Stop the Car!
The best roadside diners and dairy bars serve soul-soothing comfort food with a big dollop of nostalgia. Here, our favourite pit stops ’round these parts
Hutch’s on the Beach
Where: 280 Van Wagners Beach Rd., Hamilton, hutchs.ca
In operation since: 1946
What to eat: Fish and chips followed by ice cream in a waffle cone
What to drink: Lemonade
Summertime in Steeltown isn’t the same without a trip to Hutch’s, a frozen-in-time dairy bar that has been a fixture for the past 77 years. Although the waterfront looks nothing like it did back in the day—in ’46, this stretch of beach was populated by a bowling alley, an amusement park and dance halls—the scene at Hutch’s remains much the same: a lineup snakes around the building multiple times, children chase Lake Ontario waves in the distance and the loudspeaker crackles order numbers into the air. Customers waiting patiently for their chili dogs look with seagull-like lust at those returning to the picnic area with fresh-from-the-fryer piles of fries, crispy haddock and chicken fingers. (Just want a cone? The ice cream window’s out back.)
Inside is charmingly chaotic, with nary a square inch of bare wall: vintage jerseys, sun-bleached peewee team photos from decades past and autographed Ticats paraphernalia hang throughout the two-room restaurant. “When customers see old photos of themselves on our walls, it’s like Hamilton’s 15 minutes of fame,” says general manager Rick Creechan. “I’ve taken to rotating items so everyone gets their turn.” The restaurant has been owned by the same family—the Hutchinsons—for three generations. “Other than a veggie burger and a poutine on the menu now, not much has changed here,” he says. “And that’s probably why people like it.”
Flying Saucer Restaurant
Where: 6768 Lundy’s Ln., Niagara Falls, flyingsaucerrestaurant.com
In operation since: 1972
What to eat: The ET Special breakfast
What to drink: A banana-strawberry smoothie
A trip to Niagara Falls isn’t complete without a little camp, and Clifton Hill isn’t the only option for a divorced-from-reality pit stop. Just a 10-minute drive away, on Lundy’s Lane, is a retro-futuristic fever dream that’ll scratch that kitsch itch. The Flying Saucer Restaurant delivers on its name: the spaceship-shaped diner looks plucked from The Jetsons. “My late husband, Henry, designed the building, and the first 10 contractors we spoke to refused to build it—they said a building shaped like that wouldn’t last,” says owner Lillian Di Cienzo. “Well, it’s been 51 years and no cracks!”
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Inside, the intergalactic greasy spoon continues to deliver on its outer-space theme. The ceiling panels mimic metal studded with rivets—it’s like being in an actual ship that also happens to be a ’50s-style diner. Where the windows would look out upon the galaxy, screens play a video loop of a starry expanse complete with UFOs. “Henry passed away in 2012, but he was a firm believer,” says Lillian. “He said he saw a UFO when he was 30, but even before that, he always loved everything about ETs.” While Henry fixated on extraterrestrials, his wife focused on earthlings. “I could see that breakfast was going to be popular,” she says, which is why, in the early aughts, they switched from late-night drive-in (featuring rollerskating wait staff) to morning pancake haven. It may be silent in the void of space, but at the Flying Saucer it’s a road-trippy cacophony of hangry toddlers, gossiping teens and hungover 20-somethings.
Where: 939 Dundas St. W., Whitby, butchies.ca
In operation since: 2017
What to eat: Smoked wings with a caesar salad and hush puppies
What to drink: Sangria or a local craft beer
This isn’t your average barbecue joint. Butchie’s checks all the standard meat-and-three boxes: the pulled pork is lusciously tender, the mac and cheese is sinfully creamy, and the buttermilk fried chicken would make Colonel Sanders reconsider his recipe. But this Whitby pit stop ain’t no honky-tonk copy-paste—just one look at the over-the-top caesar salad, which swaps out croutons for something the folks at Butchie’s call “garlic bombs” (roasted, breaded and deep-fried garlic cloves), is a sign of what’s to come.
