Thursday, August 10, 2006


Winnipeg is strange. My sentiments for it have changed since leaving 10 years ago. There was a time when I could never imagine moving back there for fear of being smothered by its smallness, over-familiarity, and isolation. Now each time I go I try to experience the city as a tourist would, but one who is familiar enough with it to know where the real gems are.
Winnipeg is one of those plucky cities that has grit and history and enough strange-but-true facts that make its citizens proud, no matter how preposterous they seem. The 'Peg's got CBC "Heritage Minutes" galore (Winnie the Pooh, anyone?). But many of its citizens possess another strange sense of pride - like being dedicated to the pathos of living there.
I was there visiting my family and friends recently and had been warned by another ex-pat that the province is in the throes of another of it's "take-pride" campaigns: Manitoba - Spirited Energy! as evidenced by this massive banner right smack dab in the middle of the city's most famous intersection, Portage and Main, which is, of course, completely cut off to pedestrians.

In 1994 or thereabouts, Winnipeg attempted another civic pride campaign titled "Winnipeg: 100 Reasons to Love it!" which featured a checklist of unique features our city can boast about such as "the beaches", or "the women". Some people would sport this list on various merch like t-shirts. I remember the list was printed askew so as to suggest, oh, I dunno, a certain cool edginess or something. This current "re-branding" of Manitoba was launched in an effort to change the pervasive attitude of cynicism and negativity that many citizens feel about their home province (who, me?), as evidenced so acutely by local bands such as The Weakerthans, and by this image below that a friend sent along.

So to redeem this situation, here is my shortlist of things to love about Winnipeg:

Located in the Exchange District, the Royal Albert Arms Hotel is home of The Albert, a legendary watering hole where the early evening shift-change from drunken old men to indie and punk rockers still occurs every night. I have fond memories of this place from when I used to frequent it in the early '90s, on their infamous Thursday Draft Nights - I reckon the draft is probably not 69 cents a glass anymore, but just as watered-down. The Albert is where I saw The New Duncan Imperials, Duotang (pre-boom and bust), where I had my first kiss with my first love (classy!), and where, for a brief but intense period, I inaugurated The Star Wars Pinball Club. Good clean fun.

Next stop: Albert Street Burgers, home of the Fat Al. A tiny, homemade fast-food joint like no other, it's unique characteristic is the arrangement it has with the Fleet Framing shop across the street, which has the front of its store set up with modest tables, chairs, napkin dispensers a mustard and ketchup bottles. Just keep your greasy paws off the mat board.

(image: Colin Kent)

There's a cluster of three Nutty Club buildings just off the Exchange District which house among other things, artist studios. I doubt they still make candy there but I'm glad they haven't painted over the signage.

This was encouraging. The Forks Market (a big touristy area at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers) developed a skate park which actually seems to attract real skateboarders. What's most impressive is the inclusion of not only the usual bowl-type facility, but a reconstructed plaza-type area complete with stairs, railings and concrete benches. Just like downtown! Now maybe those pesky kids will quit terrorizing frightened business people with their board-flipping antics! Get your own stainless steel handrail!

Any self-respecting burger lover visiting Winnipeg must make a pilgrimmage to VJ's on Main street near Broadway. Get the Double Special. There will likely be a lineup, but it's worth the wait. Honourable mention goes to the Dairy Whip on Marion who make a super duper chili burger n' fries. I'll try to get a pic the next time I go. They've got a great vintage neon sign with a big pink springing arrow.

Some more great spots to visit:

Rae and Jerry's Steakhouse (they have a great 'Columbo' style lounge in black and red which hasn't changed since the late 1950s)

Bridge Drive In (BDI). Great ice-cream. Walk off those calories by taking a stroll over the bridge onto Kingston Row.

Still much more to come. Winnipeg truly is one great city. Too bad the people behind those feel-good re-branding schemes don't know where to look.

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