When the Bay announced plans last month to bring in high-end restaurateurs Oliver & Bonacini to spiff up its department store dining rooms across the country, including Winnipeg’s Paddlewheel restaurant, thousands in the Prairie city reacted in horror. To deal with the backlash, a Toronto-based P.R. firm was promptly called in and the Bay appeared to change its tune: the Paddlewheel “brand” would remain anchored in the ‘Peg, the company promised. A reno, however, may still be in the cards—one, they carefully added, which will “honour the history and tradition” of the downtown hot spot, whose menu still includes cubed Jell-O and whipped cream.
Since the 1950s, generations of Winnipeg women have dined with their mothers and grandmothers at the restaurant on the sixth floor of the Portage Avenue Bay. “It’s part of Winnipeg’s fabric,” says Jino Distasio, director of the Institute for Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. “It harkens back to a time when downtown was the place to be, and the Paddlewheel was the place people would gather.”
In the ’60s, the country’s rock luminaries—including Neil Young—were regulars, says rock historian John Einarson. In the hopes of catching a glimpse, “you’d nickel nurse a Coke and a plate of chips,” he says; some young men would turn up with an empty guitar case (“chick magnet”). On Friday nights bands in town signed off saying: “See you tomorrow at the Paddlewheel.”
More recently, filmmaker Guy Maddin made it the setting for homoerotic “Golden Boy pageants” in his docu-fantasy My Winnipeg; in his revisionist history, the eatery became, by night, the “Paddlewheel Nightclub,” purveyor of gambling, booze and orange Jell-O. The place has history and cachet. Winnipeggers can only hope CEO Bonnie Brooks will see it.