Building with beloved Toronto Vietnamese eatery, UFO Diner, listed for $4.2 million

“UFO Restaurant does not have any official news to announce at this moment regarding the future of the restaurant,” the restaurant owner said in a statement.

Alessia Passafiume

By Alessia Passafiume Staff Reporter Fri., March 4, 2022 (3 min. read)

UFO Diner, a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant the King West neighbourhood may be facing an uncertain future. Why? 

The building it sits in is now listed on sale for $4.2 million.

“UFO does not have any official news to announce at this moment regarding the future of the restaurant,” said Tina Nguyen, the daughter of the owners, in a statement. “We would be happy to comment further once we have more information from the landlord.”

On the realtor.ca listing, the post indicates that “vacant possession of the entire building available on closing.”

The Star reached out to the building’s owner, Zambia Papadakis, who did not provide comment about listing the building for sale, and directed the Star to the building’s real estate agent, Julie Seo, who also declined an interview.

The spot is steps away from the ultratrendy boutiques of Queen West and condos along King West — prime real estate in the city that often carries a hefty price tag. The building comes with a commercial space, currently occupied by UFO, and an owner-occupied four-bedroom, four-bath apartment on the second floor.

“If you look at the housing prices in that neighbourhood, they’re sky rocketing,” David Sussman, a real estate agent and member of the Toronto Real Estate Board said. Unfortunately (in this market), you’re going to miss the mom and pop restaurants and the greasy spoon restaurants.”

Tina Nguyen (left) holding eggs benedict with aunt Hanna Nguyen, holding Pho. UFO Diner, in the west end, is a place you can get a bowl of Pho, or bacon and eggs, and a lottery ticket as the small diner also doubles as a corner store.

When housing costs rise, commercial real estate prices follow the trend, he adds. “For every mom and pop spot, (buyers) may be looking to put a Starbucks in.”

“Rent is $50 to $70 per square footage in this neck of the woods. (The owner) has a nice residential unit upstairs, rent from below. The problem with any gentrifying area is the same sort of thing, it’s out with the old, in with the new,” he said.

Sussman also adds that while there are many cases of big corporations coming in and leaving small businesses without a home, this property in particular could be a case of an aging owner “sitting on a gold mine” who is ready to sell to pass money on to her family.

In real estate, the term “highest and best use” is often used, Sussman says, to evaluate the potential of properties. With this spot, there are a lot of options. “Can it be a condo? Can it be a loft? Can it be some town houses? It could be worth a lot more money,” he said.

With UFO’s lease ending in June, Sussman says a new owner may also be looking to turn the one building into multiple properties which creates more housing units. There is also a possibility, though low, that the new owners will hang onto the eatery.

“We live in such a crazy city that everyone wants to live in. This is inevitably what’s going to happen,” he added.

The future of UFO remains uncertain, the owners say.

The restaurant has been part of the community for decades, but in 2017 was taken over by the Nguyen family.

Since the early ‘80s, UFO operated as an all-day diner with a small convenience store on the side selling chips, lottery tickets, ice cream and drinks. When the Nguyen family took over, the decided to add a third element into the mix: Vietnamese food.

With an eclectic menu, patrons have their choice to grab a bowl of Pho, a club sandwich, eggs or tofu fresh rolls, among others, are often greeted by the warm, welcoming aspect of the eatery, which inadvertently cemented UFO as a community hub.

Papadakis and her partner Mike opened the place originally as a diner in 1983 and lived in the upstairs apartment. Mike died in 2006, and soon after Zambia sold the businesses to the next owner, Lein Ly. 

Zambia the restaurant’s landlord, lives on the top floor of the building. It’s something that UFO said was key to the restaurant’s survival.

In 2019, she told the Star it was important for her to keep the restaurant open because it was “something that we spent our whole life on. Downtown is very expensive and more taxes are coming, so I can’t survive all by myself. We needed to keep the place open and do what’s best for everyone.”

With files from Karon Liu and Evelyn Kwong