From its hilltop vantage point on Manitoba Street, the Old Station Restaurant has presided over the comings and goings of Bracebridge’s downtown core for more than 37 years.
Famous celebrities and multiple generations of local families have come through the double doors into the dining room, or enjoyed their casual fine dining while watching the groups of tourists traverse down the main street from the Old Station’s front patio.
“I think a huge part of our success is our location. It’s one of the reasons we decided to purchase it in the first place,” says Mike Warr, who bought the Old Station in 1984. “The food is another big reason of course but so is the service. We’ve always taken a lot of pride in our service and we have the best servers in Muskoka.”
The Old Station has employed hundreds of staff over the years, from cooks and dishwashers to hosts and servers.
“So many people come in and say, ‘I used to work here.’ We’ve had multiple generations of staff – we have a hostess now whose father used to be a dishwasher,” says Mike’s son Owen Warr, who now runs the restaurant. “The staff are family and it simply wouldn’t have worked this well without them.”
The site was known as the Uptown service station for most of the twentieth century but in 1980 it was purchased by Ron Toufar and transformed into the Garden Cafe. The bohemian-style cafe featured an eclectic menu, as well as live music and even theatre.
It was during this period that the restaurant acquired the massive silver maple tree trunk which still sits squarely in the centre of the dining room. Rumour has it the tree fell during a windstorm in Gravenhurst and was subsequently moved in through the window. The burls were transformed into salad bowls, which were used in the restaurant. The tree was put into the middle of the room and hasn’t moved an inch since despite multiple significant renovations to the restaurant.
“They say there’s a friendly ghost living in that tree,” says Mike with a sly grin.
It was purchased in 1983 by Dave Hower and operated briefly as Old Station Chicken and Ribs before being purchased by Mike Warr and Doug White. At the time, both men worked at Grandview in Huntsville, where Doug was the chef and Mike was the dining room manager.
“He asked me if I would be interested in purchasing a restaurant with him and I was, so we looked at places in Orillia, Bracebridge and Huntsville,” says Mike. Ultimately it was the location that won the day, as the men saw the potential of the Old Station’s main street venue.
Mike took sole ownership in 1988 and over the years the restaurant was expanded, as was the patio, which was also moved from the back of the restaurant to the front where guests could look out over the main street as they ate.
Mike’s son Owen was born the year after he purchased the restaurant and he’s been running around the Old Station ever since.
“It’s like a second home to me,” says Owen, who formally took over in 2018. “I started as a busboy and I think I’ve worked every job there is to work.”
As far back as high school Owen says he knew he’d keep the Old Station legacy alive in Bracebridge if he could.
“I love serving and I love dealing with people,” he says.
Over the years the restaurant has welcomed everyone from Connor McDavid and Chevy Chase to Martin Short and Rachel McAdams.
Famous faces are nice but Owen says it’s the familiar faces – some of which have been regular customers since they first opened their doors – that have helped make the Old Station a local landmark.
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