Suresh Doss

This apple cinnamon toast crunch is a staple at diner in St. Catharines

The apple cinnamon toast crunch is a favourite at Diner House 29, a St. Catharines diner that serves the best burger in town, Suresh Doss says.

The Diner House 29 is located at 431 Welland Ave in St. Catharines, Ont.

The Diner House 29's apple cinnamon toast crunch. (Suresh Doss)

If I had to pick one dining experience that is emblematic of Canadian culture, it's eating in a classic diner.

Before the waves of regional international cuisine and niche hipster spots, the diner stood the test of time as the perennial favourite for generations of eaters that were familiar to retro esthetic and warm service.

There's one in every town or city in this country and if I had to pick a national food that is truly Canadian, I'll say it's not a specific dish but rather the vintage diner experience.

My first introduction to a diner came via a road trip to Montreal in the early 90s.

My parents were visiting relatives and we stopped somewhere near Kingston on the way out of Toronto. I don't remember what we ate, but I remember that it was not great.

I remember seeing my parents beaming with excitement, it was a first for all of us. They revelled in the experience, recounting all the diner scenes from Hollywood movies they had watched growing up.

The Diner House 29 is at 431 Welland Avenue. 1:01

My first "local" was Markham Station: nothing fancy, a casual 24-hour diner in Scarborough that has been open for over 30 years.

I spent many Sunday mornings in that place, huddled next to friends as we collectively surfaced from our hangovers through mediocre plates of eggs and whatever, or pancakes and bacon.

My current local is George Street Diner. I think their eggs, cider toast and sandwiches are some of the best in the city. Gingerman Restaurant in East York is also a personal favourite.

As much as we'd like to think diners are forever, they are not impervious to change. As a generation slowly retires, as cities gentrify, as rents skyrocket, diners either disappear or they change completely. The Diner House 29 is an example of this. 

Anne and Dave House own The Diner House 29 in St. Catharines, Ont. (Suresh Doss)

It's located in St. Catharines, where the owners and operators, husband-and-wife team Anne and Dave House, grew up. 

They spent a number of years travelling and working from the Canadian west coast to parts of Asia. Just over three years ago, the couple was actively looking for a space to open a restaurant when they came across a derelict diner space attached to a gas station.

The Diner House 29 is a stone's throw from the Queen Elizabeth Way, just before the Garden City Skyway into Niagara, but its not easy to spot. It's tucked on the north side, practically under the highway. I was introduced to it by a friend who lives in the Niagara Region.

A look inside The Diner House 29 in St. Catharines. (Suresh Doss)

The diner has the esthetic you would expect, including vintage chairs, Formica tables, and colourful Pyrex plates.

"We left everything as is after we took it over," Dave said.

"Except for a few chairs, the spirit is still here. It used to be a doughnut shop, then a $2.99 breakfast place for over 30 years."

Anne and Dave manage a menu that stays true to diner classics, but also is fueled by their travels across China.

Dave is the chef, Anne manages front of house. For those seeking classic dishes, you'll find perfectly cooked bacon egger sandwiches served with crispy bacon and a lacing of barbecue sauce on a toasted bagel bun.

Burger fans, I dare you to find a better burger in town. Even the oatmeal on the menu is comforting, served with tart cherries and drizzles of maple syrup.

The Diner House 29's lamb kefta. (Suresh Doss)

Outside of the classics, some of the restaurant's best dishes are the ones with international influence, especially the bowls. Dave makes a brilliant lamb kefta that tastes like kedgeree, Lebanese spiced cylinders of kabob are stir fried with rice and a vegetable stew. It's accented with feta cheese and cilantro.

The iron rice bowl is a crowd favourite, I'm told. It's mushrooms tossed with kale and rice, coated in a sesame and soy dressing. If you're feeling the after effects of a late night, it will cure it before you get to the last spoonful.

I find that diner-goers fall into two camps: those who prefer savoury and those who prefer sweet.

If you grew up on pancakes and waffles, try Dave's apple cinnamon toast crunch. It's a simple dish, Dave makes his own cider bread. He slices it thick, toasts it, gives it a generous spreading of apple butter, and then layers it with crisp apple slices and dried chips with a drizzle of maple syrup on top.

"A sprinkling of graham crackers finishes it for me. A final hit of nostalgia." he said.

Many diners across the GTA are caught at the crossroads as keys are being handed to new owners, and in the case of The Diner House 29, the results are special.

The Diner House 29's cinnamon toast crunch is made of cider bread, apple butter, crisp apple slices, dried chips and maple syrup drizzle. (Suresh Doss)

About the Author

Suresh Doss

Suresh Doss is a Toronto-based food writer. He joins CBC Radio's Metro Morning as a weekly food columnist. Currently, Doss is the print editor for Foodism Toronto magazine and regularly contributes to Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Eater National. Doss regularly runs food tours throughout the GTA, aimed at highlighting its multicultural pockets.