During one of my atypical binge-watching sessions, I came across a really interesting question: Would you rather live in the past or in the future? For me, it’s the past. There’s just something charming about it — something safe in childhood memories that are all fuzzy and coloured in sepia. We all undoubtedly feel like this; why else would we have so many #throwbackthursdays, parties, and playlists? However, I find that many restaurants that try too hard to capture this vintage feel often fail at it to the point where it becomes aggravatingly artificial: Mel’s Diner, Johnny Rocket’s, Hard Rock Café, etc. It’s hard to find a business that survives the ages and somehow doesn’t feel outdated. Cue in Ethel’s, uptown Waterloo’s greasy spoon, a stone’s throw away from its olde worlde sibling, Harmony Lunch
Somehow distilling a genuine vintage feel down to the dingy tiles and yellow walls, the place doesn’t look much changed since 1994 when it first opened. Laminated menus and neon lights are everywhere as dated games blink at you — games like Big Buck Hunter: Open Season (complete with plastic shotguns) and a miniature hockey table juxtapose against flat screen televisions to show you that Ethel’s had gotten with the times. I ordered the antijitos to start as I gazed at the countless decorations, from vintage movie and concert posters to a giant stuffed parrot with a wooden tail wearing Mardi Gras beads. I had wanted to order wings, but Ethel’s has this hilarious policy of it having to be a Wednesday or a full moon, and they took it seriously too as they refused my request to order a platter as it was neither of those occasions. Well played, Ethel’s, well played.
The antijitos were decent yet mildly disappointing when they arrived as I personally felt it was a bit expensive for $9.69 (hehe). Although the dish contained a pleasant texture (soft, gooey, cheesy goodness), it could have benefited from a little more spice from the jalapenos. Some of the pieces were also unfortunately unevenly sliced so that some of the ends were devoid of cheese, leading to that awkward appetizer-sharing dance of oh-I-kind-of-want-this-piece-but-I-don’t-want-to-seem-like-an-asshole scenario (or maybe that’s just me). A bright spot was the salsa which was surprisingly fresh, with larger vegetable chunks than I had bargained for as my dinner companions berated me for spilling vegetable bits all over the table.
When the mains arrived, I again was mildly disappointed. My companions had ordered from the “Sausagefest” special menu that was ending that day, and I immediately noticed that their dishes looked far more impressive than the pulled pork quesadillas I had ordered. They were delicious too — Ethel’s knows how to handle their sausage (ayy lmao). The sausage roll’s pastry dough could have been crispier as they verged on the doughy side, and the dish could have benefited from a stronger cheddar, but the sausage itself was deliciously greasy and juicy with a charred outer layer. The “Angry German” was a better sausage combination, a sausage within a bun with sauerkraut and cheese; again, well-cooked, but its oiliness was offset by sauerkraut which wasn’t too vinegary but offered up a good subtle aftertaste. Finally, the mashed potatoes that accompanied both dishes were a tad too creamy for my liking, and could have used more salt.
Turning back to my pulled pork quesadillas, I was pleasantly surprised by how well-spiced they were. The bread had also remained crispy in spite of soaking in sauce as I dived into it, and on the whole, like all of Ethel’s other dishes, it was very oily yet satisfyingly delicious. Even though it had initially seemed like a small serving, I found the quesadillas surprisingly filling, making it pretty decent for its price. I just wish something tangy or fresh other than the salsa had been served with it, but they were perfect washed down with a cold pint of beer.
Lastly, the grand finale: a cranberry apple crisp served with vanilla ice cream for dessert. A great dessert, it arrived to us hot and freshly made, plate scalding. Not bad for $6, the presentation could have used a little work, but like Ethel’s, it was what it was: rustic with a homemade feel that made no apologies. By the end of this meal I felt very full, but somehow was okay with lingering there with my friends, just talking and laughing. And this is where I realized the charm of Ethel’s: you somehow feel at home transported back in time in the middle of uptown Waterloo. Although the prices are a bit high for what it is, this is a great place to grab a drink with friends when you feel like just shooting the breeze and creating new memories to throw back to.
From the Author:
Along with being a designer/artist by day, I also love wondering what and where I'm going to eat next. I'll go out and eat with you - just don't call me a 'foodie.'