There’s a certain nostalgia I have for diners. When I see the chrome swivel stools, bolted to the checkered tiles, I’m taken back to a time when it seemed like every department store my mom took me tottin the 70s— Kresge, Woolworth’s, Zellers—all had a dineresque lunch counter that was left over from an era gone by. Usually we would simply walk past, do our shopping and leave… me holding my mom’s hand, head turned back staring at the lunch counter as we walked out the door. There were times when my mom would give in… usually this came in the form of a bribe. Since I was a child with [undiagnosed] ADHD, I was a a bit of a handful—especially walking through stores. This would occasionally work in my favour, “If you let mommy do her shopping without knocking down any displays or setting off a fire alarm, we can have some lunch before we go home.” [your welcome to my sister Jeannie, who would benefit from my hyperactivity].
Although The Rainbow Restaurant has been serving food in Oshawa since 1958—started and still owned by the Givelas family—it was off my family’s radar. It wasn’t until the summer of ’96 that I was finally lured in by the provocative fragrance of sliced pork belly spattering on a flattop grill. Seventeen-year-old me had scored a job at Elusions, a nightclub in our city’s downtown core. My routine for that summer was wake up in the afternoon, go to work in the late afternoon, punch-out at 2am, “unwind” with the bar staff for a few hours, go to an all-night coffee shop until sunrise, walk home, sleep, repeat. Sometimes I would deviate from the routine. When a band I liked played at Elusions—Chalk Circle and Images in Vogue come to mind—I would make a stop at Starr Records to buy their record, but since they only opened at 10, and by then I was usually hungry, I would make the vampire walk to Rainbow for breakfast and some Bunn-O-Matic coffee.
The Rainbow is a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon—the kind of place that Guy Fieri has made cool again. Every town has one, and if you think your town doesn’t have one, look around—it’s the place where the cops, firefighters and cab drivers eat [not Uber drivers, that’s a whole different breed].
Louie Givelas [aka Chef Louie G] can attest to that—he’s the owner, cook and mental archivist of the historic Rainbow. He joined me at one of the worn out vinyl booths to chat, getting up every few minutes to cook an order. He is a mix of humbleness and confidence. On the one hand he is grateful for the restaurant’s success and is well aware that all of 64 for years of happy customer are the foundation of his business… on the other hand, if you don’t like the food or service, it’s a you problem… and he’s fine with that. “We’re an everyday kind of place. People come here two or three times a week because they want what we have to offer—fast, great food that’s reasonably priced, combined with personable service—we develop relationships with our customers.”
I had no reason to think Louie G was lying, but if I had any doubt, a quick glance at the walls was all that I needed to confirm the truth behind that statement. The walls of the rainbow are decorated with frame after frame of photos from the restaurant’s historic past, mixed with retro pics of the Three Stooges and other cinematic faves—literally hundreds of pictures. When Louie catches me looking at them, he starts the tour, pointing at various photos on the wall as we walk around. “This place is all about nostalgia—it’s off the chart. Every photo has a story and I know most of them… that guy scarfing down a 24oz burger is a cop named Louie… That’s Tyler when she brought home six medals from the World Martial Arts Championship in Portugal—we helped sponsor her… These are Oshawa Generals players… That’s Big Tony. She would come in and load up on pancakes before her bodybuilding competitions—she lives in Australia now, we follow each other on Instagram… That guy is not Will Ferrel, but he looks just like him and when he comes in dressed like Elf, customers turn their heads…”
I guess the statement ‘if walls could speak,’ stands true at the Rainbow so I ask if there are any stories that haven’t been framed and, he had a few, of course. There was the unconventional, “Last July we had the Hell’s Angels take over for the day when they were doing that annual meetup… 40 years ago they did the same thing to my dad. They wanted breakfast, and we had a great day selling bacon and eggs to these guys… sticks in your mind forever…” The famous, “We’ve been in a few movies, music videos, commercials and some cool photoshoots—like the time Matt Barnes had some naked girls up on the counter—very tasteful, of course…” And of course there’s the weird stuff. “Years ago, we did have a guy come in at 7am, who got up on the counter, then dropped his pants and drawers! The waitress looks at him and bluntly said, ‘I’m not going to serve you.’ And that was the end of that.”
Louie turned back to the wall. “Some photos are personal… that’s my lovely wife and I in Paris… That’s my mom—she was gorgeous… that’s my dad when he first arrived in Montreal, working in the fur trade”
Wait, what? “Ya, they were furriers in Macedonia. At that point in history, Macedonians were being drafted into the Greek army so my Grandfather, John left with his sons—my father Chris and my uncles Nick and Steve—and came to Montreal. They eventually moved to Oshawa because it was a boomtown, thanks to GM.”
