For most of us, the Baccaras and Becktas of our dining world have long been, and will remain, the stuff of special occasions: inking the big deal, surviving another decade, wooing your intended. I believe these places still have a role to play, but there is a new breed of upscale restaurant taking top tier in our minds and mouths. These are the places serving up the kind of thoughtful, richly flavourful, top-quality fare once reserved for those who could afford to be chauffeured there. And Cordon Bleu aside, I believe much of the best food today comes courtesy of wait staff who are wearing T-shirts and jeans. We’re swapping foie gras for chicken livers, austerity for conviviality. After all, Ottawa is nothing if not unassuming and low-key; it’s no place for food snobs. This new fine dining reflects what many of us have come to appreciate most in a restaurant, anyway: hospitality and human connection. I’d even say Ottawa has been ahead of the curve when it comes to a kind of collective distrust for snooty-pants haute dining. Why else would we see so many local chef-owners outfitting their upscale eateries with mismatched chairs and serving designer hamburgers and bowls of homemade ice cream while bathing their dining rooms in indie pop? The owners’ presence and passion, dedicated wait staff, and ambitious chefs who channel cutting-edge inspirations into familiar, more affordable food served in a relaxed atmosphere — that just might constitute fine dining in the 21st century.
As we witness the birth of this new era in eating, prepare for some awkward moments: it seems even the restaurant owners are confusing the concepts. Is Genuine really a wine bar? Is The Welly really a gastropub? Is Fraser’s a café? The words are starting to mean less and less, but as the old saying goes, it’s what’s inside that counts. No matter what a restaurant calls itself, I believe the best ones understand that the feeling of connection starts with a truly welcoming reception at the door and a server who genuinely seems to care. It then trickles down to the recognizable sources of ingredients on our plates and in our glasses. Nearby farms, local food artisans, homespun breweries, and small-scale vineyards play a starring role in the new restaurant realm. After all, the heart of haute cuisine has always been about sourcing excellent products. And that’s another reason why Ottawa’s burgeoning restaurant scene is perfectly situated to thrive. Not surprisingly, most of the restaurants on my list of favourites have owners who are also chefs, the kind you might spot inspecting bunches of organic heirloom beets and boxes of mushrooms at the local farmers’ market or — better yet — growing their own veggies and herbs out in the backyard. Chef-owners can’t help infusing their restaurants with their personalities, passions, and values: it’s that illusive X factor that seems to translate directly onto the plate.
So, is fine dining dead? I will leave the final decision to you. I can only offer you my picks for the best places to eat right now. No two are alike, but all of them satisfy a craving for upscale dining as we are coming to know it.