Missing the people element at Assiniboine Park Conservatory

Once a public place, filled with volunteers and a sense of community, the Conservatory has now become a rather cold, empty space. Even the floral displays have taken on an institutional look.

By Dorothy Dobbie

It was not long before Christmas when I ran into Shirley Vlassie, owner of the Star Grill, at her Assiniboine Park Conservatory location. She was full of news and excitement about improvements she had in mind for the restaurant. “Wait till you see the stained glass we’re putting in,” she enthused.

Shirley had been operating the Conservatory restaurant for the past number of years and she has continued the transformation begun by Milan Bodiroga and Restaurant Dubrovnik. What was once a greasy spoon operated by a catering and hotel chain, had become a charming place to have breakfast or lunch and even the occasional dinner.

To the “class” Milan had already created, Shirley added her own brand of coziness and warmth. The restaurant became a favourite spot for many and was called “the best kept secret of the Park” by those who just happened upon it. It was generally full, requiring reservations well in advance. The food was good, in spite of the inadequate kitchen facilities designed for a hamburger joint.

Then, without any warning, the surprising news came down that the Star Grill Park location would close in three days! There was no explanation.

I have no idea what the issue was that caused Shirley to close her doors. I do know I will miss the ambiance she created in what has now become a very sterile building.

Once a public place, filled with volunteers and a sense of community, the Conservatory has now become a rather cold, empty space. Even the floral displays have taken on an institutional look. The pleasant little gift shop run by the Friends of the Conservatory was closed when the new management took over and the Friends themselves have lost their name and their meeting place. They now meet at the Mennonite University and are called the Friends of Gardens Manitoba. Recently, another of the small garden clubs that used to meet in the seminar space (such as it is) told me that that the fee now demanded for use of the space is more than a small club can afford. They don’t know where they will meet henceforth.

It seems a shame. The Conservatory used to be the heartbeat of the Park, visited by more people than any other amenity there. And while the improvements made to the children’s playground are lovely and the duck pond and skating area are now flanked by an impressive structure with a food service appropriate for families with kids, the warmth and charm that existed in the conservatory restaurant are missing and there seems little reason to visit the building now.

As a patron of both the lovely restaurant in the pavilion and the new family restaurant, I still miss the Star Grill at the Park, (although we still have the Star Grill on Portage, which has always been overflowing with eager diners).  It was the perfect spot for a more casual dining experience and, more, it added life and destination to the now deserted Conservatory.

I wonder what the ghosts of those whose ashes rest under many of the large trees in the Palm House are thinking about the silence that now dwells with them.

One thought on “Missing the people element at Assiniboine Park Conservatory”

  1. Oh my goodness Dorothy a friend and myself had the same feelings when we were there a couple of weeks ago, so sad and so shortsighted to leave that place so cold and unused. It was a favorite of mine and my late husband we spent many hours during the winter and almost every Sunday morning, chatting with people and reading our newspapers. The new place is not much more than any other fast food restaurant, I was disappointed with the noise and the service…just another building.

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