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The History of Takeout - A Journey Through the Evolution of Takeout Food

Written by Leo Moncel

Canada boasts some of the best food on the planet. Nowhere is the country’s multiculturalism better represented than in our country’s casual restaurants and takeout joints. But how did Canada’s best takeout dishes evolve? Across the country, we’re exploring the origins of unique local specialties and nationwide favourites.

1740s-1880s – Early Inns and Taverns

In the years around the time of Confederation, inns and alehouses satisfy the hunger of travellers, traders and merchants. Still serving a slice of history, names like the Six Mile Pub, (Victoria, BC, 1856), The Mansion House, (St Catharine’s, ON, 1806) and Halifax’s Split Crow Pub (1749)(1) harken back to an era of stone walls, lamp lights and hearty, simple fare.

1854-1900 – Hogtown Booming!

The must-have grab-and-go item of Toronto’s St Lawrence Market, the peameal bacon sandwich was chosen by the mayor’s office as the city’s signature dish in 2016! William Davies, who ran a butcher’s stall in the Market starting in the late 19th Century, is credited as the creator of peameal bacon, a lean pork loin preserved in a salt brine and nowadays dusted in cornmeal. Davies built a pork empire in fledgling Toronto, giving rise to the city’s long-standing nickname, Hogtown. As to Davies’ legacy, the operation he founded is now Maple Leaf Foods(2).

1894 – Montreal’s Greatest Deli-cacy

Perhaps the most famous takeout restaurant in Canada is none other than Montreal’s Schwartz’s Deli. Schwartz’s (established 1932) may be the popularizer of Montreal smoked meat, but likely was not the originator of the technique. The first published record of Montreal smoked meat comes from delicatessen owner Aaron Sanft running a full-page advertisement in 1894(3). The technique is believed to have derived from Romanian Jewish immigrants and differs from New York’s pastramis in relying on a dry rub over a nitrate-laced wet brine(3). Today, not only is Schwartz’s still happily booming, but Lester’s, Dunn’s and the charming time capsule Willensky’s in Mile End are all enjoying decades in the trade of spiced, smoked, steamed and sliced brisket sandwiches.

1900 – The Birth of the Butter Tart

The evolution of Canada’s unofficial favourite dessert is a sticky one! Its likely parents are the French tarte au sucre, dating back to the 1600s, and the English treacle pie. The first published butter tart recipe can be credited to a Mrs. Mary Ethyl Macleod of Barrie, Ontario in 1900. The treat has reached peak fame in Ontario’s cottage country in the Muskokas and the Kawarthas, where butter tart festivals and self-guided butter tart trails have made this so much more than just a delicious to-go treat with coffee(4).

1928 – White Spot Hits the Mark

Nat Bailey converts his old Ford Model T into a proto-food truck and sets up along Vancouver’s Lookout Point selling hot dogs and peanuts to hungry strollers. By 1955, White Spot diners were treated to the drive-in experience. In 2019, “BC’s Own” is serving 12 million customers a year in British Columbia and Alberta and their spin-off brand, Triple-O, is the exclusive operator with BC Ferries(5).

1940’s – Not Strictly Persian

In Thunder Bay, picking up a Persian has nothing to do with Iranian food. It’s a doughnut in the same vein as a cinnamon bun topped with pink berry icing. In the early 1940s, Art Bennet, a local baker, has the chance to meet visiting US WWI General “Black Jack” Pershing, and is inspired to name his new creation in an homage to the war hero (6). While the Persian hasn’t yet made it national, Northern Ontarians are still enjoying Persians from Bennett’s Bakery and The Persian Man.

