Zak’s Diner chosen from across Canada to collaborate with Simons on limited-edition T-shirt

Sofia Santiso Borsten - Zak's Diner
Sofia Santiso Borsten, at Zak's Diner in the ByWard Market, seen wearing one of Simons' limited-edition Zak's Diner-themed T-shirts on sale online and at all of its stores across Canada. Photo by Caroline Phillips

One of the ByWard Market’s oldest and most beloved restaurants is gaining national exposure through a streetwear label sold by Canadian fashion retailer La Maison Simons.

Zak’s Diner was one of four eateries selected from across Canada to be featured by Quebec-based Simons through its limited-edition T-shirt collaboration. 

“It’s flattering from a business perspective,” said owner and prominent restaurateur John Borsten during an interview at his Zak’s Diner in the heart of Ottawa’s ByWard Market district. “It’s also nice to see that Ottawa is getting recognized as a major urban centre.”

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Simons’ private label for men, called DJAB, gets its inspiration from art, music and street culture. The retailer selected one restaurant from Toronto, Vancouver, Quebec and Ottawa that it felt captured the local spirit and energy of each of those cities, said Pierre Longchamps, buying director at La Maison Simons. The shirt, priced at $49, is sold online and at the chain’s 16 stores, including its Simons store in the Rideau Centre. 

“Since the pandemic, there’s been a renewed interest in going out to restaurants and we wanted to share our clients’ passion for good food,” said Longchamps in an interview. “We also wanted to increase the visibility for local businesses and have an impact in our local communities.”

They don’t call Zak’s Diner “locally world famous” for nothing, said Borsten’s wife, Sofia Santiso Borsten, who’s also director of marketing.

“It feels like most people are aware of it,” said Santiso Borsten. “If you come to Ottawa and don’t hit Zak’s, then you’re not really here.”

Known for its milkshakes and all-day breakfasts, the restaurant’s nostalgic interior is warm and welcoming. It features retro-looking red vinyl booths, charming chrome accents and irresistibly catchy tunes. 

Zak’s Diner has been around since 1986, when Borsten and his former business partners opened a tiny 26-seat restaurant in the Market. They named it after one of the owners’ sons, Zak Firestone, and kept its doors open 24 hours, which is still the case on weekends.

The diner has expanded considerably in size throughout the years. At 37 years old, it’s one of the oldest restaurants in the ByWard Market. Mind you, it’s a spring chicken compared to the 174-year-old Château Lafayette tavern on York Street.

The downtown diner is also the busiest of the five Zak’s Diners. The other locations are in Kanata, on Elgin Street, in Carleton Place and in Westboro.

While Borsten is the sole owner of the ByWard Market diner, he’s majority owner of the other locations. His partners are former employees who started with him as busboys and servers and worked their way up.

Borsten’s other restaurants include Starling and The Grand Pizzeria & Bar — also in the ByWard Market — and The Metropolitan Brasserie.

On Sept. 12, Zak’s will be hosting an all-day Flipping for a Cause benefit in support of the ONFE (Ottawa Network for Education) School Breakfast Program. It will be serving pancakes by donations.

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