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Our Local Windows: Rooms with a View

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The waitress placed down a cup of coffee and a huge chunk of apple pie onto your green checkered paper placemat, and asked if that was all. Looking out across the floor, it was difficult to believe that you were dining, high and above a busy department store. The restaurant at the rear of the old Miracle Mart, in LaSalle, not only gave you a 180-degree bird’s eye view, it also gave you your own personal window to watch the action below. While climbing up the curved staircase, you felt yourself leaving the hustle and bustle of the shopping level behind, as you entered and raced for the prized tables which overlooked the entire store. If you were lucky enough, you would find one. Minutes could easily turn into hours, while you sipped and witnessed the dramas unfold, literally right beneath your feet. A shoplifter’s chase, a falling tower of toilet paper, kids playing football throughout the store, were just some of the "reality" shows we saw. At one time, there were many of these places in LaSalle and Verdun that offered us "a piece of the action", and that became a distinct part of the history of our local communities. Wonderful places designed for people to meet with other people, places that are no more.

Just as Miracle Mart offered this unique view, across from Place LaSalle, Woolco’s "Café Rouge" in the "Cavalier" Mall (now gone) offered us a similar local experience. The restaurant was designed like a 50’s diner, with each booth adorned with shiny polished moldings and red leatherette seats. The Café Rouge had it’s own feel to it, as it also sat in the rear of a major department store, yet with the main aisle from the mall leading people to its entrance. We could always tell when the place was busy by having to walk through a gauntlet of "parked" shopping carts around at its doorway. Once in, you were led down one long aisle to the a-la-carte food counter or offered a route to take a seat and order. The popular spots had a view of the main aisle and were kind of like an all-season version of today’s sidewalk cafés. The view was different here, as shoppers, employees, and people walking through the store, all merged together at this central point to provide us with a constant flow of entertainment. The Cavalier Mall itself held many of our local shopping favorites, like the Dominion Store, the barber shop, a Radio Shack, and the LaSalle Driving School, but it was the lure of the Woolco department store which kept us coming. The people you would meet there had their own stories, and usually by the time you left, you had a new one of your own.

Not so long ago, Wellington Street held one of these jewels, where we could sit back and enjoy our surroundings. The Greenberg’s store (now Pharmaprix) on the corner of Gordon Avenue had an "in-store" restaurant, which offered one half of its storefront window to its restaurant’s sidewalk view. Greenberg’s was very "modern" for its time, as it had a set of "magic stairs" (escalators) right in the center of it. Turning left upon entering the store, we would be led into their open-air style restaurant area, which still had that lunch counter feel to it. The linoleum floor was dotted with "roundabout" stools running along the length of the main grill counter, where we could watch the cook in action. Behind us were two rows of padded booths (each with its own coat rack), including three or four which had a reserved view of the street, which added a new perspective to our experience, as the weather now played a role. Divided only by a single pane of glass, the scenes outside showed upturned umbrellas, loose hats hovering by, dogs taking kids for a walk, and during snowstorms, packs of travelling snowmen fighting the northern winds to get home, all while we took in the warmth of that wonderful place.

At a time when architects were designing these once beautiful restaurants as simple company lunch counters, they could not have imagined that their attention to detail, their eye for style, and their ideas of comfort, would later become some of our most well-remembered places. Places that we once used as our own compasses to point out where we came from, and to give us a bearing on where we were going.

Today, our treasured memories of these sites are only filled with great fondness and a deep sense of loss at their disappearance. Of the people that worked in them, of the people we met in them, and of the lasting friendships we formed in them.

Just as each of these restaurants had their own specialty food, unique to our local parts of town, watching each of them vanish was like losing a flavour, each time losing a taste from our own Southwest Corner.