of a space into a new wave, retro-industrial hipster bar and resto. Cool greys and subtle oranges with trestle glass topped tables and loads of bright red and green pillows and avant garde art (for sale) on the walls. An eclectic mix of music enthrals with Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Smashing Pumpkins and Elvis seamlessly mixed.
Love the downstairs entrance with the marble tiles and walk up to the bar-resto. Pinch me sister! Can this be Windsor! More of a lunch or after work type of joint specializing in panninis salads and soups. However with a new liquor license and with 80 martini glasses hidden upstairs who knows what is next. Ultra urban cool buzz I’d expect in Manhattan but I’ll gladly lap it up here! (The Squirrel Cage, 1 Maiden Lane West, 519.252.2243).
Just when I think Windsor is ultra-cool we head off to a less than hip 1980 type pizza joint , Terra Cotta Gourmet Pizza at 318 Pelissier Street . An impressive section of 25 pizzas baked in a wood burning oven to perfection. Every crumb is gobbled up. The La Bruna with tapenade, mushrooms, eggplant, spinach and Asiago cheese is brilliant. Conversely the wine choice is pitiful particularly for an Italian pizza joint which is a real shame as this place really knows how to cook a pizza. Best stick with the two beers on tap. (Terra Cotta Gourmet Pizzeria, 318 Pelissier Street, 519. 971.0223).
November 25, 2012 9 a.m.
Off from the Windsor Hilton looking for a mom and pop restaurant to have a somewhat more inexpensive breakfast than the $16.95 I have to cough up at the Windsor Hilton. Twisting to and fro in the deserted streets of Windsor, always in the shadow of Caesars, and determined not to end up in a Starbucks at all costs, I stumble upon a real gem and a Windsor institution, the Tunnel Bar-B-Q on 58 Park Street East more or less at the corner of the hulking and nasty looking Armouries.
Although I could have waited until 10 a.m. for the Tunnel Sunday Brunch for $10.95 I hanker down to a buffet in a frittata called the Frittata Contadina which includes breakfast meats, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, fresh herbs and parmesan cheese for $9.50 plus two slices of toast with those plastic packets of jam you peel the foil top off. I try some barbeque sauce on some of the frittata then instead of the ubiquitous Heinz ketchup some ED Smith ketchup. My green tea ($1.50) comes in what looks like some glass thermos with a plastic ribbed top. I haven’t seen one of those in years.
The retro thermos fits into what appears to be 1941 original décor. A non pretentious diner and grill house specializing in ribs. I can only imagine what the Ribfest platter for two at $48.95 looks like but I can only surmise, given the 1941 feel to this place with its wooden benches and chairs and its dim lit interior, there are a multitude of happy customers chowing down; and chow down they do often prior to a show at Caesars or returning to a choice of 18 cakes and pies after the show.
I do not want to upset the happy smiles of founders Harry and Helen Racovitis on their portraits at the cash but why on earth is there no wine list? I do discover that there are 8 wines available 5 of which are Pelee Island. It seems Pelee Island does a very good job of marketing itself to established eateries in Windsor. Tunnel Bar-B-Q please join the modern world by printing out a wine list and broadening it to better meet the food you serve.
I can’t resist and walk out with a three pack of homemade barbeque sauce and two jars of seasonings. This place is worth a visit for breakfast, lunch and dinner and post dinner if you can handle a giant piece of cake or pie. (Tunnel Bar-B-Q, 58 Park Street East, 519 258.3663 , www.tbqwindsor.com)
November 25, 2012 11:a.m.
Windsor sure has a fine Canadian art collection housed at the Art Gallery of Windsor on 401 Riverside Drive West. Architecturally and in design it has a major art gallery feel but it is a bit thin on substance. However, given the smaller urban centre it caters to it over delivers to my immense satisfaction.
Just add more depth, open up a restaurant and cafeteria and you have major attraction written over the AGW. Not only that it’s free and for my 90 minutes at the AGW I am the only patron. I’d say the AGW is in trouble and in fact it recently slashed its staff from 17 to 3 and shut down its restaurant and gift shop so its true provincial nature is beginning to be laid bare!
Plans are afoot by the City of Windsor to end its $450,000 annual grant to the AGW and instead take over the AGW building and its $2.5 million dollar mortgage and let the AGW be a rent free tenant on the second and third floors while the main branch of the Windsor Public Library takes over the 1st floor. Tough times in Windsor abound.
The AGW has a world class feel to it both in exterior architecture and internal design. It’s just lacking a little depth in its all Canadian collection but for a city of 200,000 it’s a fine collection on both the third and first floor. You’ll see works from Emily Carr, Tom Thompson, A.Y. Jackson, Lawren S. Harris and A.J. Casson to name a few. Of particular and of lesser renown there are two particularly impressive painting by Caven Atkins (1907-2000) one of which “Self Portrait” is shown here. Running until January 6, 2013 is a menacing but thought provoking exhibit of film, installations and painting by Windsor born multi-media whiz John Scott.
November 25, 1:30 p.m.
What should be a simple trip back to Toronto turns into a VIA nightmare with a two hour bus trip to London and a total lack of communication by VIA officials about what is happening. The VIA crew from London to Toronto is close to panic rushing dinner and wine service and faces a mini revolt with no liqueur being served with some lame excuse about the length of the trip. Liqueurs were served on my trip to Windsor. The revolt is well deserved but as so many are relieved to be off the bus and on the train the revolt is short lived. Extremely poor crisis management at VIA. No communication to passengers whatsoever. Despite arguing for a full refund I receive a $70.00 credit. Looks like I’ll have to return to Windsor again. And my friend that’s not bad.