All photos by Zack Kotzer
For Eglinton West kids in the mid-90s, Friday nights were not exactly a science. Maybe you’d get some Baskin-Robbins’ ice cream, some pizza at La Lucciola, some counterfeit PokÃˆmon cards at Loots, peruse the VHS horror shelves at Bonanza, or gain calories and lose quarters at the Marlee Avenue greasy spoon, Fat Phill’s. Not a decadent place, the dependable diner had hot food, a Metal Slug machine, and terribly schmaltzy hand-drawn portraits of their mascot’s illustrious adventures, which could very well have been hanging on the walls unchanged for over a decade.
Slowly, one by one, these Eg West institutions vanished. Loots and La Lucciola made way for an optometrist and Indian-to-go. Blockbusters ran Bonanza out of town, leaving the spot a laundromat. Fat Phill’s was unceremoniously transformed into a flower shop in 2008. Actually, I guess Baskin-Robbins is exactly as it was.
A little while ago, my brother sent me a crude text on his way up to the cottage alerting me that, while cruising by Marlee, he did a double take at something risen up from the bubbling deep fryer. “fat fils is back” he wrote, and I marveled at the misspelled message, as did old friends at a West Prep reunion the night after.
In a city where more renowned record store signs and theaters are lost in face of furor, it was shocking to learn that an unsung burger joint on the corner of a short strip-mall had resurfaced. I was determined to go back to my old haunts to find out what brought Phill’s back, and how close its ties were to the original. They’re tighter than a waistband.
It’s no mystery how the shop caught my brother’s eye. Where there was previously a pizzeria, perpendicular to the flower shop that took its home, the scrolling Fat Phill’s white sign is a faithful recreation of the original, with mascot Phill pushing a gargantuan burger in a wheelbarrow and plump red letters.
There is a patio, but inside is about half the size and only one room, the original having a smoker’s wing left of the grill. It’s also sparkling clean, only odd given the state the other had left in. Cracked tiles and tinted walls. There are dinosaur toys placed about the windowsills and soda cooler, some parlour games, but no arcade machines. The young staffers are wearing new t-shirts, while the last cooks I saw behind Phill’s counter have a dress code extended past the stained apron. The look reminds me more of Lick’s than anything Marlee has ever seen. But it smells exactly the same, that linoleum/deep fryer smelter. It brought me back immediately.
As it turns out, amongst the three parties in there at the moment, was Phill himself. There is an actual Phill, Phill Mickalakos, who isn’t fat at all. Until I interrupted, he was preparing playlists for the restaurant on his laptop. “I have hundreds of albums on this thing to go through,” says Mickalakos.
Mickalakos didn’t sink with the ship in 2008. There were a few Fat Phill’s locations, in the suburbs and Mississauga, but the original was Marlee’s, which he opened in 1985. In 1993, he left the original shop to stay on top of the satellites, but left the business entirely around the birth of his first child. Since then, each Fat PhillÃs eventually shut down. “It’s a weird feeling to build something up, from nothing to ten stores, and then see it go away,” says Mickalakos, “But it’s a choice I made, that’s all.
“Now this is a true story,” Mickalakos says before telling me that the reason he has returned, much like the reason he left, is his oldest son, now 12-years-old. His son, in what must have been a truly adorable moment, asked him why he doesn’t still run a restaurant. The kid was hoping to work with his father as his father had with his own father, who recently passed away. Soon after, one of Mickalakos’ friends in the area called him up in a hurry about a space freakishly close to his original spot, and Phill jumped for it. After all these years, he even kept the original recipe, but decided to ease up on the garlic.
Mickalakos has found the reception to be fantastic. “I knew we were popular,” says Mickalakos, “but I didn’t know how much a part of this neighbourhood we were.” Staff have seen photos being taken, kisses being blown, hugs delivered. Every costumer I see step in takes a few awe-stricken moments to look around the space, even though it looks very little like the original. Mickalakos plans to resolve that with some big, little additions. For one, he’s going to Michaels to frame a handful of illustrations, recreations of the old classics like ‘Invasion of the Burger Snatchers’ and the ‘Fatue of Liberty.’ He is also very quick to assure me, and the “hundred-fifty” others who have asked about the Metal Slug machine, that he’s working on it. “It makes me very happy to know I left a positive impression on people” says Mickalakos.
He may have been putting on a show for me, but after we finished talking Mickalakos began making the rounds. He chatted with patrons about the importance of fresh meat and promising he can leave a few chicken cutlets without the hint of lemon juice marinade in the morning if they call in. I thought it was a bit much when he came to clean off my tray, and tell me that it is how it’s always done, but I did notice there was no obvious trash bin for customers to do it themselves.
My childhood barely overlaps with Phill Mickalakos’ original Marlee residency, so I can’t say if he was always such a character, but there are patrons who are on a first name basis. A few weeks in to its reopening, Phill is in his new old haunt and enjoying it. “It is my opinion, personally, that everyone should work in the service industry at least once in their life,” says Mickalakos, “so that they can learn how to treat people nicely. You know what I mean?”
It’s nice to see other people’s reaction, appreciation for the kooky insignificant, significant things that made neighbourhoods memorable. Eglinton will soon be receiving a transit line, and with so many of the hidden gems robbed over the years, the public may be introduced to something incredibly dull, while people who grew up here may know of something very different. Fat Phill’s is not the bloggable, secret-menu gourmet that Toronto foodies are currently eating up, but it is earnest and charismatic. It’s important for a neighbourhood to have that charisma, and even more important to maintain it.