Eating & Drinking

Elgin’s eatery evolution

As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change, and the continuing evolution of Elgin Street is no exception to the rule. As the average Ottawan’s palate becomes more adventurous, more refined, the culinary scene in Ottawa shifts too. Restaurateurs must adapt or die, and expensive real estate on one of the city’s busiest streets can make a competitive industry even fiercer.

(Above, Datsun: Whitney-Lewis Smith/Metropolis Studio)

That kind of natural selection is taking place on Elgin Street, especially in its south end, between Somerset and Gladstone. Like a sub-Saharan watering hole, this relatively small corner of the strip is being crowded by high-end restaurants, with restaurateurs clamouring to survive in a highly competitive market. Are there enough hungry Ottawans to fill these tables? What is it about Elgin Street that is drawing culinary entrepreneurs to the area? It all makes for a drama not unlike something from Animal Planet.

Now named after Lord Elgin, the first governor general of the then Province of Canada, the street was originally (and adorably) named Biddy’s Lane. Even “Elgin Street” has at times taken a back seat to its nickname, Sens Mile — so-called because of the influx of pubs, clubs, and hockey fans over the years.

But a shakeup is happening. With the Senators out of the playoffs, the arrival of new restos in the spring and more set to open this summer, Elgin Street is fast becoming a high-end dining destination — one that restaurateurs, such as chef Matt Carmichael, are increasingly calling “the most desirable strip in the city.”

A good move Matt Carmichael calls Elgin Street the “most desirable strip in the city”
A good move Matt Carmichael calls Elgin Street the “most desirable strip in the city”. Photo: Courtesy of El Camino

The owner had his doubts about opening El Camino on the south end of Elgin Street four years ago, and he describes what ensued as a perfect culmination of events. Carmichael now runs what is surely one of the hottest restaurant corners in the city at Elgin and Gladstone, with regular lineups at El Camino and his recent Asian fusion venture, Datsun, becoming equally popular. Though he says he was “100 percent concerned” about the taco joint being a flop, Carmichael now says he cannot imagine El Camino anywhere else.

Just above Carmichael’s busy spot is the Common Concept Shop. Designed as an “anti-mall,” Common encompasses a clothing shop, a pop-up Morning Owl that serves Equator coffee, and a hair salon, Le Petit Salon, beside it. The next logical step? An eatery.

In the spring when Ottawa Magazine spoke to Tommy Chan, manager of Morning Owl pop-up, the plan for The Common Eatery was to have daytime and evening menus and a long bar at which guests will be able to enjoy their lattes or libations. Jesse Alberto, a stylist and part owner at Le Petit Salon, is helping with the design of the new eatery, and if the decor at Le Petit Salon is anything to go by, folks can expect sleek, chic minimalism.

The proprietors of these spaces on the corner of Elgin and Gladstone know that the turnover rate of past tenants has been quite high; Carmichael was even told that the property was cursed. Home to numerous nightclubs and fast-food joints that didn’t last long, the corner has gone through a real makeover thanks to Carmichael’s tacos and takeout windows. With the anti-mall above, the area is offering even more reasons for a visit.

With the original Westboro location just over a year old, the owner’s of Pure Kitchen (not to be confused with Pure Gelato down the street) are opening another in the space formerly occupied by Maxwell’s, a long-time staple in Elgin’s bar scene before it closed in January. Husband-and-wife team Kyle and Olivia Cruickshank are at the helm of the kitchen and plan to keep the menu similar to what works so well in Westboro, with more emphasis on their grab-and-go selection and a larger bar with later hours. A late-night menu featuring dishes such as single-serving pizzas, sushi (veggie, of course), and their popular cauliflower wings will be available for folks who might have had a drink too many at the bar.

In an intriguing development, the basement at their new location will allow for a vegan cheese cave where, like dairy cheese, nut cheese will age, ripen, and be experimented with by the chefs.

