We lost more than just a restaurant when Markham’s all-you-can-eat Italian establishment died
Growing up, there was only one restaurant where my family went to celebrate: Frankie Tomatto’s.
For the uninitiated, Frankie’s was an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet located in Markham and topped with a 55-foot replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was the brainchild of Hal Roback, who pressed Olive Garden’s cuisine and aesthetics into the Mandarin business model. Frankie’s opened in 1994 and served more than 11 million meals before closing in 2020, early in the pandemic. The tower remained standing even after that, a reminder of the restaurant’s glory days, until earlier this month when it was demolished-I make many loyal customers like me feel the loss again and think about the legacy.
Not surprisingly, the inside of the restaurant was as well a lot, featuring an Italian villa-like dining room with faux cobblestone floors, hot tables decorated to look like facades, and trompe l’oeil wallpaper that mimicked the crumbling walls of ancient ruins. At one point, a fully functional indoor water fountain was the centerpiece of a pretend villa’s pretend piazza—Toronto’s very own Trevi Fountain. In short, Frankie’s was totally cheesy but full of charm.
My family was just one of the tens of thousands served by Frankie. And we were loyal enthusiasts. We visited every birthday, anniversary, end of school year and even Christmas. Frankie’s was never busy. Being there, especially during a weekend dinner, was wonderfully chaotic: the chatter of families conversing in Mandarin or Hindi or Farsi; a recording of the repetition of the Italian lesson in the washroom; the screeching, shrill pre-recorded birthday song (“It’s Frankie’s birthday!”) – which always failed to elicit jump scares every time it popped up out of nowhere – and hordes of people milling around the salad bar, waiting to be topped with baby spinach and cherry tomatoes.
Frankie’s food was the best food ever – or at least I remember it that way. Pizza, dessert towers, bubbling stews and endless rivers of sauce, ready to scoop my favorite pasta (penne) onto plates. And while this may all sound pretty simple to some people, my family, who immigrated to Canada from China in 1999, never ate this kind of food at home. This meant that I paired garlic bread and channel freddo with special occasions. My parents were waiting for a giant ham and pot roast, so different from the ones made at home. As working-class migrants with three children to feed, they loved that we were allowed to go to the buffet where we could eat as much as we wanted without affecting the bill. All-you-can-eat restaurants are popular because they symbolize decadence and allow for overindulgence among families not used to overindulgence.
Most of Frankie’s customers were immigrants like us who had also come to celebrate milestones. Over the years, I noticed new options at the hot tables: halal beef and pretense of vegetarian meat began to appear in abrasive dishes, a reflection of the restaurant’s versatile diners. “At an all-you-can-eat buffet like Frankie’s, you didn’t have to speak English,” Roback says. “You didn’t need a menu, you didn’t need to communicate with the servers. It really worked in GTA.”
When Frankie’s went out of business, I was just one of many heartbroken regulars. (Actually on the restaurant’s now inactive Instagram account people are still commenting on the goodbye message, asking to reopen.) As a final thank you to their customers, on August 29, 2020, Frankie’s team handed out free pizzas on a drive-through basis — because of Covid — only accepting donations for Easter Seals. Roback says they handed out 1,100 pizzas that day, and some recipients told him they waited more than three hours in line to say goodbye. “I couldn’t believe how many people drove up and took pictures. It was unreal.”
Frankie’s closing is part of a larger trend: the death of the buffet. When the pandemic hit and public health measures dictated the end of dine-in, it was more difficult for hot-table self-service stores like Frankie’s to switch to take-out. Even when indoor dining returned, getting up and walking around a restaurant was a no-no, and approaching a hot table and hand-picking the perfect slice of pizza was out of the question. “We were trying to reimagine Frankie,” Roback says. “But honestly, we couldn’t.”
The business model of Frankie’s and so many other buffet restaurants was unworkable even before the pandemic and after that it was filtered out by closures. Storing a buffet costs a lot. And for a place like Frankie’s, with 425 hungry people, the staffing costs were astronomical — Frankie’s had 154 employees when it closed, according to Roback. But raising the prices would have removed the sense of offering that was essential to the buffet’s success. “If we close, you can have an all-you-can-eat lunch at Frankie’s for the price of a hamburger,” Roback says. “I just don’t see the same pricing model happening in our current economic climate.”
When Frankie is gone, the surrounding neighborhood is a sea of strip malls, gas stations, warehouses and highways. While the area has become more vibrant in recent years with dim sum parlors and Indian restaurants popping up in this part of the GTA formerly dominated by Tim Hortons, nothing seems to have filled the tomato-shaped hole left by Frankie’s. As great as these new places are, they’re not the kitschy, weird, budget-friendly restaurants you go to when you need to feed a birthday party of 15 growing teenagers.
Communities across Canada have Frankie’s, they just have different names. When I tell my friends who have never been to Frankie’s about the fever dream of eating there, I always find out about another place like it in another part of the country—some other absurdly decorated, over-the-top buffet that was right. for a family party. When we lose places like Frankie’s, we don’t just lose restaurants — we lose community gathering spaces. Frankie’s was magical with its unique combination of affordability and deliciousness, luxurious aesthetic, diverse group of diners, and hands-on experience. For 25 years, Frankie’s was a big part of my family’s life.
In 2019 we celebrated my younger sister’s 17th birthday at Frankie’s. As the host led us to our table, we passed another family who was also celebrating a birthday. The staff hit on that horrible song and invited everyone in the dining room to sing along. The birthday boy was shocked by the attention but took it like a champ, even posing for a photo wearing a crown and a cardboard cutout of Frankie, the restaurant’s mascot, a Roman emperor-like figure brandishing a fistful of dry spaghetti. We laughed, teasing my sister that it would be her turn soon. We then sat down to enjoy what would be Frankie’s last party – we just didn’t know it at the time.
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