1947 – Montreal Bans the Hot Dog Cart

Stating hygienic concerns, the City of Montreal imposes a complete ban on street food vendors. The ban on street food is part of what fuels the success of the casse-croute, uniquely Montrealaise low-cost diners serving up french fries and “steamies” – small, steamed hot dogs. Legends like The Montreal Pool Room (established 1912), and Chez Ma Tante (1932), are still going strong. The ban on street food vendors was not lifted until 2013(7)! Photo Credit: MTL Resto Rap

1948 – Vie’s After Hours

Vie’s Chicken and Steak House opens up in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver. True to its name, the no-frills diner serves up only chicken and steak. After hours, it serves double duty as a speakeasy. The restaurant survived the demolition of the surrounding predominantly Black Hogan’s Alley in the 1960s (8). Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and even Louis Armstrong would stop by to support the legendary spot during its 31-year run(9).

1951 – Reel Fresh!

Fishing each morning in the narrows of St. John’s, Ches Barbour opens Ches’s, a small fish and chips spot, serving the genuine catch-of-the-day(10). Steadily expanding over the decades, Newfoundland’s most loved chippy now boasts six locations.

1952 – St Hubert Brings it Home

With a fleet of bright yellow Volkswagen Beetles, Montreal’s rotisserie chicken specialists St Hubert, born just a year earlier on St Hubert street, become the first restaurant operator in Canada offering free delivery service (11).

1955-1960 – The Birth of Poutine

The unofficial national dish of Canada just happens to be a takeout staple! Fernand Lachance, a Warwick Quebec restaurateur takes credit for the name. In 1957, one of his regular customers asked for cheese curds to be added to his fries, and Lachance is said to reply, “Ca va faire une maudite poutine!” or, it will make a damned mess (12)! The addition of gravy is sometimes credited to the need to keep the fries hot for dine-in patrons or truckers climbing back into their big rigs. Decades later, poutine will become a national obsession and evolve into a whole category of dishes(13).

1957 – Clamouring for More

Deep-fried clams are a must-have in New Brunswick for locals and tourists alike. Ossie’s Lunch in Bethel began service in 1957(14) and is still going strong. Chez Leo near Shediac Bridge opened in 1961(15) and boasts online ordering during their season.

1959 – There’s No Harvey Behind Harvey’s

In Toronto Suburb Richmond Hill, Jack Mauran (five years after creating Swiss Chalet) opens the first-ever Harvey’s. Mauran had been considering the name Humphrey’s but picked up the name “Harvey’s” when he grabbed signage from a closing car dealership(16).

1967 – A Piece of History

Pizza Pizza opens its first location in Toronto(17). In the 1990s, the company will lead the way in creating a state-of-the-art switchboard for organizing telephone orders and winning customers with a highly attractive 30 minutes or it’s free delivery guarantee.

1970’s – Dinner And a Movie

Indian takeout arrives in Canada in a major way. In Toronto, Punjabi immigrant Gian Naz begins the Naz Theatre dedicated totally to Bollywood films, and with it gives rise to the first Little India in any major city in North America(18). Moti Mahal, Udupi Palace and the iconic Lahore Tikka House all boast decades of history in the neighbourhood.

1973 – King of Donair

Peter Gamoulakos boldly takes the title “King of Donair” when opening his new Halifax takeout spot. A self-trained Greek chef, Gamoulakos had tried with little success selling traditional gyros. Keeping the vertical spit grill, but trading lamb for ground beef and substituting tzatziki for a sauce of his own creation (sweetened condensed milk, garlic powder and vinegar), he saw sales skyrocket and his culinary creation imitated by every late-night pizza joint in Halifax. As Maritimers migrate westward, the Halifax doner gains a sizable following in Edmonton(19).

1975 – Calgary’s Own

Albertans are known to have a bit of taste for beef. It should come as no surprise that Ginger Beef, now a staple on the menus of Chinese restaurants across North America, is credited to Chef George Wong at Calgary’s Silver Inn, which opened in 1975(20). Still going strong, the restaurant serves a mix of northern Chinese and western adapted dishes.

