If you think you’ve seen Darryl Howe somewhere before, you’re probably right.
The owner and chef of the Stage Diner at the Zoetic on Concession has had a storied journey that has taken him from the shores of Newfoundland to the film sets of Toronto and ultimately to Hamilton.
Howe’s latest project, the Stage Diner, was set to open earlier this winter, but the pandemic lockdown disrupted his plans as it did for many other restaurants here in Hamilton and around the world. As of the beginning of June, it remains closed.
When it does open, Stage Diner stands poised to be one of Hamilton’s first great post-COVID restaurant success stories.
With a unique combination of savvy Instagram marketing, direct ordering, and his own innovative, lovingly-prepared meals that include many Newfoundland staples, Darryl Howe offers the kind of comfort food we need during times such as this.
Howe was still in the process of opening when the lockdown happened. “Due to the fact that I have my diner, neither levels of government are helping me as I don’t have taxes from last year, so I don’t qualify for the bailouts. In Hamilton alone, I think we’re going to see a 30% dropout of restaurants because they didn’t save for this kind of shutdown. I have a lot of pressure because I spent a lot of money on appliances and such, and I’m lucky to have great landlords. For many others, it’s pay up or you’re out.”
Still, Howe is working hard now to make sure he not only stays in business, but prospers. “When we open up to full scale, I’m sure I’ll be busier than most because I’ll already have a following.”
“I started out helping my Mom at home,” says Howe. “She was doing everything on her own, doing all the baking and cooking, so I wanted to help her out. When I got older, I got into cooking full time, starting out at a Chinese restaurant in Corner Brook. I’d wanted to be an architect before. Some sweet difference, but both fields require a caring mind.”
The next several years would see Howe move around Newfoundland and the Maritimes, finding work as an assistant kitchen manager at a Swiss Chalet and several different bars in Halifax until finding a position at a retirement home in Ottawa, Ontario in 1996 as a dietary chef.
When his partner, an Ontario public servant in the Federal Court of Canada, passed away in 2002, Darryl moved to Toronto and became a background actor for film and TV. If you’ve got a sharp eye, you might see him in such productions as “Falling Skies”, “Flashpoint, “Rookie Blue”, and “Downsizing” with Matt Damon, though his first ever on-set gig was for “Degrassi”.
“The first day I was on set, it rained,” said Howe. “We were there for 14 hours, and we were making $8 per hour, but I thought it was great! The only thing that bugged me was that the background actors were always on call and weren’t allowed to go to the craft services truck, so cast-background actors would get apples, peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I have a nut allergy, so I couldn’t eat those.”
Darryl, of course, no longer works as a background actor. “All of my background acting work now is called ‘The Stage Diner.’”
After moving to Hamilton in 2017, Howe got back into the food service business, making desserts in collaboration with another eatery out of the Farmers’ Market until January 2020, when the space where Stage Diner now sits became available. “They’re some of the best landlords I’ve ever had,” he says, noting that they have been extraordinarily supportive during the lockdown, which postponed Stage Diner’s original opening in April.
As cuisines go, there aren’t many places in Hamilton where you can find Newfoundland comfort food. Howe was reluctant at first to put Newfie items on the menu. “I didn’t want them to feel that it’s a total Newfie shop, but it is getting there, with the Newfie Fries and the Touton Breakfast. I incorporate my heritage because I want people to know that you don’t have to be stuck with the same thing.”
Newfoundland cooking, Howe notes, is mostly home-based type of food. “Newfoundland was a poor province once upon a time, so without much money to spend, a lot of Newfoundlanders would use cold cellars for their vegetables in the wintertime. The famous Jigg’s Dinner involved curing the beef in a salt brine to make it last the winter. That’s what you needed to feed large Newfoundland families, which are often 10-12 children large. The Newfie Fries, where you use a pound of hamburger meat served over a large batch of fries, can go a long way.”
Indeed, Howe’s Newfie Fries are rapidly becoming a signature dish. Rustic Yukon Gold fries are served up with gravy and an in-house dressing, topped with a pound of hamburger meat.
Another popular item are toutons, pan-fried bread. “These were made from the dough left over from making loaves of bread for the family,” says Howe. “They would render down pork fat and use that to fry the bread in. Of course, my restaurant doesn’t use pork fat to accommodate many of our customers’ dietary needs, so we cook them in oil.”
Howe’s Touton burgers and fries are everything you want in a good meal. The cod and chips, served every Friday, are exquisitely made with tender, perfectly-cooked cod and almost no grease in the batter.
However, it’s his desserts that often steal the show. Changing every week, they are a testament to Howe’s experimental nature. These include the Black-Eyed Susan, Howe’s version of an upside-down pineapple cake; KitKat cake that is exactly what you think it is; strawberry and chocolate mousse trifles, and a showstopper mango cheesecake that uses real fruit and juice for flavour. Every dessert item is somehow full of flavour and yet also very light on the belly.
Howe cites his mother, who raised him and his nine other siblings, for inspiring his love of cooking. “I learned everything from my mom,” says Howe. “I go to a grocery store, I pick out an item that I find interesting to cook with, take it home, let it sit, and my mind will come up with ideas. I’ll take an item like the peaches and my brandy apple cake and then make a peach whisky cake. I’m an inventor, but I cook with a lot of love.”
Howe looks forward to the day when restaurants can reopen. “I see people coming into the spot for Sunday brunch, ordering a Newfie Benny (with toutons and baloney instead of English muffins and ham), and sitting by the window, watching the world go by. The best thing for me is to see someone’s smile on their face after eating my food.”
Stage Diner remains closed as of this writing, but Howe is taking direct orders via email and etransfer, with curbside pickup arranged by Howe at the Zoetic Theatre on Concession Street. He suggests your first order be something new, fresh, and exciting. The Newfie fries and Newfie Touton burgers are good places to start, with the fish and chips being a must-have meal if it’s Friday.
Follow Darryl Howe and the Stage Diner on Instagram @stagediner to see what’s new on the menu each week!