Toronto-born owner Andrea Nicholson, whose stint on the inaugural season of Top Chef Canada catapulted her to celeb-chef status, has imbued Butchie’s with Ontario soul. Seasonal sides—like watermelon salad dressed with a candied ginger vinaigrette or hot honey–dipped street corn—show off the bounty being harvested from nearby farm fields. The space itself also puts Ontario splendour front and centre: the lush, picnic table–dotted 1.5-acre property backs onto a babbling brook where, in early autumn, you can watch salmon swim upstream.
“When we opened Butchie’s, there was nothing else like it in the area,” says Nicholson. “It took us a while to find our regulars.” But, after nearly seven years of smoking meat, scooping Kawartha Dairy ice cream and winning fans with its southern Ontario hospitality (the service is seriously above par), Butchie’s has earned its stripes and is now a Whitby institution the locals would be devastated to lose.
Hewitt’s Dairy Bar
Where: 4210 Hwy. 6, Hagersville, hewittsdairy.com
In operation since: 1962
What to eat: A BLT followed by a sundae or a double scoop of grape ice cream
What to drink: A chocolate milkshake
For anyone heading to Lake Erie’s sandy shores, a pit stop at Hewitt’s is basically obligatory. Popping into the retro dairy bar on the way to or from the beach has been a summer tradition since it opened in 1962. And, except for the prices, staff members and maybe some of the funkier ice cream flavours, not much has changed.
One half of the space is devoted strictly to ice cream creations; the other is taken up by a long diner counter lined with old-timey bar stools, where visitors can grab a light lunch (but don’t even try to order a cone from this section). Along one wall: fridges and deep freezers chock full of milk, cheese, high-fat butter and—most importantly—cartons of ice cream, which is made on-site using milk generously provided by Ontario cows. It comes in flavours ranging from classic (vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan, maple walnut) to not-so-classic, like green tea, peach cordial and eggnog (a seasonal holiday treat). Our favourite, the Grimace-coloured grape, has a taste that can be described only as “purple.”
While most people are lured off the highway by the promise of double-scoop cones, sticky sundaes, cherry-topped banana splits and fizzy floats, Hewitt’s also serves more substantial meals, like bacon-and-egg breakfasts, burgers, satisfyingly simple BLTs and slices of house-made pie—à la mode, obviously.
Haugen’s Chicken and Ribs
Where: 13801 Hwy. 7 and 12, Port Perry, haugens.com
In operation since: 1953
What to eat: A half-rack of ribs with a side of fries and a slice of coconut cream pie for dessert
What to drink: A root beer float
Highway 12 north of the 407 is a pastoral stretch: cows grazing, corn swaying and the odd derelict barn. A giant red sign advertising chicken and ribs interrupts the bucolic views, and three minutes later, Haugen’s appears, a sprawling bungalow with rotisserie chickens turning behind a lace-curtained window—the only business for miles.
Back in the ’50s, it must have seemed outlandish to open a restaurant here. “It’s the exception to all the rules, this place,” says Steve Tzountzouris, who took over the family business with his brother, John, in 2001. In a world of eight-second attention spans, this time warp hasn’t been updated since 1976 and remains steadfastly popular with locals and cottagers alike.
When Steve and John’s parents bought Haugen’s in 1969, they did almost no research on the business or nearby Port Perry. “They signed the papers, then drove into town to see what this area was all about. It was all backwards,” says Steve. In the beginning, they ran the restaurant from dawn, when they served breakfast, to well past last call. (Haugen’s was the go-to late-night party place then.) These days, the focus is on the staples they’re famous for: back ribs, chicken dinners, fresh-cut fries and pie. The recipes haven’t changed beyond a sprinkle more paprika in Haugen’s divisive tomato-based dipping sauce (it’s an acquired taste). If they did, the regulars would rebel.