“I recognize that man behind us”, I whisper to my husband as we slip into our seats on the sunny patio of the Winnipeg Free Press News Cafe on Mc Dermot Avenue. “It’s columnist Dan Lett“, my husband Dave tells me. It’s clear Mr. Lett is using the news cafe as a site for a lunch hour interview. “Should I know that person with him? Is he someone famous?” I ask before we head to the restaurant counter to order our meals.
The cafe is a popular spot.There’s hardly a chair free inside. We scan the crowd for people we might know. A journalist is writing news copy at a table near the stage and I spot internationally recognized graphic artist, writer and design consultant Robert L. Peters at one of the tables.
Half the fun of eating at Canada’s first official news cafe is looking for media people who may be dining or working there. Wait a minute—I’m a media person myself. Although it has been eight years since I gave up my column in the Winnipeg Free Press to move to Hong Kong I’ve continued writing weekly for The Carillon, a southeastern Manitoba newspaper and today I’m having lunch with a fellow Carillon staffer—Terry Frey, the paper’s award-winning sports writer. Terry and his wife Audrey, also happen to be good friends of ours, and we haven’t seen them since last year when we made our annual visit to Manitoba from Hong Kong. They suggest we meet at the news cafe, within walking distance of our new home in the Exchange District. One of the things we chat about is the change in ownership of The Carillon in February, when FP Canadian newspapers, the same company that owns the Free Press, bought Derksen Printers in Steinbach which publishes The Carillon.
The news cafe offers free copies of several Winnipeg publications and as you can see from Dave’s full arms he’s taken advantage of the opportunity to avail himself of the print material provided on the racks at the front of the restaurant.
This isn’t the first time the historic Albert or Alexandra Block has held a restaurant. According to a Winnipeg Historical Buildings report a Mr. Frank Mariaggi from Corsica opened a restaurant in the same spot in 1902, serving fine Italian food. He had a farm just outside of Winnipeg where he grew the vegetables for his eating establishment. He also kept chickens and Jersey cows to supply the necessary dairy and poultry. The restaurant became very popular because it featured a Grotto in the basement with four cave-like dining rooms and a bar. In 1908 Mr. Mariaggi sold the restaurant and the luxury hotel he had also opened in the building, and moved back to Corsica.
Apparently the building has almost the same appearance today as it did in 1901 when it was built by investors James and William Tupper, two Winnipeg corporate lawyers, who just happened to be the sons of Charles Tupper, Father of Confederation and a Canadian Prime Minister. William became Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governor in 1934. The building featured the same salmon colored brick in 1901. It came from Kettle River in northeastern Manitoba.
But exciting as it may be to see your favorite Free Press columnist at a restaurant, and interesting as it may be to know you are dining in one of Winnipeg’s oldest buildings, the reason you go to a cafe is to eat and the Free Press News Cafe does not disappoint in this regard. I had the vegetable tostado mentioned in Marion Warhaft’s recent review and a creamy, spicy broccoli-curry soup.
My fellow diners, who each ordered one of the sandwiches featured on the menu agreed Marion had not been off the mark when she awarded the restaurant four stars.