The prices on the wall at the new Fortune Block restaurant Modern Electric Lunch seem too cheap to be true: a cup of coffee for a dime. A braised sirloin for three. An order of fish and chips for four.
It feels as if those numbers are from a different time, when Al Jolson was the biggest movie star, the stock market hadn’t yet crashed, and there had only been one world war.
Of course, that’s because they are: the prices are on yellowing receipts, framed behind glass and dating back to 1927.
Back then, the storefront at 232 Main St. also housed a lunch counter and tobacco shop called Modern Electric Lunch, so dubbed because it apparently had the city’s first commercial electric refrigerator.
Almost a hundred years later, during renovations of the historic building after its purchase by the Pollard family, the receipts were found stacked inside the wall when the space was being prepared to become a restaurant once again. The prices have gone up according to inflation, and neither braised sirloin nor fish and chips are on the menu, but the name stuck.
"We didn’t exactly want the food to be a throwback to the 1920s, but the name sounded awesome," says Ben Gillies, a restaurant spokesperson. "It’s a little nod to the history of this building."
The modern Modern Electric Lunch is a contemporary reimagining of the original, with a wide range of hot drinks and fresh-squeezed juices to go along with classic sandwiches such as the Reuben, egg salad, breakfast, and the club. There are also cakes, vegan bagel sandwiches, and what’s become a standout, a rosemary-bacon waffle with smoked Gouda sauce. The staff includes an in-house baker, and Amelia Giesbrecht, formerly of Fools & Horses, is the general manager.
"We didn’t exactly want the food to be a throwback to the 1920s, but the name sounded awesome." – Ben Gillies, restaurant spokesperson
They’re also making their own nut-milk, a sentence that would no doubt bewilder a time-travelling customer looking for a good braised sirloin.
Modern Electric Lunch is the latest step in a total revitalization for the Fortune and MacDonald blocks, which were built in 1882 but until a few years ago had mostly fallen into a state of disrepair. (The Times Changed High and Lonesome Club, also in the building, has been a live-music staple for decades despite threats to its survival).
In 2015, the building was on tap for demolition, with the former owners wanting to sell the blocks to a Toronto developer as a location for a $35-million hotel. It was "a scenario, quite literally, out of a Weakerthans song," Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti wrote.
But then in 2016 came a life-saving municipal historical designation and a purchase deal by local businessman John Pollard of Pollard Banknote Ltd., who, with son Ryan and assistance from Heritage Winnipeg, vowed to give the building new life.
Four years later, the block’s fortunes have indeed taken a turn for the better. The exterior has been refurbished and new businesses, including footwear shop Livestock and Modern Electric Lunch, have been added to the fold.
Next door, an empty lot was transformed last summer into the Beer Can, a pop-up outdoor beverage garden and music venue. And beside that, the Pollard-owned Winnipeg Hotel (built in 1872) is also awaiting a renaissance after its closure in 2019.
Plans for future development include a public plaza serving as a connector between the buildings, and Gillies says with the restaurant up and running, the block is closer to fulfilling the vision the new owners intended.
Though at the moment the restaurant is operating in a takeaway capacity, it is spacious enough for the post-pandemic dining world, with several benches and a big, open back area that will offer table service, eventually.
"Someday there will be seating back there," Gillies says.
The owners always planned to develop the space into a restaurant, Gillies says, but only knew what to call it when the dusty old stack of bills was uncovered.
Moral of the story: always keep your receipts.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.