As the sun sets on a Friday evening, I'm wandering in an unfamiliar crook of downtown Toronto, looking for a restaurant I don't know, trying to hook up with a group of people I've never met. Chances are that none of them is particularly familiar with the neighbourhood either; few, if any, have ever heard of or eaten at the dining establishment in question.
In fact, the restaurant is the only non-random element in this peculiar urban adventure. The Dominion Eatery is our destination... simply because its time has come. In the neatly ordered world of the Yellow Pages, it's next. I'm meeting the Serial Diners, who for the last ten years have been going to a different restaurant in Toronto every Friday night. Alphabetically.
There are 26 in the party this night, only two short of the group record, according to Charles, the official Diners chronicler. I feel a bit like an interloper glomming onto a museum tour group halfway through. After all, the Serial Diners as an entity just celebrated their "fifth anniversary of their fifth anniversary." I feel a little out of place, having missed Ah-So Gardens, Aristokrat, and Awash Restaurant. I didn't eat at any of the Blues (Blue Bay and Blue Jay, Blue Lake, Blue River, and Blue World). And of course there were almost 20 Cafes... in a row, remember.
There's a first time for everyone, though, and I try blend in. It may be a little geeky, even a little obsessive. But these people aren't sticklers on the details. They're in it for the fun. The whole system is satisfyingly ordered, almost Zen, in its simplicity. The group's schedule outlines plans, including directions, six months in advance, and each year they pick up where they left off on July 1, when new editions of the Yellow Pages come out. No single member has made it to every one of the more than 500 eateries (and counting).
Ah, but what about new listings? Since most restaurants open and close within a year, there are new A's and B's the group has missed. Forget it! Onward, ho! A sense of adventure is common to many of the gathered. But even they have occasionally ditched out on restaurants that seem too pricey or otherwise dubious. Distance doesn't seem to be a problem, however: recently, eight members carpooled to The Doctor's House in Kleinburg, more than an hour's drive outside the city.
What happens if the restaurant is closed or has turned into a dry cleaners? The intrepid Diners simply migrate to a nearby establishment and grab a bite. This phenomenon has been dubbed "filling up at Harvey's," after the Canadian fast food chain. (In the group's history, they note, they've never actually "filled up at Harvey's" at Harvey's.)
The attitude of the group is satisfyingly compulsive for us list-makers and completists, yet it's also comfortably absurd. Coming theme periods include the "Godfather Weeks" (three sequential Don restaurants) and the "Homer Simpson Fortnight" (mmmmm, donuts).
And -- just to give you a sense of scale -- they've guaranteed themselves no immediate danger of becoming obsolete: "According to current estimates," the group contends, "We should be finished this insanity in about 33 years. Five years ago, we estimated that we would be finished in 36 years... So in five years, we have only made three years' worth of headway."
Seated with my dinner companions at The Dominion, I listen to longtime members sharing anecdotes of missed restaurants, of disastrous meals, of other Diners who have come and gone. As often as not, the personal stories and in-jokes that accompany them have nothing to do with the Friday night dinners.
After the middling and mundane meal, a sub-group is scooting off to see a play around the corner, while several latecomers stay to eat and chat. Announcements include coming theatre performances, congratulations for a couple of members recently nominated for some science fiction writing awards, and talk of both recent and imminent weddings between Diners.
Five years from now, I don't know if I'll still be sitting down with the same group of guys for poker on Friday nights. But in five years, the Serial Diners will almost certainly be celebrating the fifth anniversary of their tenth anniversary, maybe somewhere that begins with G -- The Gem Restaurant around the corner from my house perhaps, or The Glen Abbey Golf Club/Gallery Dining Room, where the Canadian Open is held.
You're welcome to come along, of course. Just check the Web site and show up for some interesting conversation, a gamble of a meal, and a good story to tell. Charles the Chronicler will make sure your presence is noted and you'll become an "alum." Don't be shy about bringing friends, either. As the site says, "The more the merrier, or at least the louder, which is something. We trust your judgment. Any friend of yours is, well, a friend of yours, but we're sure they're just fine. (All these years later, we still aren't tired of saying that!)"
Dinner is served.
James Keast lives, eats, and writes in Toronto. When not contemplating the finer points of Canadian cuisine, he plies his trade at www.exclaim.ca.