ToquiNotes: A Late Night Trip Down Memory Lane with an Order for a Giiovanni and More at The Canteen

By Jeff Toquinto on April 20, 2024 from ToquiNotes via

EDITOR’S NOTE: Warm weather weekends meant more than swimming for me and entire generations of individuals that frequented the Canteen. After a recent late night craving a famous Canteen Giovanni and the free delivery service at any hour, I thought I would brush off this old blog from that last ran four years ago and give it another run at refreshing memories. Please not the owner, Ray E. Blake, Jr., passed away in August of 2021.
It is 2:30 a.m. on a summer weekend morning at an eatery in Harrison County. It’s 1993. In front of me, I’ve got two eggs, bacon, toast and fried potatoes. In full disclosure, I’m just a wee bit tipsy.
If I asked anyone to fathom a guess at where I’m at and they’ve grown up in Bridgeport or Clarksburg, or perhaps anywhere in Harrison County for that matter, chances are good they words “The Canteen” will be coming out of your mouth.  For those that don’t remember The Canteen, go no further unless you want to know what a real, old-school neighborhood eatery was all about. For those that do remember – and I’m betting most reading this do – I figured it was time to jog some memories.
Forget for the moment this was located smack dab near the middle of Clarksburg. The Canteen’s legacy is much larger than one geographical location. And if you can’t forget, understand that The Canteen was owned and operated for 46 years by Bridgeport’s own Ray Blake.
Mention the name Ray Blake in Bridgeport and most people think of the development he’s been responsible for in the large swathes of land around what is now Johnson Avenue. They may think of the current Blake Center. A handful of you may even think about Blake’s likeness being used as the replica for a statue at the United States Army Air Force Cadet Memorial Park in Corsicana, Texas.
Blake is proud of all of that, and he should be. Here’s something else Ray Blake should be proud of. It was under the tutelage of Blake that the creation known as the “Giovanni” came into existence. Every area restaurant has this sandwich on its menu today it seems like, but Blake claims it’s his own. The chopped steak, melted cheese, peppers and “other secret ingredients” on thick grilled bread was the cornerstone of the menu. It was also a cornerstone of any order I made pre-a.m. hours at The Canteen.
“We created that in 1968,” said Blake, who beams when talking about the former establishment. “A lot of people have tried to duplicate it, but they can’t get it like we had it. We had it first and we had it the best.”
As it turns out, The Canteen had the first for a lot of things in the area. If not, some of the services offered were a first many of us remember.
Blake said the purchase of The Canteen came in 1953 from two glass cutters from the area – Jimmy Heitz and Oscar Antoine. Blake said prior to his family’s acquisition of the business, it was a beer joint that served hot dogs.
Due to numerous reasons, Blake was able to acquire the business after opening the Coronette Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida in the early 1950s. Blake’s business venture began in the Sunshine State in 1952 and when his wife had a less the favorable time there, along with some family deaths, Blake sold the hotel and headed back to West Virginia looking for a business opportunity.
“Frank Colombo had the Schlitz dealership in Clarksburg and he told me about The Canteen,” said Blake. “I ended up buying it for $3,500.”

While many things remained the same after the acquisition, Blake found out quickly that innovation may have been the key to success. Blake said the business had the first commercial television set in Clarksburg and installed the first air conditioner the year he acquired it in 1953.
Big changes came in 1968. The changes involved more than just the birth of the Giovanni.
The Canteen was enlarged. A drive through was put in place, which was unique but not necessarily new. The really unique thing Blake said they did that year was offer delivery service.
“That was to the best of my knowledge something new altogether,” Blake said.
The new was still complimented by the old. Blake said his father, a former machinist that lived upstairs and was thought by many to own the restaurant, helped out plenty early on.
“He sliced the bread we needed by hand early on,” Blake said. “That was his big job.”
Eventually, rules involving the selling of beer in the establishment (it was eventually eliminated four years before closing) relaxed to the point where it could be sold until 2 a.m. Blake realized his staff was leaving after closing and the morning staff was arriving at about the same time. The result of that led to another thing The Canteen became famous for – never closing.
“It didn’t make sense to close, plus you didn’t want to shut off your grills,” Blake said.
And the grills almost never came off after that. In fact, Blake said that prior to the business closing in 1999, the only time he ever recalls the business being closed was in 1985 when the 100-years flood leveled most of the area
“I went over there and the water was up level with the bottom of the tables. I actually had to crawl through the drive-in window. I can’t think of a time before that it was closed and it was never closed after that until we closed it for good,” said Blake.
Before closing it for good, generations of folks got to try the Giovanni, the Big Ray Burger (my all-time favorite) and the 46 oz. Monster Milkshake – yes 46 ounces. Eating there, as it turned out, was an experience on every front, including the staff.
The majority of the staff that waited on you on the floor or at the bar were women. And they were as unique as the place itself. My all-time favorite was Judy, who was a late-night regular that gave it out as good as you could give it to her.
Eventually, though, Blake turned over the management of the business to other hands. Once there, things went a little too far south as problems arose.
“I just went in on a Monday morning and said ‘Let’s close it down.’ That was it,” Blake said. “The Canteen would be no more.”
After it closed, two different Mexican Restaurants went into the building without success. Eventually, the building was torn down and a Dollar General Store sits there today.
While the building is long gone, the memories are as fresh as a piping hot Giovanni. Thanks to that Giovanni, I’ve got plenty of memories and a few pounds around my waist that appears to be ready to stay around forever.
Editor's Note: Photos provided by Ray Blake, shown in the third photo from 2012, while bottom picture is of the well-known menu. Feel free to tell us your favorite memory or item from the Canteen below.

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