Good Old-Fashioned Eats

Looking for some great comfort food, down-home cooking, or maybe a hangover cure? We've got the inside scoop (of gravy).

Of course it's great to eat local, organic, healthful produce. But sometimes, you just want some good old-fashioned diner food, preferably in an actual old-fashioned diner. If so, you're in luck—Thunder Bay has some great options.

There’s nothing like an idiosyncratic greasy spoon restaurant to make you feel at home. As a teen in Thunder Bay, my favourite had to be Thunder Bay Restaurant on Bay Street. There, the incomparable Denyse might ask you to fetch your own coffee refill from behind the counter (and help top up some of the other customers while you’re at it).  If you needed a water refill, the corner sink featured, according to Denyse, “Perrier pumped straight from France”—it wasn’t, it was just still tap water—but you didn’t complain.

Denyse sat in your little booth with you to take your order; she was brash, she could swear like a sailor, but most importantly, she made you feel at home. If she was busy, you helped out—you were happy to. And you weren’t allowed to leave without a hug. But aside from the ineffable service and ambiance, the food was plentiful, comforting, affordable, and their Finn pancakes, in my humble opinion, were even better than the Hoito’s. The Thunder Bay Restaurant’s demise was decidedly unceremonious: one day a few years ago they closed for renovations, rumours swirled for a year, and they never opened up again.

Thunder Bay Restaurant (RIP)

Fond memories of that spot survive in the minds and arteries of nostalgic saps like myself. Fortunately, there are still plenty of charming Thunder Bay holes in the wall to make any lonely soul feel at home, fill them with comfort food, and if necessary, relieve their hangover.

A disclaimer: Thunder Bay and the surrounding area have a near endless supply of Mom & Pop time capsules dishing up all manner of fried eggs, Thunder Bay-style Coney dogs, or Finnish-Canadian bush worker fare, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. But if you have the occasion to check out any of the establishments listed here, you won’t be disappointed.

Niva’s Restaurant

Niva’s is a family restaurant dishing up Finn pancakes that could stand up to the best in town. Combining Finnish-Canadian dishes like mojakka—an amazingly comforting fish soup—with diner staples like burgers and bacon and eggs, this place is a favourite with locals. Dessert aficionados will appreciate Niva’s homemade pies and sweets—try the cinnamon buns!

Hot Shots Dining Lounge (Superior Bowladrome)

(Photo: Will Scheibler)

Here’s one of those amazing time-capsule restaurants that hasn’t changed in decades. Though Hot Shots is a worthwhile dining destination in its own right for fries and gravy, club sandwich platters, and other diner mainstays, it’s also a great spot to grab an affordable and satisfying nosh after throwing a game of five pin, as it’s located inside Superior Bowladrome, a charming old-school bowling alley. They’re also fully licensed, with an array of beers and cocktails on the menu. Pro tip: if you want to erase the effects of any exercise you may have accomplished in the bowling lanes, you can order yourself a grilled Persian, Thunder Bay’s signature pink frosted doughnut, that’s been sliced in half, buttered, and fried to crispy caramelized perfection. Trust me: it’s worth it.

McKellar Confectionery

Speaking of time capsules, this multigenerational family business near my old high school is a personal favourite of mine. One thing that outsiders may not know about Thunder Bay is that we love Coney sauce: a sort of meaty chili sauce poured over hotdogs and burgers. Everyone has their favourite local spot (shout-out to Westfort Coney Island and Nippers Takeout), and McKellar Confectionery is my go-to. A local institution since the 1920s, the most radical change that this restaurant has undergone over the years was the controversial addition of French fries a few years back to their very minimalist menu of “cheeseburger, hamburger, hot dog, and toast.” The legendary founder, Gus, used to line up four or more burgers and dogs on his aged forearm and ladle the steaming hot Coney sauce onto the lot of them in one daring splosh. Gus passed away in 2014, but his spirit lives on.

The Beacon Restaurant

This spot by the waterfront serves hands down one of the finest classic breakfasts to be had in Northwestern Ontario, and starting well under $10, which is hard to find nowadays. Located in the Midtown Inn (formerly the Shoreline Hotel), a favourite of tree planters, The Beacon serves up down-home comfort food like perogies, poutine, burgers, and more. It’s a classic spot to sit with friends on a weekend morning, sipping countless coffee refills, and filling your belly with just-greasy-enough grub while you fondly regret the last round of drinks from the night before.

About Adam Waito

Adam Waito is an illustrator, musician, and writer, based in Toronto via Montreal via Thunder Bay via Manitouwadge. His 2008 lo-fi indie rock concept album about Thunder Bay—Amethyst Amulet by Adam and the Amethysts—was called "the pop hit of the summer" by the Toronto Star. His illustrations appear in Vice and elsewhere. Check out his illustrations at

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