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Memories on the Menu

August 22, 2012

Old customer crops up at Mr. Greenjeans . . .

Nostalgia tastes good.

So when I heard Mr. Greenjeans was having an ’80s celebration with ‘80s prices, I couldn’t resist going.

My husband and I used to eat at Greenjeans all the time when we were young and poor. I vividly remember perching on a tall stool with a giant drink in front of me, feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland after she shrank. The portions were so large, we would groan and laugh as waiters walked by with their platters.

I started frequenting Greenjeans in the 1970s, originally on Adelaide St., then in the Eaton Centre. But I hadn’t been there since my girls were little kids. Now my youngest is a teenager, and during a recent shopping trip, we fuelled up at Mr. Greenjeans.

When I told my husband about it, he exclaimed: “Mr. Greenjeans is still there? Holy mackerel!”

Well, mackerel is not served, but the menu has evolved to satisfy millennial tastes for tempeh burgers and quinoa and gluten-free whatevers. The emphasis, however, is still on familiar comfort food.

Maury Kalen, lawyer turned restaurateur, says he "planted the original seed that is Mr. Greenjeans" in 1975. "The name did come from the character on the Captain Kangaroo TV show. Our original location on Adelaide and Jarvis had a large tropical plant retail store. The restaurant served many of its menu selections in plant-related vessels . . . glass flower pots for salads, wicker baskets for burgers and sandwiches. Our original logo was the Mr. Greenjeans overalls with cutlery coming out of the bib.”

On May 10, 1980, Greenjeans settled in at the Eaton Centre for the long haul. It has since served 15 million guests, including celebs from Prince Charles to Steve Martin to Lyle Lovett.

Restaurants sell experiences as much as food, from elBulli’s surreal dinners to McDonald’s Happy Meals. Back in the day, Kalen cultivated the fun middle ground between fast food and fine dining in his trendsetting eatery. “We introduced the all-beef, 8-ounce gourmet burger and caesar salads at a time when you couldn’t get a caesar salad anywhere outside of a steakhouse,” Kalen says. He also brought casual diners cappuccinos that were usually relegated to ethnic cafés, and served the era’s hip and happening appetizers, like crudités with dip.

We would descend on the place in packs or pairs, devouring big spinach salads, towering club sandwiches and Here Come the Fudge sundaes. The oversized slushy piña coladas sent twentysomething girls to cocktail heaven, while the prices put their twentysomething boyfriends at ease.

The restaurant world has changed dramatically over the decades. According to an article in Harvard Magazine, the percentage of their food budgets that North Americans spend in restaurants has almost doubled in the past 50 years. And nowadays, about half of all restos are fast food eateries, 1 to 5 percent sit at the fine dining pinnacle, and the rest occupy the spectrum in between, in the family dining or casual dining categories.

Today's Greenjeans menu looks a lot less hip and happening, what with all the copycats that sprang up. The restaurant business is crammed with casual dining eateries, mostly chains working a formula: generally decent food, mid-level prices, comfortable surroundings, fun valued over formality, relatively fast service, a concept, and of course a busy bar. Casual dining restos inspire love or loathing, with the diner’s age, budget, food knowledge and expectations all factors.

What I expected from Mr. Greenjeans was a decent meal, and I got it. The windows were sunny, the décor of greenery and exposed stone peacefully bland, the server pleasant. If the bustling food court was a pit stop for shoppers, Greenjeans was an oasis at 5 p.m.

When the waiter brought my tasty Old Faithful burger with cheddar and mushrooms, I remembered why I would groan and laugh at the portions. I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to bite into a burger that tall. It didn’t take long, however, to recall the technique for efficient consumption of a Greenjeans burger: Squish it together gently, bite around the perimeter, turning the burger and working toward the centre to prevent structural failure. The Buffalo Chips on the side (basically house-made potato chips) were fresh, crispy and plentiful.

My daughter chose mac and cheese with crab, its flavour as vivid as its colour, and bursting with calories. Her caesar side salad, however, was curiously bland, crying out for an injection of garlic and salt.

Then there were the shakes – vanilla for her, chocolate banana for me. They weren’t as thick as the ones at Fran’s (another Toronto institution). But they were cold enough to bring on brain freeze, and bigger than any one person over the age of 12 should dream of drinking.

Yes, the portions at Greenjeans are still huge. We finished about half of everything. I left with a satisfied teenager, a doggy bag big enough for a Great Dane, and a souvenir menu full of memories.


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