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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Dining Desert

Noelle Chorney
Published Thursday April 2, 06:01 pm
Saskatoon’s a Sunday/Monday restaurant ghost town

Photo Credit: Illustration by Myron Campbell

I got an email from a friend recently, saying, “Hey, it’s my birthday this weekend! Can you recommend a good steak place for Sunday night?”

My immediate response was, “Don’t go for dinner Sunday night. Can’t you make it Saturday?”

But Sunday was her only option. I know her preferences — she wouldn’t take kindly to a suggestion like The Keg, so I said, “Skip the steak. Go to Desi Dhaba. It’s your best bet for a great meal on a Sunday.”

After discovering just how many restaurants are closed on Sundays, she admitted to me that she did in fact go to Desi Dhaba. “I guess that’s dining in a small city for you,” she said.

Even though we’re booming and our food culture is evolving in great ways, Sunday night dining options are abysmal, and Monday isn’t much better. Restaurant hotels are open seven days a week, but then the question is whether or not there are experienced people in the kitchen.

Most chef-owned restaurants are flat-out closed on Sunday. If they’re open, the chef-owner won’t be there, because Sundays and Mondays tend to be quiet, and the poor overworked souls need a couple days off. The work-life balance that many of us take for granted is simply non-existent for chef-owners.

But that leaves a gaping hole in dining options on Sunday and Monday. If a restaurant is open Sunday, it’s likely open only for brunch. Is that a chicken-or-egg question? I’m not sure whether restaurants only open for brunch on Sundays so patrons become trained to do Sunday brunch, or whether the patrons are only interested in brunch, and wouldn’t show up if Sunday dinner were an option.

I can’t say that I dine out often enough to justify restaurants staying open just for me (although dammit, they should!), but I’ve definitely more than once come up against a place being closed when I’d hoped to dine there. Like Keo’s — where I discovered, standing forlornly outside the building on a Monday at noon, that they’re closed for lunch that day. Again, as a family-owned restaurant I can’t blame them, because Saturday is one of their busiest days, so they already get less than a two-day weekend. (Another recent example is the Grazing Goat, also closed Monday.)

Dan Walker, Saskatoon chef and owner of Weczeria Fine Food until it closed, says the issue comes down to staffing and economics.

“Sunday was hard for us. Monday was hit or miss. Finding time off, especially at the start, was really hard. Even when you did have good staff, it was still hard to leave them on their own — and finding good staff is really hard.”

I’ve known this intuitively for some time, but talking to chefs has confirmed it. I’ve had the experience of dining at a fine restaurant in Saskatoon on a Tuesday, and knowing by the quality of what I’m being served that the executive chef was not in that day. That’s obviously disappointing — you’re still paying the same price for what you expect to be the same meal you’d get on a Friday, but your dining experience is completely different.

Maybe this is why all the chain restaurants on 8th St. are packed on Sundays, but then again, they’re packed most days. Consistency is what those places have going for them: they’re consistently open, and they have consistent recipes for their dishes (or consistent, frozen, packaged products flown in from HQ, in many cases).

This problem may not get better anytime soon. Great new restaurants are opening often these days, but experienced kitchen staff is hard to come by. Someone needs to tell Vancouver cooks, who are working for as much as $6 per hour less than the hourly pay for the same positions in Saskatoon, that there’s (slightly) lower rent and better pay on the Prairies.

“It’s so hard to find experienced people who really know what they’re doing,” says Megan Macdonald, chef and owner of Sushiro and Duck Duck Goose. “We’ve invested in training our staff, even flying our manager and bartender to Vancouver for professional training, only to have other restaurants and bars in the city poach them. It’s getting ridiculous!”

If you’re operating on a skeleton crew, what happens if even one of your staff decides to move on? And what happens when the ones who are working for you know that you’re totally stuck if they leave? “Compare that to our friend who cooks in Vancouver [and] who was almost fired when he asked for a raise from $14 an hour to $14.50,” says Macdonald. Supply here is just not meeting demand.

Dale MacKay of Ayden brought his managers and bartenders with him from Vancouver, which seems to be a good strategy if you have the connections. Maybe we need to follow his lead and import some more help. The cooking school at SIAST can’t turn chefs out fast enough, and even then, they need to build up some experience in a rigorous kitchen, which is hard to do when you can just leave and get a different job if you decide it’s too demanding.

So where does that leave Saskatoon diners on a Sunday or Monday night? I often opt for Chinese or Indian. The dim sum places close on a different weekday in order to stay open Sunday when other restaurants are closed. I can never keep straight which restaurants are closed when, in some cases — like Yip Hong and the Mandarin. They’re both open Sunday, but then they stagger their other closed day: Yip Hong is closed Tuesday, and the Mandarin Wednesday, but I can never for the life of me remember which is which when it comes time to head out to one of them.

On the upside, some restaurant owners are seeing this gap in good dining options on Mondays as an opportunity. Odd Couple, for example, offers a $10 Sapporo pint and calamari or chili tofu deal on Monday and Tuesday. When I went in to check it out, it was standing room only — we lucked out by snagging two spots at the bar just as other diners got up to leave.

Weekdays are home of the $10 burger and beer special, which is wildly popular at pubs around town, but did you know that Calories also offers a $10 burger and beer special on Tuesdays? They also have a $15 steak frites special on Mondays — if you order a glass of wine with it. (And really, why wouldn’t you?)

The executive chef likely isn’t in on those days, but his support staff seem perfectly capable of turning out a good steak or burger. And the frites, well, they’re the perfect excuse to eat as much house-made ketchup and aioli as possible. Be warned that it’s hard to keep your expenditure to just the $10/$15 deal in each of these cases, because you’ll probably want another beer, or some dessert.

On a recent trip to San Francisco I ate at Kin Khao, a new Thai restaurant that has only been open a year. I was lucky enough to dine at the bar next to Pim, the owner, who was having dinner there on her day off, ostensibly to keep an eye on things. She was pleased with what she saw, and exclaimed to the bar staff, “Wow, you guys are doing great! You don’t even really need me anymore!”

I’m sure it’s the dream of many a chef-owner in Saskatoon to be able to hang out in their own restaurant on a day off and enjoy food from their own kitchen, without having to oversee it or cook it themselves. The current reality is a long way off from that. Until that changes, I guess we’ll all have to accept that the chef-owned restaurants will be closed Sundays… and maybe Mondays, too. Sigh. 

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