In 1988, Ash Farrelly emigrated to Canada from Ireland with only 12 dollars in her pocket.
In need of work, and looking to escape a decade long Irish recession, she settled into her new home of Canada, flirting with work in London and Georgetown before laying down roots in Toronto.
At the time the only visa she could earn was a domestic one, which meant long hours spent cleaning, cooking and looking after children.
“I cried for a year, I was homesick for a year” Farrelly admitted in the George Street Diner, a small restaurant nestled in the quiet downtown corner of Richmond and George that she eventually came to own.
“It was very different, Ireland was full of craziness and conversation, family, you know?” said Farrelly. “I came here and it was kind of like you are shoved into your own room and you have to keep yourself to yourself.”
Farrelly went on to find work as manager at a Jazz club, she married, had a son, divorced and through complete chance crossed paths with the tiny corner diner in severe disrepair.
Her diagnosis of the eatery’s problem was simple.
“It was just lacking soul, there was something missing in it, you know. The people who worked at it I think they needed to make money,” she said. “There wasn’t money, you’re not going to get rich in a diner, you’re going to have a nice steady life, a great place to come to work, but you’re not going to grow rich.”
Having built up enough savings waiting tables to purchase a home, the bank approved her for the loan necessary to purchase the restaurant based on her earned equity.
That was seven years ago.
Today Farrelly still sits at the helm of the eatery, her philosophy being to never lose touch with what keeps places like hers buzzing, and regulars coming back again and again.
“That’s kind of what this place is about, I guess it’s romantic, it’s a romantic room,” she noted after showing a video of two diners abandoning their lunch to begin slow dancing around the restaurant to one of their favourite songs.
The formula seems to be working. With a steady stream of regulars and even shout outs from Hollywood script-writers like Elan Mastai—who’s new movie What If, an Irish-Canadian romance staring Daniel Radcliffe, is partially set in the restaurant—Farrelly’s gamble on the George Street dive seven years ago seems to be paying off.
“There is no Wifi in this diner, there is no television, think about a space with no Wifi or television what do people do? They talk,” notes Farrelly, firmly believe the magic of places like a diner is simply in the encouragement of everyday conversation between ordinary people.
“You’ll meet a stranger here, sit on that counter and you’ll meet a stranger, or I’ll introduce you to a stranger.” she added with a laugh.
Her optimism however was marked by an undertone of sadness, as she recalled a nearby restaurant she had frequented that had been shut down after being purchased by a development company.
“We’re losing all theses places, they’re disappearing, they’re building condos everywhere.” She added, looking out the window on to an empty Richmond street.
Behind her several of the staff we’re taking a lunch break, eating burgers and fries well poking fun at one another.
Each of the diner’s booths was packed as the lunch hour reached its peak. A waitress navigated peanut butter, jam and bacon sandwiches to diners lost in conversation.
“Toronto is a very lonely city, if you’re outside, people don’t talk at the bus stops, they don’t talk on the buses, they don’t talk on the subways,” She said “We’re human beings, we’re meant to interact, we’re meant to connect. That’s what we do.”
Dylan Freeman-Grist is a staff writer for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.