Ciao, Frankie Tomatto’s, you delicious, affordable, bonkers buffet

Ciao, Frankie Tomatto’s, you delicious, affordable, bonkers buffet

We lost more than just a restaurant when Markham’s all-you-can-eat Italian institution died

Photos courtesy of Hal Roback

When I was growing up, there was only one restaurant my family went to for any celebration: Frankie Tomatto’s.

For the uninitiated, Frankie’s was an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet, located in Markham and capped with a 55-foot replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was the brainchild of Hal Roback, who imprinted the Olive Garden cuisine and aesthetic over the Mandarin business model. Frankie’s opened in 1994 and served more than 11 million meals before closing in 2020, an early casualty of the pandemic. The tower remained standing afterward, a reminder of the restaurant’s glory days, until earlier this month, when it was demolished—leading many loyal customers like me to feel the loss all over again and reflect on the legacy.

Unsurprisingly, the inside of the restaurant was also a lot, with a dining room done up to look like an Italian villa, complete with faux cobblestone floors, hot tables decorated to look like storefronts and trompe l’oeil wallpaper that mimicked the crumbling walls of ancient ruins. At one point, a fully functioning indoor water fountain stood as a centrepiece to the pretend villa’s pretend piazza—Toronto’s own Trevi Fountain. In short, Frankie’s was thoroughly cheesy but chock full of charm.

My family was just one of the tens of thousands that Frankie’s served. And we were loyal devotees. We visited for every birthday, anniversary, end-of-the-school-year celebration and even Christmas. Frankie’s was never not busy. Being there, especially during weekend dinner service, was wonderfully chaotic: the chatter of families conversing in Mandarin or Hindi or Farsi; a recording of an Italian lesson on repeat in the washroom; the screaming, cringey pre-recorded birthday song (“It’s-a Frankie birthday!”)—which never failed to elicit some jump scares every time it came on out of nowhere—and hordes of people circling the salad bar, waiting for it to be replenished with baby spinach and cherry tomatoes.

The food at Frankie’s was the best food ever—or at least that’s how I remember it. The pizza, the dessert towers, the bubbling stews and never-ending rivers of sauce, ready to be ladled over platefuls of my favourite pasta (penne). And, while that all may sound pretty basic to some people, my family, who immigrated to Canada from China in 1999, never ate this kind of food at home. This meant that I associated garlic bread and chicken alfredo with special occasions. My parents looked forward to the giant ham and pot roast, dishes that were so different from what they cooked at home. As working-class immigrants with three kids to feed, they loved being able to unleash us onto a buffet where we could eat as much as we wanted without affecting the bill. All-you-can-eat restaurants are popular because they symbolize decadence and allow over-indulgence among families not accustomed to over-indulging.

Most of the clientele at Frankie’s were immigrants like us, who had also come to celebrate milestones. As the years went by, I noticed new options at the hot tables: halal beef and vegetarian meat pretenders began to pop up in the chafing dishes, a reflection of the restaurant’s diverse diners. “At an all-you-can-eat buffet like Frankie’s, you didn’t need to speak English,” says Roback. “You didn’t need a menu, you didn’t need to communicate with servers. It really worked in the GTA.”

When Frankie’s closed, I was just one of many heartbroken regulars. (In fact, on the restaurant’s now-inactive Instagram account, people are still commenting on the goodbye post, begging for a reopening.) On August 29, 2020, as a final show of appreciation for their customers, the Frankie’s team handed out free pizzas on a drive-through basis—because Covid—only accepting donations for Easter Seals. Roback says that they handed out 1,100 pizzas that day, and some recipients told him they had waited in line for over three hours to bid farewell. “I couldn’t believe how many people were driving up and taking pictures. It was unreal.”

Frankie’s closure is part of a larger trend: the death of the buffet. When the pandemic hit and public health measures dictated the end of dining in, it was more difficult for hot-table self-serve joints like Frankie’s to pivot to takeout. Even when indoor dining returned, getting up and walking around a restaurant was a no-no, and approaching a hot table and hand-picking the perfect slice of pizza was out of the question. “We tried to reimagine Frankie’s,” says Roback. “But, to be honest, we couldn’t.”

The business model of Frankie’s and so many other buffet restaurants was dysfunctional even before the pandemic and then eviscerated by lockdowns. It costs a lot to stock a buffet. And the labour costs of staffing a place as big as Frankie’s, which sat 425 hungry people, were astronomical—according to Roback, Frankie’s had 154 employees when it closed. But jacking up the prices would have taken away from the sense of bargain that was integral to the buffet’s success. “Right up until we closed, you could have an all-you-can-eat lunch at Frankie’s for the price of a hamburger,” says Roback. “I just don’t see that same pricing model happening in our current economic situation.”

With Frankie’s gone, the surrounding neighbourhood is a sea of strip malls, gas stations, warehouses and highways. While the area has become more lively in the past few years, with dim sum halls and Indian restaurants popping up in this previously Tim Hortons–dominated part of the GTA, nothing seems to have filled the tomato-shaped hole Frankie’s left behind. As great as these new spots are, they aren’t the kitschy, weirdo, budget-friendly restaurants that you go to when you need to feed a birthday party of 15 growing tweens.

The author at 12 Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gao


The author at 17 Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gao

Communities across Canada have a Frankie’s, they just go by different names. When I tell my friends who have never been to Frankie’s about the fever dream that was eating there, I always learn about another such place in another part of the country—some other absurdly decorated, over-the-top buffet that was the go-to for family celebrations. When we lose places like Frankie’s, we don’t just lose restaurants—we lose community gathering spaces. Frankie’s was magical because of the unique combination of affordability and deliciousness, the bonkers aesthetic, the diverse group of diners, the hands-on experience. For 25 years, Frankie’s was a big part of my family’s life.

In 2019, we celebrated my younger sister’s 17th birthday at Frankie’s. As the host led us to our table, we passed by another family also celebrating a birthday. The staff hit play on that atrocious song, inviting everyone in the dining room to sing along. The birthday boy was mortified by the attention but endured it like a champ, even posing for a picture with a crown and a cardboard cut-out of Frankie, the restaurant’s mascot, a Roman emperor-esque character brandishing a fistful of dry spaghetti. We laughed, teasing my sister that soon it would be her turn. Then we sat down to enjoy what would be our last Frankie’s feast—we just didn’t know it at the time.

A packed parking lot during Frankie’s prime Photo courtesy of Hal Roback