Everyone’s a critic, right? Wrong.
In a Season 11 episode of The Simpsons, Homer lands a job as a restaurant reviewer for the Springfield Shopper. Problem is, Bart’s dear, old dad isn’t discriminating when it comes to what he shoves down his throat, so his readers quickly grow hefty, from heeding all his five-star recommendations and chowing down at every joint in town, pretty much.
That brings us to Kerry O’Brien, lead administrator for Manitoba Small Town Drive-ins Review, a Facebook group that shines a light on eating spots located outside of Winnipeg. Like Homer Simpson, O’Brien will never be mistaken for a foodie; hand him a burger and fries and he’ll be your friend for life, he says, seated next to his wife Stephanie, who is nodding her head in agreement.
"My palate is not refined in the least, and my worry is that people will stop taking me seriously when I say that such-and-such a place has the best this or that," he continues, scrolling through his phone to find pics of a recent meal he and Stephanie enjoyed at Jonesy’s Restaurant & Lounge in East St. Paul, where he successfully plowed through a two-patty behemoth dubbed the Monster Stacker.
"Truthfully, something would have to be exceedingly bad for me to go, ‘Eww.’ So what if your burger is overdone? Soak it in gravy or ketchup and you’re good to go."
The O’Briens, "parents" of two dogs, two cats and a turtle, were lounging around the house one Sunday morning in August 2017 when they decided to hop in the car and go for a leisurely drive in the country. They didn’t plan their route ahead of time, Stephanie recalls, a course of action that ultimately led them to Morris, and lunch at a homestyle restaurant there called Burke’s Roadhouse on 75.
That was tons of fun, they should do it again soon by going in an entirely different direction, they agreed on the way home. That pattern continued, primarily during the spring and summer months, for the next several years.
Every second or third weekend they would bid adieu to their pets for a few hours, catch up on their mutual week at work while they were on the road before stopping for a bite at whatever spot looked most inviting.
To keep a log of where they’d been, Kerry began penning capsule reviews of their outings, which he subsequently posted on his personal Facebook page, along with a short video recorded by Stephanie.
Skip ahead to August 2020; laid off from his job owing to COVID-19, Kerry found himself with a bit of time on his hands. Aware the pandemic was having an adverse effect on the hospitality industry, he decided to take their out-of-town excursions a step further, by establishing a Facebook group that invited others to name their favourite dining spots off the beaten path, as well.
(It isn’t that they don’t appreciate what Winnipeg has to offer, restaurant-wise, they do; they just felt restaurants outside of the city were being hit harder by the effects of COVID, so why not try giving those businesses a much-needed shot in the arm?)
Within a few days, the group was up to 25 members, a number that grew exponentially that fall, reaching close to 1,000 members before the provincial government imposed code-red health restrictions in November 2020 that closed all restaurants in Manitoba to in-person dining.
Activity on the page picked up again last spring, when restaurants were allowed to reopen, and things haven’t slowed down much since. At last count, the Manitoba Small Town Drive-ins group had a tick under 32,000 members, most of whom can’t wait to tell you where to pull over, whether you’re in Flin Flon (Mike’s Ice N Burger Hut), Killarney (Beach Hut) or Pine Falls (Papertown Inn).
The group’s No. 1 tenet, as per the O’Briens, is if you haven’t got something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. There’s enough negativity in the world these days, Stephanie says, without dumping on a small, independent locale for forgetting you don’t take cucumbers on your turkey sandwich, or that you prefer your eggs over-easy versus sunny side up.
"It isn’t even us, as administrators of the site, who have to enforce that rule very often," Kerry chimes in. "Any time somebody posts something exceedingly negative about a particular place, other members jump in, writing, ‘These people work hard for a living, what right do you have, picking them apart?’"
Also, although the word "drive-in" is part of the group’s name, any and all types of restaurants count, providing they don’t belong to a chain of any sort.
And the O’Briens hear it all the time, that restaurants situated in communities such as Keewatin and Kenora in Ontario and Moosomin in Saskatchewan should be included in the mix, being as close to Manitoba as they are. Sorry, they reply, they had to draw the line somewhere.
(Part of said line is the Perimeter Highway, meaning Oak Bluff mainstay Roxy’s Restaurant and Lounge, a stone’s throw west of the Perimeter, is fair game, as is Nick’s Inn in Headingley.)
Asked about gems they might have missed out on if it hadn’t been for a group member’s recommendation, the O’Briens note the list is a long one. Siggi’s in La Riviere is one for sure, Kerry says. So, too, are Two Old Crows Barbecue and Smokehouse near Miami, and the Spicy Radish Café — the borscht alone is worth the trip, Stephanie says, smacking her lips — on Railway Avenue in Whitemouth.
"What about that cute little place near a man-made lake, I think it was a campground or something?" Stephanie asks her husband, hoping he’ll recall what she’s talking about.
He does; the Boardwalk Grill, located in the Twisted Root RV Park off Provincial Road 210, near Marchand.
"The nice thing about that one was that the owner reached out to us a few weeks after we mentioned them, to let us know they’d gotten lots of visitors in the meantime," Kerry says, beaming. "That sort of thing always makes us feel good."
Kahleigh Dubois, owner of Kahleigh’s Brew Barn in Riverton, learned about the Manitoba Small Town Drive-ins Review page last summer after several new customers specifically mentioned the group when she asked how they heard about her place.
"I couldn’t see the posts people were making because I wasn’t in the group (but) my sister was always sending screen shots of posts about my restaurant," Dubois says. "I then joined the group, so I could see what people were saying, too."
People who’ve never been there before seem most intrigued by Dubois’ so-called dirty fries — french fries that arrive with a variety of creative toppings including bacon, tomato, onions and cheddar cheese or (yes, please) cut-up chicken fingers and honey dill sauce. Mini-egg milkshakes are a hot ticket item in the summer months, as well, Dubois says.
"Because of the group, we’ve had people come from all over, driving two hours-plus to try our food. It’s truly amazing," she says, citing Brennivins Pizza Hüs in Gimli as her favourite Interlake locale, outside of her own.
Finally, you know the adage there’s no such thing as a free lunch? That’s definitely the case with the O’Briens. Though some assume otherwise, the couple doesn’t make a penny off the Facebook group, nor do they eat like royalty when they’re out and about.
"We’ve posted in the neighbourhood of 70 reviews ourselves, and we haven’t been on the receiving end of one free meal yet," Kerry says, mentioning they have been recognized on occasion, or at least he thinks they were, only because staff seemingly went out of their way to utter something along the lines of, "In case you needed to know this for later, we only use certified, Manitoba angus beef for our burgers."
"That said, we do sometimes introduce ourselves on our way out the door. That’s when an owner might say the next time we’re there, they’ll happily give us dessert on the house. ‘That’d be great,’ we tell them, ‘only we have about 200 other places to hit first, before we make it back."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.