It's Thursday night at Jilly's, Toronto's scuzziest strip joint, and a middle-aged stripper is waggling to The Cranberries in a way that resembles dancing. The speakers crackle as music is force-fed into them. Black lights shine overhead. The carpet is printed with a wizard-cap pattern of stars, triangles, and squiggles. Cellulite abounds. A row of makeshift support beams runs down the center of the room, preventing the place from literally collapsing. But I'm not here to watch dancing. I'm here to eat as much food as I possibly can before this place closes forever.
Jilly's is a Toronto landmark in a reviled sort of way. It has been around for decades, situated in a historical east-end building known as the Broadview Hotel. Upstairs, low-income tenants live in pest-riddled rooms. It looks nice on the outside, but it's crumbling and the reek of despair hangs about like mold. But this sleaze den will not exist for much longer because the building has been bought by Streetcar Developments. What it will become is unclear, but the idea is that it will transform into something better than it is now. The new landlords estimate that they will spend around $400,000 in structural repairs alone. Meanwhile, the building's employees and 40 or so residents will have to find somewhere else to go.
"I'll have a hamburger and a chicken burger," I say to Jade, our waitress, who has worked here for over 20 years. "And a hot dog," I add. "And spring rolls." For most Toronto locals, when they learn that Jilly's serves food, the response is something like, "ugh."
Eating at Jilly's has long been on my to-do list, mostly out of a morbid curiosity as to what sort of cut-rate slop spews out of the kitchen. When I called to make sure that I could actually get food here—food that I could eat without dying—the employee who answered the phone was very reassuring.
"We have a good chef," he said. "You won't get food poisoning."
My tablemates—friends who willingly accompanied me on this bizarro expedition—order more: chicken wings, two pounds of them, and chicken fingers with fries. Jägermeister is cheap tonight. I'm usually not the type of guy to have booze-laden feasts while surrounded by naked women of every genus imaginable, but I'm about to do that in memoriam of this soon-to-disappear Toronto monument.
The chef is named Brian. Following our order, he comes out to hand-deliver our food wearing his apron and chef's coat. He is huge. If Mike Hagerty and Chef Boyardee were crossbred, this is their lovechild. We buy him a tallboy of Amsterdam blonde.
Later, he tells me that he started working here around three years ago, first to cook meals for the dancers, but things changed when the customers wanted what the girls were eating, so he started to cook an actual bar menu. I don't know who walks into a strip club hungry, like for food, but apparently this is a thing that happens.
"I knew I was going to have a hard go," he recalls, "because people don't like to mix their food and their strippers."
For a guy who's self-taught—save a few courses at the YMCA—he takes an interesting amount of pride in what he does, prepping in-house and buying fresh produce more often than you'd think. I was expecting to write an article about the terrible food at Jilly's…but the food is actually not that bad.
The spring rolls arrive first. They're of the pre-frozen variety, but they're cooked all the way through. This is a plus. They are also $3 for an order of six, which nullifies any right I have to complain about them. Then comes the hamburger, made from freshly ground beef. It has a thick sear from the grill and is served on a white bun with iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato. It's overcooked, but there's no way I'm eating a medium-rare burger at a strip joint. All told, it is not disgusting. Neither is the chicken burger, made from grilled chicken breast topped with a dab of mayo and more iceberg. The hot dog is all-beef, boiled, and it's zigzagged with ketchup and mustard. You'd have to go out of your way to mess up a boiled hot dog.
As the food piles up, exotic dancers walk by. They are interested in our large meal. They all speak very highly of the chef. Sheila indicates that the chef buys fresh ingredients on a daily basis, estimating how much he'll need, and cooks to order. She is partial to the chicken fingers, which are cut from chicken breast, seasoned, dredged in corn flakes, and deep-fried. They come with fries, which are legitimately good: hand-cut and double fried, with crunchy grains of salt on them.
Then the chicken wings arrive. They are grey, as pallid and pale as Nosferatu. Nobody wants to eat them. "Right," I say to myself, "I'm at Toronto's scuzziest strip joint." The waitress explains that maybe they look weird due to the black light. This may be true, but they're also dry, under-seasoned, and under-sauced.
Ruby comes by to hang out. We invite her to eat some of our food.
"What's your favorite thing to eat here?" I ask her, hoping she won't say the chicken wings.
"Rice," she says. "I'm from the Philippines."
Near the end of the night, one of my compatriots returns from a dance. "That was the worst lap dance I've ever had in my entire life," he says.
His dancer hears him. She comes by with vengeance on her mind. You can see it in her face. She approaches the table and speaks to us through the metal support beams.
"Your friend," she says, "Had lint in his belly button. It was glowing in the black light. He rolled it in his fingers and flicked it."
Here's the thing about Jilly's: Yes, it's washed up and probably always has been, but it seems to have embraced its role as a citywide joke. It's fun in a something-to-do-once-every-five-years kind of way, because when your expectations hit absolute zero, it's impossible to be disappointed.
But seriously, don't order the wings.