With the expansion comes some nostalgia, as two of Pure Kitchen’s owners, Amber Stratton and Dave Leith, got their start in the industry on Elgin Street, with Stratton behind the bar at Maxwell’s and Leith as one of the original owners of Fresco’s.

For some, however, these changes are simply cyclical. Veterans of the street such as Jim Bickford, owner of Fresco’s for the past 11 years, says he has seen it all.

While the restaurant’s menu has stayed true to its Italian bistro roots, Bickford says that he and his team have always had a positive outlook on change and have been sure to “stay with the times” as the dining scene has evolved.

Last fall they relaunched the second floor of the restaurant with The Guest Room. A cocktail bar with a focus on homemade syrups, bitters, and “hand-carved crystal-clear ice,” The Guest Room delivers an old-school lounge experience with an accompanying menu of hors d’oeuvres. Hailing from Scotland, Matt Millard arrived in Ottawa just as Fresco’s second floor was being relaunched and has played a big role in helping establish the European-style bar. Millard says Ottawans are really taking to the crafted cocktail scene, with many guests asking for old classic or obscure drinks. The way he sees it, “the bar is just meant to be fun” — a sentiment he takes to heart as he tosses cocktails from impressive heights.

But not all can adapt in the same way. Increased competition can drive others away, which happened to Oz Kafe

Oz Kafe... is moving! Photo: Katie Shapiro
Oz Kafe… is moving! Photo: Katie Shapiro

In what she jokes as being counterintuitive to “normal business sense,” being tucked away slightly below street level is what initially drew Ozlem Balpinar to the space that would become Oz Kafe. There, the resto flourished; it was home to chef Jamie Stunt, now at Soif across the river, who won the Gold Metal Plates in 2012. But after 12 years on the strip, Balpinar is moving the Kafe to the ByWard Market.

Increasingly expensive rent pushed Balpinar to decide not to renew her lease, and she plans to have the restaurant’s new digs at 10 York St. open by midsummer.

Completely green to the business when she opened the restaurant with her brother in 2004, the affable and welcoming Balpinar has built a loyal clientele who she hopes will follow the Kafe to its new location in the nook of a courtyard. There, that feeling of being tucked away will remain, making the restaurant an attractive destination for fans and a pleasant surprise for passersby in the Market. It is not yet known what will occupy the vacated space on Elgin, but Balpinar says there has been no shortage of interest, given the energy on the street.

Closer to the business towers that occupy the northern end of Elgin, change is also happening in an area that is still dominated by fast-food options.

When a regular customer showed Whalesbone owners Josh Bishop, Peter McCallum, and Michael Radford the building that used to be the location of @Home housewares store on Elgin Street near Cooper, they called the decision to snap it up a “no-brainer,” since their Kent Street location was just “enough of a detour” to be out of the way for much of their clientele.

Bishop expresses joy at the thought of the Whalesbone joining the hustle and bustle of Elgin Street. Along with their popular brown-bag lunches of chowder and smoked-fish sandwiches, they will have a bar and late-night menu on offer. The Kent Street location will remain as their production kitchen and catering space but will close to the public once they open up on Elgin. In conjunction with the new spot, the Whalesbone also plans to launch an online delivery service, allowing diners to have their sustainable seafood delivered right to their doorstep.

With entire blocks devoted to restaurants, bars, and pubs, one wouldn’t be blamed for questioning whether there’s enough demand to justify this culinary boom on Elgin. Will the street continue to attract the same crowds that have dubbed it Sens Mile? How will the hockey crowd mix with the new influx of foodies? And how will Elgin Street fare in competition with other growing restaurant scenes in Ottawa — Hintonburg? The Glebe? ByWard Market?

Chefs and restaurateurs are optimistic. The stalwart, entrentched spots have adapted over time, and they say that the diversification of offerings from new players will only help the area become one of the city’s top dining destinations.

It’s eat or be eaten on Elgin Street.