NL·Point of View

Unchained: I didn't move back to Newfoundland to eat at Denny's

Why do chains flourish while beloved local spots close or sell? Contributor Gabby Peyton takes a look at the local love affair with branded food.

Writer Gabby Peyton makes the case for local flavours and service — and says they're often cheaper

Gabby Peyton acknowledges that chains like Boston Pizza serve tasty, family-friendly food, but prefers the local food scene. (Mike Moore/CBC)

The writing was on the wall, or should I say the chalkboard. I was perusing Airbnb during my usual procrastination internet crawl when I came across a St. John's listing that made me stop dead in my mouse tracks.

On the wall of the pristine-looking kitchen was a chalkboard listing the local restaurant recommendations: "Moxie's, Kelsey's, Denny's, Boston Pizza…" 

All chain restaurants. 

We complain about how poor our economy is and how tough times are, but on the weekends Montana's is full to the brim (Jack Astor's and Boston Pizza are too, for that matter) while Mohammed Ali's, a delicious Middle Eastern restaurant, recently went up for sale because they are just too tired of the daily struggle.

How do we survive if we don't support our own? 

A good friend who works in the restaurant industry told me Denny's, which opened in March 2018, was pulling in tens of thousands of dollars a day when it first started slinging Grand Slams in St. John's.

The parking lot is still consistently full when I drive by its Sandman Hotel location on Kenmount Road, while local restaurants like the beloved Bacalao have closed in the same period. 

So … why do we love chain restaurants so much in Newfoundland? 

There are positives to be considered 

Don't get me wrong, there is a time and place in the restaurant industry for chains. Most countrywide chains around St. John's are Canadian-owned and offer jobs with flexible hours along with benefits and scholarship options. 

Get Stuffed operates on Duckworth Street. Gabby Peyton found its prices are more than competitive with chains. (Mike Moore/CBC)

In fact, most of the chain locations in Newfoundland are owned by Newfoundland-based franchisees, meaning that they are, in a strict sense, locally owned. 

Plus, you always know the baked potato at the Keg is going to be good — chains are reliable, accessible to the majority of the population, and those with kids bow at the doorstep of Boston Pizza for their kids' menu. 

I for one, am a big fan of the McNugget, and who doesn't love a never-ending bowl of caesar salad?

Our love of chain restaurants stands in blatant contrast to our culture of hunting, trapping and fishing.

However, one of the biggest misconceptions about local restaurants is that they are too expensive, or at least more expensive than chain restaurants. 

After consulting dozens of restaurant menus, I've found this simply isn't true.

In fact, it's cheaper to get a two-piece fish and chips at the Duke of Duckworth ($16.49) than it is at Fionn McCool's ($19.95), and about the same price to get a bacon cheeseburger at Fort Amherst Pub ($17) in Churchill Square as it is at Moxie's ($17.25) on Kenmount Road or Jack Astor's ($17.87) on the waterfront.

If you're craving a pepperoni pizza, it will cost you $14.99 at Boston Pizza versus $16 at Pi or $17 at Piatto. 

Even a good steak dinner can be found for prices comparable to the beloved Keg — the 12-ounce baseball top sirloin with one side comes in at $36, while at the Fort Amherst Pub you can get an eight-ounce thick baseball cut with duck fat roasted potatoes, sun-dried tomato, brussels sprouts, duck bacon, crispy shallot and sauce bordelaise for $30. 

The 10-ounce steak frites at Merchant Tavern is $38, but the best deal in town is at Get Stuffed on Duckworth Street where you can get a 10-ounce sirloin with red wine and port demi-glaze for $22 with a side of mashed potato for $4.75. 

Fancy and fussy? Not so 

This also dispels another myth around local restaurants, namely that all the food is too fancy and fussy. While it's true not everyone craves the chicken liver pâté at Merchant Tavern, you cannot tell me their burger isn't freaking deadly (and don't even get me started on the fries at newly opened Terre, in the Alt Hotel on Water Street). 

Some may find higher-end restaurants intimidating, or that there isn't anything approachable or familiar — to those people, I urge you to look at the menus online at Seto, Mallard Cottage or Waterwest Kitchen and Meats.   

The Keg and Jack Astor's are popular draws on the St. John's waterfront. (Mike Moore/CBC)

Our love of chain restaurants stands in blatant contrast to our culture of hunting, trapping and fishing. We have such a rich culture devoted to an appreciation of the land, yet not many people seek out wild game in restaurants.

This is stranger still when you consider Newfoundland is the only province in the country where wild game can legally be sold in restaurants. 

