The evolution of K-Town eateries

50 years ago, the city had only a fraction of the dine-out spots it has today

Chez Piggy has been a staple on the Kingston food scene for almost 30 years.
Chez Piggy has been a staple on the Kingston food scene for almost 30 years.
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Every day, hundreds of Queen’s students make a difficult decision: Cambodiana or Cambodian Village? With a restaurant every 10 feet in Kingston, you can finish your entire undergrad without even scratching the culinary surface. The volume of gastronomic opportunities in Kingston, however, is a relatively new phenomenon.

During the 1950s, food options on Princess St. were meager at best. Just a few “lunch bars” dotted the busy street, offering burgers, hot dogs, soda and fries. Students could buy a meal plan for these cafés for a whopping $5.00 and eat cheap the whole year.

During this time, grocery stores and butchers greatly outnumbered restaurants and cafés. One of the only existing restaurants in Kingston during the 1950s was the enticingly named “Superior Restaurant,” which offered simple dinners of steak and potatoes for less than a dollar.

People who were hoping for a nice dinner during this time would often make the trip to Gananoque, or even across the American border in hopes of finding a decent restaurant.

The 1960s saw an emergence of grill style eateries, including Morrison’s, located on King St., which is still open today. By the 1970s, downtown restaurants had tripled, with pizzerias suddenly popping up on every street corner.

It was not until the beginning of the 1980’s that sit-down, menu-based restaurants as we know them became popular. It was during this decade that the restaurant business exploded on and around Princess St.

Some of today’s popular restaurants got their start around this time, including The Toucan, Chez Piggy, Stooley’s and The Pilot House. Kingston also saw a huge influx of our favorite late night snack foods: Burger King, ‘McDonald’s Family Restaurant’, and of course Bubba’s Pizzeria–although poutine was a later addition.

Since this time, the restaurant business has flourished tremendously, landing this small city with diverse and plentiful dining selections. Tim Mahoney, general manager of the Grizzly Grill since its opening, said nowadays, restaurants sell more than just a meal.

“People look for more than just good food,” he said. “They look for an experience, which is everything from service, ambiance, music. It’s a full package.” Kingston’s oldest existing restaurant has its own secret to longevity in the restaurant business. Aunt Lucy’s Dinner House, which opened in 1947 as a drive-in, swears by ‘good food, generous portions, and fresh rolls.’ They say it’s as simple as that.

Sixty years later, Kingston now boasts food from every corner of the globe, with restaurants serving anything from Portuguese and Italian to Indian, Cambodian, French, Tex-Mex and Vietnamese, as well as vegetarian, seafood and pub fare.

Mahoney said he thinks the wide assortment of food to be found in the city is surprising to most. “People are shocked when they come to Kingston to see the variety of restaurants, the quality of the food and that you can get food from just about any corner of the planet here” he said.

Chris Fountas, owner of Zappa’s, a new tapas lounge, has been in the restaurant business in Kingston for over 30 years. With dozens of restaurants opening and closing every year, there is definitely something to be said about success in the industry.

“You have to make changes and you have to be up with the times,” he said.

According to Fountas, people are eating differently now. Varieties of smaller portions are more popular now than heaping mounds of fried foods.

Fountas, Mahoney and many other local restaurant owners agree that fresh, local ingredients are becoming increasingly important to the public because people are more conscious than ever of what they put into their bodies, and of the environmental effects of the food industry.

Spend five minutes at the Wednesday Farmer’s Market on campus and you’ll see that fresh, regional produce is a staple in the diet of many students. A lot of restaurants are making a conscious effort to buy locally, while others have been doing this from the start. The Wolfe Island Bakery on Queen Street serves up an enormous bison burger with meat from Pykeview Meadows, located just a ferry ride away on Wolfe Island. King Street Sizzle offers a different fresh Kingston Market soup every day of the week and Luke’s Gastronomy is publicly committed to supporting farmers and food sources from within a hundred mile radius.

Nowadays, the restaurants lining Kingston’s downtown serve a number of purposes for students and the community. For some, a certain dish offers comfort food away from home – a sweet potato and cheddar quesadilla from The Goat does it for me.

A restaurant with a good ambiance serves as a backdrop for great times with friends or a memorable first date. If you’re a genuine food nerd like me, you just can’t go very long without taste-tasting what Kingston has to offer.

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