East Side Mario’s at University Plaza – My Review

Hey Budda Boom Budda Bing!  You probably have heard this slogan before.  It belongs to East Side Mario’s, a popular chain of Italian restaurants that are 100% Canadian, as it happens. 

100% canadian

Today, I’m going to review one East Sides in particular – the one at University Plaza.  The promise of East Sides has always been “Good times, great meals!” as well as “Come empty, leave full!!!”  I like that little slogan in particular, ha.  They have also always been family-minded, community-minded, focusing on things like charities and summer camps.  When you go there, you’re family.  It’s all about mi casa, su casa type of thing.

East Side Mario’s History

Did you know that the East Side Mario’s located in University Plaza in Waterloo, Ontario is the oldest East Sides out there right now?  It’s true.  This one been around since 1989, and the other restaurants that once pre-dated it (going back to 1987) have now either moved or closed down.  I learned this today while talking to Don Hughes, AKA “Downtown Donny”, the owner of the Uni Plaza East Sides, who I was speaking to in order to get an “exclusive” for this article right here!   

downtown donnie aka don hughes

You see, 20 years ago, I used to go to the University of Waterloo and East Side Mario’s was, of course, there at that time, as well.  It was a place I’d drop by to grab dinner with friends, go on dates, and hang out at on a fairly regular basis.  I always enjoyed the bottomless salads, and I am a huge fan of most of their pasta dishes.  It’s very true that they give you a lot of food and the prices are good as well.  I do happen to like being fed, oh yes I do!  Going to East Sides was and still is always a treat, and so it was cool to stop by today and talk to the owner himself, who told me many interesting and colourful stories in relation to himself as well as East Sides. 

Back In The Day

Back in the late 1990’s, the East Sides at Uni Plaza was much the same, and also quite different.  I was a student at the University of Waterloo, and Donny would have been in the mix at this point too, as a manager but not yet an owner I don’t think.  At this time, there was a lot more focus on the fact that East Side Marios was originally a concept that focused on it’s New York roots, with lots of imagery of old buildings, the Statue of Liberty, and so forth.  I remember this stuff quite well, as I’d often find myself staring at things like maps and historical photos that adorned the wall next to whatever booth I’d be sitting in. 

little italy 1950's

The Evolution of East Sides

As Donny told me, the concept of East Side Mario’s has evolved somewhat over the past 20 years, and if you visit one of the newer East Sides, you’ll definitely have a different and much more modern impression than you will when you visit the University Plaza East Side Mario’s.  Because he’s been in the business so long, Donny has had the chance to basically customize this East Sides to his tastes, and that includes a lot of interesting sports photos and paraphernalia.  You have the old chandeliers adorning the ceiling, and a wooden floor that the basketball team always likes when they drop by, I’m told.

main room

University Connection, General Layout

Because it is so close to the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier as well, Donny has been greatly involved in many of the varsity sports teams, who often come by for food.  The Uni Plaza East Sides is and has always been a hit with students and faculty as well, but Donny tells me that it’s families who seem to stop in for food the most. 

The restaurant is fairly homey and snug when you compare it to other similar restaurants, for instance, your average sports bar.  That said, there is plenty of room for patrons, with one main room, a bar on the one side, and another large room that is partly out of view from the entrance, which used to be a patio.  So, three rooms total.  

The far room has a nice view of the train tracks, and a pathway students like to stroll along to access the plaza, as well as some nice grassy knolls and trees.  There are garage doors which open up to let in fresh air as well, which is perfect for nice days.

side room

The Main Room

The main room I’d say is the most “enchanting”, because there is lots to look at, and has the twinkling chandeliers and a whole lot of stuff on the wall.  You can also see the kitchen from there, and usually there are chefs on the go, cooking up your favourite dishes.  You might call this room a bit overstimulating, if everything wasn’t so darned interesting to look at.  The wood also makes this room a whole lot more charming than if it had the plastic chairs and tables of say, a typical diner.

east sides uni plaza main areaThe Bar

The bar area is nice, because it includes some tables, and raised seats so you can sit at the bar and either watch tv, look at stuff, or chat with whomever.  It’s not a very big bar area, but then again, this place isn’t exactly a bar – it’s a restaurant.  The drink selection is pretty good, and with their draft beer being a highlight.  The beer is so cold you can even opt to get a mitten for your hand.  That’s cold!

delicious draft beers

If you’re facing the plaza parking lot from one of the booths, you get to watch all the action there.  Normally, staring at parking lots kind of sucks, but I find this parking lot to be particularly intriguing, but maybe that’s just me. 