So, no restaurant experience? “Nope. My father had experience making toast! His favourite story to tell was arriving in Canada, ‘I had money for a loaf of bread and had a toaster—no butter and no jam—so i ate toast for a month.’ [laughs]. Basically, my uncle Nick got a job in restaurant… they got a space in downtown Whitby and opened the first location. They just put their heads together and all worked—father and sons—so they didn’t need employees. I recently found an original menu which is framed on the wall… a burger for a quarter, just crazy.”
With GM having built a new plant in Oshawa in the mid-50s, there was no shortage of work, and scores of people moved to the city with hopes of getting one of the coveted union jobs—almost every person I grew up with had a relative employed by GM many of which bought houses, cottages and boats, and eventually retired with a very lucrative pension… why not the Givelas clan? “It’s true that GM gave a very good living to a lot of people… including my family, indirectly, although we never had a cottage because my father figured since we were open seven-days-a-week, enjoying it would’ve been impossible! At some point, my dad got a job a GM and worked there for a month but that type of work wasn’t for him, he just couldn’t do it. So he came back to join his brothers at the restaurant, which at that time was open 24-hours.”
Your mom was okay with him leaving a pretty secure job to go back to the restaurant business? “This was all before he was married. After being in Canada for ten years, he went back to Greece to find a wife [laughs]. Back then, the single ladies were ‘paraded’ in the town and Aphrodity, my mother, caught his eye. Young, handsome and rich, by their standards, dad goes up to my grandfather and says, ‘I like your daughter.’ Two weeks later they were married. My mom felt like she won the lottery.” So mom came to work in the restaurant? “Yes. When it came to our success, mom was just as important as dad. By the early 70s we only had the Oshawa location and my uncles had left to open other restaurants, so dad would work, mom would watch the kids, then dad would come home to take a nap on the couch and mom would go to the restaurant and take over for a few hours. Then they’d swap again. Everyday.”
With so many years of experience, and so many stories, The Rainbow would be a great setting for a cooking show of some sort—Somewhere Over at the Rainbow. Louie laughs when I mention cooking shows. “I used to like them. Gordon Ramsey is a fantastic chef but I had to stop watching Hell’s Kitchen… not because I disagree with all the yelling, but because I was jealous [laughs] there have been times when I’ve wanted to do that, but can’t. It upsets people.”
Every once in a while I think about opening a restaurant, a diner seemed like a great idea, but I’m not sure about having to cook for 200 to 300 customers a day, like Louie does. Maybe I should open a sandwich place, selling only sandwiches I like… One sandwich that will definitely be on the menu is The Elvis—peanut butter and bacon, which I’ve never actually seen on a menu until now, so I’ll have to come back to do some research and test Chef Louie G’s cheesed-up version on a future visit.
When a regular customer of The Rainbow kept asking for a breakfast that had pancakes and eggs on the same plate, Chef Louie G gave in. The Lumberjack was born and it’s been one of their most popular items for the past 25 years—pancakes [aka griddle cakes aka flapjacks], eggs any style [we recommend sunny side up], thick slices of hand cut peameal bacon, fat Farmer’s sausages, thick slices smoked deli ham, generously buttered toast and make sure there’s two of everything on your plate.
Perfect home fries
5 YUKON GOLD POTATOES
BEEF LARD FOR FRYING
3 TABLESPOONS OF BUTTER OR MARGARINE
SALT & PEPPER
PINCH OF CUMIN
Clean and peel potatoes.
Boil whole until fork tender [not mushy].
Cut into one inch cubes. In a large skillet, fry potatoes in beef lard for 5 minutes at 135ºC [275ºF].
Remove lard from pan.
Add butter or margarine and fry potatoes at 190ºC [375ºF] until browned and crispy around the edges.
Season with salt, pepper, paprika and a pinch of cumin.
No nonsense pancakes
2 CUPS FLOUR
4 TEASPOONS BAKING POWDER
2 TEASPOONS WHITE SUGAR
1 TEASPOON SALT
1 ½ CUPS MILK
3 ½ TEASPOONS MELTED BUTTER
Mix the dry ingredients together then whisk in wet ingredients until smooth [don’t over do it!].
On a well oiled pan or flattop grill at 350F ladle your batter mix.
Flip when cakes start to bubble. Usually about two minutes per side till golden brown.