If you snare rabbits on the weekend, wouldn't you be dying to go to Chinched to see what a trained, experienced chef can do with the same protein you have sitting in your freezer? I know I would. 

Visiting local restaurants that serve Newfoundland ingredients can expand and renew our relationship with the bounty that the land around us provides. It could be inspiring, and help grow our collective food culture and recipes. 

But nope, hunt moose … then go for a short stack at Denny's. 

We risk losing what makes us special 

The collective culinary history and culture in Newfoundland is rich yet many choose to spend their hard-earned dollars in chains, not supporting local. Those restaurants listed on the Airbnb chalkboard could be found in any city in Canada.

The Amazeball Burger at Kelsey's with two Canadian chuck patties sandwiching a patty of mac and cheese and topped with parmesan, shredded lettuce and tomato tastes exactly the same here as it does in Brampton, Ont., or in Victoria, B.C. 

Peyton: 'Denny's, you can keep your soggy pancakes, I'll take a touton from Zachary's Restaurant any day of the week.' (Mike Moore/CBC)

If we continue to patronize chains at the expense of unique, local restaurants, we risk losing what makes Newfoundland cuisine special, and there will be no difference between dining out here and dining out anywhere else in the country.

So why do we love chains so much? Here's where the inferiority complex comes in.

After generations of being the cast-off province, the lonely isolated rock of fishermen, we get a chain restaurant Newfoundlanders have only seen TV or visited while vacationing in Florida. Look at us! We are a big city now, we have a Moxie's! 

I moved back to this city three years ago after spending almost seven away — I didn't move back to this island to eat cultureless chain food. St. John's has an incredibly vibrant local restaurant scene for its size. 

In the 2019 release of Canada's Top 100 Restaurants, three Newfoundland restaurants made the list — No. 12 Raymonds, No. 17 Mallard Cottage, No. 75 Fogo Island Inn.

Those two St. John's restaurants made the top 20 among behemoths like Alo in Toronto and Toqué! in Montreal. 

How's that for a little city? I want to eat lamb kebab at the Afghan Restaurant, devour hot chicken sandwiches at Chinched and slurp spicy noodles with Kalbi duck breast at Seto. 

I relish the appreciation of local ingredients, prepared by local people, inspired by local cuisine. 

A lesson about the shiny and new 

This sentiment doesn't only apply to food. In 2011, I worked for the now-defunct Aeropostale when it opened at the Avalon Mall. In the first week, we sold out of all stock and had to close for two weeks to replenish — the come from aways from the head office here for the opening had never seen anything like it anywhere. Sephora's doors were nearly beaten down at the Avalon Mall on opening day, and wails of wishing H&M would open here have been heard for years (it will finally happen in 2020). 

The Reluctant Chef closed in 2018, after its owner said the business had become too reliant on the oil industry. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

While researching an article about root cellars — spending time chatting with local historians and folklorists — I realized the real reason why root cellars went out of fashion: they weren't cool enough.

Not in the literal sense; they are still functionally amazing (and in fact, those obsessed with sustainability are digging them in Toronto basements), but once rural Newfoundlanders could pick out a Kenmore deep-freeze from the Sears catalogue, root cellars weren't needed anymore. 

While modern freezers stay colder than root cellars, the desire to have what others have, to have what we see in advertisements, drove Newfoundlanders away from their roots. 

Margarine replaced homemade butter, frozen peas replaced fresh greens from the garden, and chrome sets replaced handmade wooden tables. 

Why do we think shiny and new is better? Why is chain better than local? 

The next time you're going out to eat, consider a new-to-you eatery.

Denny's, you can keep your soggy pancakes, I'll take a touton from Zachary's Restaurant any day of the week. 

But let's not flick off the open sign on local quite yet. Ten years ago, the No. 1-rated restaurant in the city on TripAdvisor was the Keg.

Now there isn't one chain in the top 20 — the Keg comes in at No. 25. 

Is local lost? Not at all

With the closures of local favourites like Portobello's, the Reluctant Chef and the Fifth Ticket within the past year or so,  it might seem as though local is being lost. 

But this summer five new restaurants opened reflecting the local culture and appreciation for culinary variety. 

With the opening of Gingergrass, we have a Thai restaurant again. Terre's opening means the Alt Hotel finally has a restaurant that can show off inventive Newfoundland cuisine. 

The next time you're going out to eat, consider a new-to-you eatery. 

Unchain my stomach, choose local. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Gabby Peyton

Freelance contributor

Gabby Peyton is a freelance food writer in St. John’s.