Monday, 5 August 2013

Fad, Fadish, Transitory, Ephemeral

The restaurant scene in Ottawa and across the river in Gatineau is constantly changing and transforming itself. Since 2000 there has been a net improvement in restaurants in Ottawa. Gatineau which always had the best restaurants of the region has also evolved but the competition from Ottawa is present not to say pressing.

Though this was not the case prior to 1990, Gatineau then known as Hull had restaurants which attracted the high and mighty for its fine cuisine and good wines. Ottawa had the Canadian Grill at the Chateau Laurier Hotel. The rest of the City was composed of restaurants offering mediocre cuisine, a poor wine selection and bad service. Many restaurants like the Green Valley offered a cuisine you might think safe and not challenging, the sort of meal you knew an elderly relative would enjoy with peas and carrots and mash potatoes and gravy. People went out for anniversaries otherwise you did not go out, certainly not during a week night and on weekends only on Friday if you were a childless couple and on Saturday nights with family. Dinner was always early starting around 05:30pm meaning that restaurants were deserted by 08:00pm. The Quebec side of the river was very different, it had restaurants, dance clubs, bars, entertainment, none of which existed in Ottawa, the founders of Ottawa were Presbyterians after all.

In the 1980's the concept of Family restaurants became very popular, it seems that every new restaurants was family oriented, offered all you can eat menus for a few dollars. We had the Spaghetti Factory, various restaurants offering all you can eat salad bars and the kids could run around. None of it was conducive to fine dining or a pleasant atmosphere. Then the Brunch scene on Sunday became another fad, quickly extended to Saturday and then morphing with breakfast, so the Brunch could start at 8am and run until 1pm. Most clients though they might go out very late for breakfast preferred still a breakfast menu, eggs and sausage than a more lunch mid-day style menu. So to this day we still do not have in Ottawa a real Brunch menu of dishes mixing both early morning and mid-day meal. For the longest while Quiche and Black Forest cakes were all the rage until the Cheese Cake New-York style made its entry, all of that has now disappeared, another fad.

The Capital also grew, from half a million people in 1976 to one million today, the government presence has shrank considerably and with new arrivals to the city, new taste develop and new offerings appear. Many new young Chefs have opened restaurants in Ottawa, the market place is less crowded for them than in say Montreal or Toronto and with the awards they have won at various culinary contests have established a new philosophy of food creation in the public mind.

You will often hear the word Hipster to describe those who go out a lot. I am not quite sure what that term means, Hipsters do this or that, they are on the scene, is there a scene? Where? Also the word Hipster appears to describe a young person, under 40 who is single and lives in the downtown core.
But I am not so sure they have all that much influence in the changes we have seen in restaurant offering. What has definitely changed is the atmosphere in restaurants, more qualified Chefs instead of general cooks and menus are created not simply put together with no thought. Many restaurants are Chef Owned, I think here of Café Fraser, Oz, 327 Wine Bar, Atelier, DiVino and others. Meaning that you are not dealing with an owner who hired some cook with little knowledge of food preparation, this was too often the case in the past. Now you see the Chef at work in an open concept kitchen.

There is a emphasis on quality, preparing food from scratch, innovative cuisine and a quality decor.
Though this does not prevent the return of the fad restaurant with items copied from foreign cuisines, usually Southern US foods and presented as innovative and different, boiled peanuts, yard bird AKA roast chicken and ribs. Micro breweries have mushroomed and more are coming, the market will certainly be saturated very quickly. This is probably a fad and will pass, there is always a crowd following trends and maybe this is where the Hipsters fall in.

Quality bakeries from the original BOKO on Elgin c.1980 we now have Art-Is-In at City Centre which offers daily fresh bake breads and goods and the guarantee is that it is organic and just out of the oven. I can vouch for that, the bread is still hot when you buy it. There are many more who offer a variety of bake goods, the famous gluten free Pastry Shop Thimblecakes on Bank street produces the most fanciful cakes, just looking at their website is fun.

Restaurants also offer a wider selection of wines, for years the Government of Ontario through the Liquor Board (LCBO) had a choke hold on liquor sales. Now restaurants go through agents who buy on consignment, private customers can do the same. This has a beneficial effect of opening up the offer and allowing people to sample wines otherwise not available. Anyone remember the days of the Chablis or Chardonnay as if that was the only White wines available.

All these changes can only bode well for the future of the City and by 2017 when we celebrate 150 years of Confederation, Ottawa will not be like the small town of 1967.


  1. This isn't on topic but, hey! I had an account at that CIBC branch when I was a student at the U of Ottawa!

    You'll probably want to pretend you don't know me after I say this, but my favourite Ottawa eating establishment is, and always will be, the Beaver Tails shack in Bytown Market, LOL!

    1. No you are on topic, Beaver Tails are a delicacy in this city and much sought after. It's not like your confessing to loving Burger King.

  2. And speaking of Beaver Tails, the most impressive thing I did on our holidays in Quebec City, as far as My Rare One was concerned, was to know enough French to recognize "Queues de Castor" as being the shop sign for Beaver Tails.

  3. Your comments on brunch were interesting. Places that serve brunch here seems to start around 10:00 and run to 3:00. We rarely go because we get up too early and couldn't wait until 10:00 to eat. Also, I am not a fan of many breakfast dishes and the thought of eating them in the middle of the afternoon is bizarre. There is a very nice place near our home called Tryst Cafe that opens at 7:00 AM on weekends. We are regulars

  4. I am all for 'proper' food; it is a delight. I hope to have some next week.

  5. Is there a lot more ethnic food in recent years? Or would you describe the restaurants that are popping up as more urban NYC/LA/Milan style cuisines. You know, take a classic and jazz it up a bit.

    1. Jason I am just back from Stratford Ontario was at the Theatre Festival. In reply to your question no it is not more ethnic food rather more solid European cuisine done with flair and also modern interpretation with new ideas from young Chefs. The last thing we need is another Shawarma stand in Ottawa.