REVELING IN TRADITION
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘Hey Nick,’ I mumble through a mouthful of cheeseburger, ‘you wanna know what nostalgia smells like?’ Nick Benninger, Chef-Owner of the Harmony Lunch and Fat Sparrow Group, looks up from his plate – a quizzical expression on his face. ‘This place,’ I note emphatically, motioning to the space around us.
‘Nostalgia smells like this place.’
It’s lunchtime. At the Harmony Lunch. On King Street in Uptown Waterloo. Where the Harmony’s been for the past hundred years or so. And I’m reveling in the tastes and sounds of the place. And especially in its gloriously recognizable smell. Fried onions. Heavenly. Intoxicating. Much like the Wellington Upside IPA I’m enjoying with my burger – a perfectly executed pork patty loaded with the works. Mine without fries. ‘Ah, the Old and Precious,’ remarks Nick of my order sans potatoes. He elaborates: ‘Fries come with our burgers. But many of the Harmony’s long-time regulars who got to know the place before we took it over last year had always ordered their burgers without fries. So we grandfathered in a menu item – the Old and Precious – for them.’ Nick takes a swig of beer, and adds: ‘And for you, I suppose.’
While I’m really not that old (although I’ve been having intimations of mortality as I approach my forties, and some might say I’m precious), I am certainly a long-time regular of this place. Or at least I was while growing up in Kitchener-Waterloo. Indeed, some of my most glorious childhood memories include Saturday lunches at ‘the Harmony’ (as we called it). Usually with my dad. Sometimes also with my older brother Matt and aunt Vi. We’d almost always sit at the counter overlooking the mass of fried onions and pork patties sizzling on the giant fry top that gave Harmony its distinctive – delectable – smell. We’d place our orders – two cheeseburgers with the works, fries, coleslaw, and a chocolate shake for me and the same for my pops – and then I’d sprint next door to survey the bikes at McPhail’s until our burgers were served.
We’d mostly sit in silence – our attention drawn towards our food. Sometimes my dad would recall the days when, as a sixteen-year old driver for Pepsi, he delivered soda to this place. I remember dreaming about having a similar job – being able to visit outfits like the Harmony for work.
And now here I am – all these years later – on what has to be the exact same bar stool, with the exact same wobble. At work, too. And while the company may be different, the cheeseburgers are almost exactly as I remember them. ‘Harmony burgers must be like a Holy Grail of sorts for so many folks,’ I remark to Nick. He nods affirmatively: ‘We definitely didn’t want to mess around with the burgers too much when we took over. In fact,’ he adds, ‘there’s not too much we wanted to change. It’s almost impossible to improve upon historical authenticity like this.’ Indeed.
I look around the joint. So much of it remains familiar and recalls my childhood. The display case near the front door featuring Harmony swag. The old school milkshake mixer behind the counter. The massive mirror hanging back there, too, that gives the illusion of texture and depth. The wooden floors – worn and patina’d by the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of customers who have enjoyed this amazing diner over the decades. The phone booth. Nick draws me out of my reverie: ‘My fantastic team and I consider ourselves custodians of Harmony Lunch more than anything – caregivers lucky enough to be able to keep this local treasure going, both for the folks who grew up with it and for those yet to discover it.’
He pours us each another Upside, and continues: ‘We’re committed to adding only those improvements that’ll complement what’s already been here for so long.’ Like offering craft beer, I think to myself. And mixed drinks. And a garage-door frontage that allows the sun to bathe the place in natural light. And locally-sourced ingredients from area farmers – including the pork for the burgers. And late-night chef takeovers too – something Nick seems especially excited about.
‘There are so many great chefs Uptown and around the region. And this no-frills diner with so much tradition is a perfect platform for them to see what they can do with something as simple – and timeless – as a burger.’ Over the past months, a handful of regional chefs have embraced the task of building on the Harmony’s paddy perfection – Chris Barkshire of Blackshop Restaurant, Taylor Devalk of Eat & Speakeasy, Darnell Greg of Fistro Bistro, Jaret Flannigan of The Wooly, Karen Willoughby of The Merchant Tavern, and others.
By this point in our conversation, my plate is clean. I look around the place. It’s packed. With regulars, of course. But also with so many folks younger than me – potentially trying this spot for the first time.
I think back upon the happy memories I’ve made here, and about my own kids, who’ve yet to try a Harmony burger. I picture my seven-year-old scurrying over to McPhail’s (or, perhaps, down the street to King Street Cycles) between the time we place our order and the burgers are ready. And of him and his older brother and little sister digging in. And I’m so elated that someone has resurrected the place.
I turn to Nick, catch his eye, raise my glass, and murmur: ‘Yep, nostalgia certainly smells like this place’ .