Also, I think that if you’re going to have a television, that’s great, but these days many restaurants and sports bars go absolutely nuts with the number of frickin’ TV’s they have.  Some places have a television everywhere you look, and I personally can’t handle that. 

I think it’s rare that you find a restaurant that you could call “quaint” these days, but I think this East Side Mario’s still has this vibe, and I’m glad it does.

east sides bar area 2

The Menu

I guess it took me a while to even mention what’s on the menu, but I kind of figure everyone knows the East Sides menu by now.  The main attractions at East Sides are the pizza and the pasta.  There are plenty of options for both, and I am personally a fan of the Firecracker Shrimp Bowtie and the Sausage and Peppers Penne.  I’ve been eating those particular dishes forever, and I never get tired of them – ever.  I’ve tried some of the others too, like the Seafood Linguine and the Classic Lasagna.  Nothing I’ve tried at East Sides has ever steered me wrong.  You always get a lot of it, and, with a side, you’re going to be stuffed! 

Build Your Own

Of course, you can always build your own pasta or pizza, which many restaurants now offer, but, to my memory, East Sides was doing it first.  This way, you can’t go wrong, you just make it to your specific preferences.  If I had to criticize the menu at all, I’d say that they lack gluten-free options.  I do have a slight intolerance for gluten these days, and I just wish they had more options for pastas (or any, I don’t think you can get any gluten free pasta there so far as I know).

build your own pasta

I shant run down the entire menu here, but, suffice it to say, this menu is designed to include something for everyone.  From their everyday deals to their family deals, to their delicious starters and entrées, to the desserts (!!!), their menu is jam-packed with food that everyone can dig into.  There’s just something inherently fun about Italian food (probably the simple carbs), and to be able to go to an Italian restaurant that feels authentic but doesn’t charge you up the ying-yang – that’s a beautiful thing.

Counting Calories?

If you are a calorie counter, all calories are listed on the menu so if you are trying to not consume a days worth of food in one meal, you can plan your strategy accordingly.  The food at East Sides isn’t exactly low calorie, but that’s not really the point of East Sides.  The food is delicious and made with love, so if your primary concern is avoiding any and all foods that might make you gain weight, you either should be very careful what you order, or perhaps go to a restaurant which isn’t based on the diet of people from Little Italy.

Delivery

In talking to Donny, he mentioned that East Sides delivers up to 2 kilometers of their Uni Plaza establishment, which is not a huge delivery area, however, there is another East Sides on King St. to cover other parts of town.  This East Sides is mainly geared to the people close to the schools.  I had no idea they even did delivery, and it was cool to hear that they now do.  Their delivery service is basically an offshoot of the Swiss Chalet model, which was set up by the parent company of both franchises, Cara Foods.  As such, they are not having to figure out the whole delivery service business.  The model has been in place for a while now, and it’s already been honed to perfection.  You call up East Sides for delivery, and the service is quick and easy, ushering this restaurant with old time-y charm into the present day.

East-Side-Marios delivers

Social Media

East Sides also has a following on the major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Donny said that while East Sides is booming on social media, he isn’t exactly fully on the bandwagon yet, in terms of posting to the platforms as often as he should.  I told him he should, because it might just increase his business substantially.  We’ll see what unfolds on that front, but it’s nice that East Sides is at least in the game, as it were.

Connect with Uni Plaza East Side Mario’s on Facebook

Connect with Uni Plaza East Side Mario’s on Twitter

Review Conclusion

Sorry if this review was a bit all over the place, but I think what you need to know is that basically this is a restaurant which maybe has been more streamlined in other locations, but the Uni Plaza East Side Mario’s still has some quirkiness, which I think is to it’s credit. 

kitchen view

So, if you’re looking for good food, and lots of it, and you love Italian food, and deals (who doesnt?), then I’d suggest you stop by this place because it has everything you could want, especially if you’re a fan of Italian food and you aren’t super duper picky.  For those who live nearby, it is practically an institution in that neighbourhood, which hopefully won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. 

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