A downtown “institution” is marking a century in business this year, give or take a few.
Morrison’s Restaurant, the venerable King Street diner known for its comfort food and speedy service, turns 100.
“When I bought it, people said I didn’t buy a restaurant, I bought an institution,” remembered owner Mike Argiris, who bought the restaurant 31 years ago.
“I didn’t even know what that word meant back then.”
While the blue awning of the King Street diner says that Morrison’s was established in 1921, the year it actually opened is anything but clear.
“LeRoy (Burtchie) Burtch, a short order chef at Morrison’s for 46 years, said Eileen Morrison started the business ‘about 1921’ across from its present site on King Street, where the Bank of Montreal is now located,” former Whig-Standard reporter Bill Fitsell wrote in a column dated July 5, 1991.
“Then she relocated it on Clarence Street, next to the British-American Hotel, now the vacant Brewers Retail lot (which is now the Sheraton Four Points).
“Eileen Acton, daughter of late Vinny and (Irene) Morrison, has credited her mother with starting the business on Clarence Street in 1923,” Fitsell continued.
Fitsell noted that the City Directory, a comprehensive list of businesses, didn’t have an entry for the restaurant, also listed as a tobacconist, until 1935.
“By 1925, this enterprising young woman (Irene Morrison) had outgrown her humble beginnings,” former Whig columnist Barbara Wamboldt wrote on the same date six years later.
“She expanded her business, moving to 318 King St., across from the Market Square. Husband Vinny, an employee of the Grand Trunk Railroad, shared her vision. He left his job to assist his wife with the expanding business.”
Among the early regulars at the restaurant was bootlegger Dollar Bill, and later, Bonanza star Lorne Greene while he was enrolled at Queen’s University.
The Morrisons, Chris Argiris was told, “helped a lot of people during the Depression, during the war and after the war.”
“During the Depression years, Vinny never turned a hungry man away simply because he couldn’t pay,” Wamboldt wrote in that same column. “He also had a policy of not making people work for a handout. He knew times were rough enough. Often local businessmen who had accounts at Morrison’s sent people in need to the restaurant with meal tickets to be honoured. Struggling Queen’s University students often were recipients of such tickets.”
In 1962, the business was sold to brothers John and Peter Poulos, with John working the till and Peter the grill.
“That was the best location in the city,” John Poulos, now 92 and finally retired, recalled during a phone call this week.
In those days, there weren’t as many coffee shops or restaurants in the area, and business was booming with City Hall across the street and The Kingston Whig-Standard next door and its printing plant out the back door in what is now a parking lot.
It was so busy that Poulos had a cash register in the back that would sell coffee and sandwiches to newspaper carriers and offset plant workers.
“I had a good staff,” Poulos recalled before listing off a dozen names. “My staff deserves the credit.”
Back then, Poulos would buy local before it was the thing to do, buying his milk from Wilmot’s and his meat from the Block and Cleaver next door.
And, when he could, “I would buy direct from the farmers,” he said, since it was always cheaper than buying from a wholesaler. Having the farmers market across the street in Market Square certainly made that easier, he said.
Poulos, who always wore a tie while the servers and cooks would wear uniforms, would always arrive at Morrison’s at 4 a.m. to make muffins for hospital staff heading in for their shift, he said.
The key, he said, was to look after people and never turn them away. As Vinny Morrison had before him, Poulos would often let Wolfe Islanders stranded in Kingston after missing the final ferry sleep inside the restaurant, Argiris said.
Before he took over, Poulos said the banquet hall upstairs had been a popular spot for weddings.
One night around 9 o’clock, he remembered a couple from Perth came in, worried that it was too late for supper. He assured them it was not.
“And then he told me, ‘We got married upstairs in the banquet room 25 years ago,’” Poulos said. Argiris, too, said that he has had people stop by to see the ‘tea room’ on their 50-year anniversaries.
Poulos finally sold Morrison’s in 1990 to Chris and Peter Argiris, and if one needed proof of its lore in the downtown core, former mayor George Speal and alderman George Webb were on hand, Argiris said, to welcome them.
After he sold Morrison’s, Poulos opened another restaurant, John’s Restaurant, in Napanee.
“The restaurant business is the best,” Poulos said this week, “because people eat three times a day and they’re not going to stop.”
Before buying Morrison’s, Chris Argiris owned and operated the Embassy Restaurant at the corner of Clergy and Princess streets, buying it when he was just 21 years old.
Although he had 15 years’ worth of restaurant experience when he took over Morrison’s, he was taken aback by how incredibly busy his new restaurant was.
“It was chaos,” he said.
He left the menu — with the clubhouse sandwich, open-faced hot sandwiches and, of course, breakfasts — as it was, only tweaking it from time to time in the three decades since. And still, to this day, every order to the kitchen is prefaced by “Ordering. …”
The restaurant has always had its regulars, he said, and still does.
“They don’t have to tell us what they want.” he said. “We know what they want.”
While the restaurant had always been a hub for local politicians, journalists and even railway workers, it also attracted its fair share of recognizable faces.
Argiris remembers politician Preston Manning eating there, as well as members of The Tragically Hip. One person who still makes a point of going there when he comes to Kingston is Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy, for it was at Morrison’s that he had his first date with wife Rena Polley while both attended Queen’s.
To mark the century mark, Argiris isn’t quite sure what he’ll do yet. He might get some hats and shirts made in the fall, he said, but it all depends on what happens in the next few months.
He’s contemplating retirement next year, he said, and passing along the business to his sons.
While the restaurant remains steady, it isn’t as busy as it once was as there are a lot more competitors now than in 1990.
“There were only seven or eight restaurants down here then,” Argiris said.
And many of the businesses, like the newspaper, have relocated elsewhere. Back in the 1990s and before, people would be lined up waiting to get in.
“Those,” he said wistfully, “were the good old days.”