My husband and I met almost 40 years ago, and this past year, as we planned a road trip to the city where we met, I thought back to our courting days. We lived in Sault Ste. Marie and in those early years, with steady pay cheques but no children or mortgage, money flowed like wine and evenings out for dinner and drinks were more habit than indulgence.
Eventually we moved to London, and while our kids were growing up, travelling north to vacation at the family cottage was a summer ritual. But that cottage was 45 minutes away from the Soo and so we rarely ventured into town — and certainly not for a romantic dinner for two!
Now the kids are grown and the cottage is sold, and for the first time in years it would be just the two of us making the trek north. It was quite an exciting prospect, and visions of visiting our favourite haunts danced in my head!
For those not familiar with the culture of Sault Ste. Marie back in the 1970s, think amazing, genuine Italian cuisine. My memory is filled with restaurants with names like Aurora’s, Cesira’s, Sorrenti’s, Minelli’s — names that rolled off your tongue as deliciously as their homemade pastas, soups, sauces and salad dressings. Chefs had emigrated here from various regions of Italy, and the scent of roasting chicken, veal, lasagna and other tempting aromas wafted from their kitchens.
But it wasn’t just the fine dining establishments that I appreciated. There was the walk-in-and-buy-a-slice pizza guy across from the main bus station downtown. While you were waiting for your bus home at end of the night you could wander over and watch him spin the dough over his head. The bigger the audience, the higher he would throw it. Then he’d dress the freshly tossed crust with sauce and toppings with such flair, it seemed more an artistic endeavour than simply creating a fast snack for the late night crowd. And there was Peachy’s with its long plank tables covered with plastic red-and-white-checkered table cloths. You could buy a jug of beer and a pizza for about ten bucks – and oh, those toppings! Nero’s Notion, piled with mushrooms, pepperoni and home-made Italian sausage was my boyfriend/future husband’s personal favourite. About the only other ethnic food you could find back then was at the Chinese restaurant – another popular end-of-evening-snack option – or the authentic Mexican restaurant across the river in Soo Michigan.
So imagine my surprise when we visited Sault Ste. Marie and discovered how much the restaurant scene has changed. There is a locally owned Japanese restaurant, and you can also grab some sushi, Thai or Indonesian cuisine. There are trendy cafés, roadhouse-style eateries, cakeries and even a poutinery now.
We stumbled across a few new-to-us gems, including Ernie’s and Mike’s — two 50s-style diners that serve up all day breakfasts, which we love! Both apparently opened long before we were even born, but we had never even been aware that they existed. Very cool discoveries!
Sadly, we also learned that some of our frequent dining destinations were no longer around. The store front where the pizza man performed is now a nail salon, and Peachy’s is just a deserted building. Restaurants have closed, but a whole new generation of Italian chefs has emerged at Arturos, Ubriaco’s, Solo Trattoria, Vincenzo’s, Quatro and other establishments.
Nostalgia being what it is, in the end we were drawn back to one of our favourite places, Giovanni’s. It was a relative newcomer back in our dating days and has managed to stand the test of time. More comfortable than romantic, the atmosphere was just as wonderful as we remembered. A leisurely dinner in good company, reminiscing over fall-off-your-fork ribs and a glass of fine wine — blissful! Who says you can’t go home again?
NATALIE NOVAK is a freelance writer and transplanted Northerner who now calls London home.