A Life's Story

December 15, 2018

Dedicated to customers, community

Paddock owner had personal touch with guests, staff; worked to better city

By Bill Redekop

While the former Paddock Restaurant was owned by Melvin Orestes, who died in September, it was actually the brainchild of Winnipeg gambling kingpin, Stan Zedd.

Zedd ran craps games and an international bookie joint in Winnipeg in the 1940s and ’50s when gambling was illegal, always staying one step ahead of the law.

Melvin Orestes and his wife Helen at their granddaughter Megan’s wedding in 2014. (Supplied photos)

Melvin Orestes and his wife Helen at their granddaughter Megan’s wedding in 2014. (Supplied photos)

Zedd had fallen in love with a restaurant called Melody Lane, in California, and came home with its picture. He hired a contractor to build the elaborate building, which had a horseshoe-shaped front and a tall spire with the Paddock name extending from the roof.

But he ran out of what he called “legal money,” so he brought in investors, including Mel’s father, Parry.

 

I know all this because Mel told me in 2003 for my book, Crime Stories: More of Manitoba’s Most Famous True Crimes (Great Plains Publications). (The book is out of print so this is not a plug.)

Mel loved the colourful Zedd, who always had a cigar jammed in the corner of his mouth and epitomized the North End’s heyday, calling him “the kindly gambler.” Zedd never let anyone leave a craps table cleaned out and always had a hired man ready to stuff a few dollars in a guy’s shirt pocket.

But the Paddock stumbled out of the gate, metaphorically speaking, because respectable people didn’t want to be seen at an establishment associated with Zedd. So the partners bought Zedd out, and Parry soon became the owner.

Meanwhile, Mel had just obtained a psychology degree and couldn’t find work so he started helping his dad at the restaurant. That was 1952. He never left, assuming the ownership at a young age and running it until it closed in 1985.

The Paddock was located where the Olive Garden and Red Lobster are now on Portage Avenue, across from Polo Park. It was across from the racetrack at the time, hence the horse-racing theme.

The Paddock became one of the hottest restaurants and nightspots in the city and took on Mel’s stamp. The Paddock also had a coffee shop, cocktail bar and banquet rooms upstairs. Mel kept a lookout for people in his establishment and would always go over to welcome them.

It wasn’t an act, said daughter Maggie Welton, who worked in the restaurant for 10 years as a hostess, bartender, short-order cook and office clerk.

“He treated people very respectfully, but it was also personal. He always went the extra mile. He remembered the story about their mother, or their wife, or their kid, or what their kid was doing,” she said.

“People would come for lunch with their business group and then return in the evening or (on) the weekend with their family.”

Melvin Orestes with his wife Helen on their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Melvin Orestes with his wife Helen on their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

If someone had had too much to drink and wouldn’t call a cab because they needed their car, Mel drove them home. Maggie knows because many times she had to follow her dad and pick him up after he’d dropped off a vehicle.

“He was so caring about them. They weren’t customers. They were friends.”

His customers were loyal and so was the staff. Some staff worked with him for 25 or 30 years, which is rare in the service industry. Other times, the Paddock and Rae & Jerry’s Steakhouse would trade staff back and forth. Someone would get tired of working at the Paddock and go to Rae & Jerry’s, and vice versa.

While “Orestes” sounds Greek, Mel was actually Italian, the family name having been mangled by a customs officer.

Wife Helen, 89, remembers meeting her future husband at the University of Manitoba in 1946.

“He chased me and chased me and I didn’t want any part of him,” she recalled.

She was Mennonite, after all, and couldn’t imagine taking home a non-Mennonite. But he was star-struck.

The Paddock Restaurant was located at 1540 Portage Ave.

The Paddock Restaurant was located at 1540 Portage Ave.

“He was relentless,” she said, laughing. “He made sure he sat beside me in all the classes. If someone else was sitting beside me, he’d just say, ‘Excuse me, I want to sit there.’”

“My mother thought she was a failure” because Helen didn’t marry a Mennonite, but accepted Mel and later told Helen she’d married a good husband.

“My dad absolutely loved my mother. I never doubted that for a minute,” Maggie said. “My parents were affectionate. That’s what I grew up with was seeing my parents embrace, my dad always kissed my mom, he always kissed us, hugged us.”

While the restaurant consumed his life, Mel believed in community and was very involved in service groups such as the Rotary Club and the Masonic Temple, and was a longtime rider in the Khartum Motor Patrol of the Shrine.

When his sister-in-law’s husband died tragically young, leaving her with children ages one, three and five, Mel purchased a cottage large enough to accommodate her family as well his own. He was only 29 “and didn’t have a lot of money,” Maggie said.

The Paddock was the city’s first restaurant with a parking lot. It was also the first dining room and cocktail lounge to serve liquor.

There’s a story about that. The City of Winnipeg had just approved a number of first-ever cocktail bar licences and the competition was fierce to open, said John LePage, who was brought in from the Royal York Hotel in Toronto to run the Paddock’s bar and banquet rooms.

Inside the former Paddock Restaurant at 1540 Portage Avenue.

Inside the former Paddock Restaurant at 1540 Portage Avenue.

“The liquor arrived at 9:30 p.m. and we got the bar equipped and there was a lineup already,” LePage said.

If they wanted to be first, there was no waiting until tomorrow. “We opened at 10:15 in the evening on March 17, 1957, and we closed at 11:30 p.m. (liquor laws required earlier closure back then). We were open 1¼ hours that day because we wanted to be first,” LePage said.

The Paddock was racetrack-themed with the main dining room called the Turf Room. The upstairs banquet room was the Winner’s Circle, the cocktail bar was called the Starting Gate Lounge and the ground floor coffee shop was the Horseshoe Coffee Bar.

Many people still recall the Treasure Chest at the Paddock where children who behaved themselves during a meal got to dig out a toy. There was also the wishing well that made large annual donations to the former Shriners Children’s Hospital on Wellington Crescent.

Famed sportscaster Jack Wells used to do a CKY radio show from the Paddock. The large cocktail bar seated 120 people and featured nightly entertainment and a massive drink menu that included 20 brands of imported scotch and 29 brands of Canadian whisky. Burton Cummings performed there for an extended stay after the Guess Who broke up, as did a trio called Chad Allan and the Sticks and Strings after Allan was the original singer of the Guess who and its forerunner band, Chad Allan and the Expressions.

Mel and Helen had four children: Laurel, Perry, Maggie and Janice. Tragedy struck in 1979 when the youngest, Janice, died from illness just before her 13th birthday.

Mel and Helen were devastated.

“It was a game-changer,” Maggie said. Family was always a priority, but more so now and Mel started shedding the responsibility that went with the Paddock and other parts of his life. He spent more time with his family and began making plans to close the Paddock.

He sold the Paddock in 1985 at age 56. He and Helen spent many happy summers at their cottage in Gimli and winters in Florida. Melvin died a month short of his 90th birthday.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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