1989 – The Ho-Lee Ghost Kitchen

A ghost kitchen model about three decades before the coining of the term, Ho-Lee Chow opens up five locations in Toronto with a centralized ordering system and an all-delivery model. The franchise expands to six provinces and enjoys a two-decade run(21).

2008 – Raising the Bar

Chef Nuit Regular’s SukhoTHAI sets new standards for authenticity and quality in a takeout-centric business.

2010 – Hortons Heads to New Territory

Tim Hortons, established in 1964, becomes a truly national franchise with a presence in every province and territory through the addition of three kiosks in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, population 7,200(23).

2012 – Skipping to Their Own Beat

Brothers Josh and Chris Simair, an investment banker and an IT architect, respectively, are inspired by their working night cravings for takeout. Skip the Dishes is born. The Winnipeg-based company is acquired in 2016 by its current U.K.-based parent, Just Eat(22).

2014-2021 – Planet of the Apps

App-based ordering goes mainstream. Skip the Dishes and Ritual, started in Canada, duke it out with UberEats, DoorDash, FaceDrive, Fantuan and others.

2016 – Grab a Fork

A 2.5 million dollar renovation breathes new life into The Forks, Winnipeg’s cultural and dining complex built on the historic fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers(24). The revitalization includes the addition of The Common, a local craft beer kiosk, perfect to pair with another Manitoba classic – Walleye fish and chips from Fergie’s.

2020 – Stay Home, Save Livelihoods

The closure of dining rooms across the country in response to the global pandemic leads to an unprecedented shift to takeout and delivery. For the first time in Canadian history, alcohol is allowed to be included with takeout home delivery orders in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec(25).

Citations

1) https://www.foodnetwork.ca/dining-out/photos/canadas-10-oldest-restaurants

2) https://www.foodnetwork.ca/shows/great-canadian-cookbook/blog/the-history-of-canadian-peameal-bacon/

3) https://www.foodnetwork.ca/shows/great-canadian-cookbook/blog/the-delicious-history-of-montreal-smoked-meat/

4) https://www.foodnetwork.ca/shows/great-canadian-cookbook/blog/the-sticky-sweet-history-of-the-butter-tart/

5) https://www.whitespot.ca/about/story/

6) https://www.foodnetwork.ca/shows/great-canadian-cookbook/blog/history-of-the-thunder-bay-persian-roll-done/

7) https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/montreal-lifts-66-year-old-ban-on-food-trucks/article12714346/

8) https://www.bcfoodhistory.ca/hogans-alley-vies-chicken-and-steak-house/

9) https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/this-week-in-history-1979-at-vies-everyone-got-equal-treatment-and-great-food

10) http://www.chessfishandchips.ca/#home-section

11) https://www.st-hubert.com/en/about/history.html

12) https://www.foodnetwork.ca/shows/great-canadian-cookbook/blog/delicious-messy-history-of-poutine/

13) https://www.macleans.ca/society/the-history-of-poutine-how-it-became-our-most-iconic-dish/

14) https://fooddaycanada.ca/events/ossies-lunch-bethel-st-andrews-new-brunswick/

15) https://www.chezleo.ca/about

16) https://www.blogto.com/eat_drink/2015/01/that_time_when_harveys_hamburgers_came_to_toronto/

17) https://cfa.ca/franchisecanada/iconic-brand-pizza-pizza/

18) https://gerrardindiabazaar.com/a-brief-history-of-torontos-little-india-neighbourhood/

19) https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2015/12/06/saga-of-halifaxs-first-donair-resembles-greek-wrapsody.html

20) http://www.silverinnrestaurant.com/silver-inn-restaurant.html

21) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ho-lee-chow-out-of-business-1.845601

22) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/skip-the-dishes-sold-1.3897958

23) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/tim-hortons-lands-in-iqaluit-1.972674

24) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-forks-changes-1.4475842

25) https://www.dentons.com/en/insights/articles/2020/april/24/temporary-changes-to-alcohol-regulation-throughout-canada