Blame television for perverting our little brains into craving things once reserved for the ranks of high chefdom and exotic street-food carts. When big chains like Jack Astor’s start serving kimchi quesadillas and the word “umami” appears on the menu of a ByWard Market Irish pub, it’s clear that global foodie culture has reached saturation point. Now that everyone is a locavore, a foodie, a would-be food-truck owner, a craft brewer, or a small-batch whisky connoisseur, we’re seeing the quality of food served in pubs and watering holes rivalling what we used to eat in traditional restaurants.
This year we’re shining a light on the best of these new spots — so new, in fact, they barely have their sea legs. But hang on to your backless bar stools, because these places are hell-bent on reinventing this city’s dining scene. The Brits have gastropubs, the French have gastro-bistros, but here we’re seeing something uniquely our own. The new drink-slinging hangouts are neither conventional restaurants nor bars but, rather, an amalgamation of both. Suddenly, wine lists are being tossed aside while attention turns to blackboard lists of microbrews, bourbon menus, and catalogues of culinary cocktails that are good enough to eat. It has been a confluence of needs and desires, a new era of sociability brewing in the capital and growing demand for hip urban hangouts. Meanwhile, struggling food businesses make more money on booze than on food, so disguising drink dens as dining rooms makes sense for the bottom line. Habits are shifting already: drinkers are drinking earlier and diners are eating later; bar counters once seen as holding pens have become the best seats in the house.
Dining out has a whole new dimension: liquids are the latest culinary muse. Forget coasters, black rubber bar mats, and pop guns; a small group of bartenders are stirring up a following for classic and not-so-classic cocktails featuring homemade cocktail syrups infused with wild combinations of ingredients borrowed from the kitchen. We’re sitting eye to eye with servers and staff, interacting like chums with people we would never encounter in our daily lives. These are our co-conspirators in the quest for the ultimate customized cocktail and the best munchies to match. Our nightly consumption gives us bragging rights at the water cooler. You ate how many oysters? They stuffed what into a pig’s trotter? Did you say there was duck stock in your cocktail?
It’s a topsy-turvy moment that sees fine-dining chefs slapping down trendy tacos next to silky sea creatures glistening in reflective pools like those in Monet’s Water Lilies. A night out for glammed-up girlfriends leads to a post-midnight nosh on fried chicken set to deafeningly high-decibel indie rock. The new cocktail culture comes with its own lexicon: obscure names, rare and unusual ingredients that require Google searches, and the ability to shamelessly express our personal tastes in alcohol make lush sound like an ideal.
Meanwhile, some of Ottawa’s most imaginative chefs and baseball-capped brewers are becoming nationally and internationally known. That comes with a blast of kitchen confidence and a fierce new wave of civic pride. What’s striking is just how quickly a feisty faction of the hospitality industry has commandeered the dining public into adopting new ways of enjoying a night out. We have quickly come to expect an interesting experience and some human interaction, all the while shunning the risk that comes with a big-budget meal. But give us a shiso-leaf cocktail and a plate of duck-fat french fries, and we’re having a party! For now, these nouveau taverns are giving us what we need: an outlet for local artisanal products, an excuse for some frivolous fun, and the chance to consciously craft a city that we’re proud to call home.