For seven years, Raw Sugar set the tone in the shadow of the Chinatown Gate — a cozy coffeeshop known for its small-scale music and cultural events. When it shut down last December, locals were left to mourn the loss of two neighbourhood coffeeshops in a matter of just a few weeks (The Daily Grind, just down the road, was destroyed by fire) and crossed their fingers for a new coffeeshop. Less than six months later, their wishes have been answered.
Bar Robo is billed as a coffeeshop-bar-performance space, a new hangout that will appeal to the coffee-deprived morning and daytime crowd before morphing into an innovative evening performance space, complete with an “haute concession food” menu developed by former Mellos chef Mike Frank and cool cocktails by bartender/GM Connor MacFadyen.
City Bites Insider caught up with MacFadyen, Frank, and owner Scott May as they put the finishing touches on their decor — and the cocktail list. Bar Robo is scheduled to open Monday, May 2, launching the morning and day menu immediately, then the evening and cocktail menu a few weeks later when the liquor license comes through.
First up, tell me about the name.
Connor: It’s a subversive take on the idea that Ottawa is a robotic city. Bar Robo is going to be a fun, inclusive space that embraces the weird.
Scott: We’re going to mix high-brow and low-brow.
And what are you? Bar? Coffeeshop? Performance space?
Scott: We’re thinking of ourselves as a coffeeshop that just happens to be licensed and has shows.
Coffeeshop early in the day and performance space at night, then.
Scott: Exactly. There’s a dearth of coffeeshops in this area and not enough performance space in Ottawa in general. This is a very creative city with a huge indie scene. Bar Robo is going to be a high-quality performance space.
Let’s start with the coffeeshop part. Tell me more.
Scott: We’re going to serve very, very good coffee. We’ll be importing beans from around the world. I’m getting some really great ones from Papua New Guinea, which will be roasted here by a specialist. People will be able to come in and buy Robo beans. We’re also tasting beans from Mexico, Ethiopia, and Indonesia. We’ll settle on four or five blends before we open.
And you’ll be serving food?
Connor: We will. We’ve been really lucky to collaborate with chef Mike Frank [formerly of Mellos Diner]. During the day we’ll be making really good soups, sandwiches, and salads…
Scott: But in the evening we’ll roll out a menu of what we’re calling “haute concession food.”
Connor: Picture food that you grew up eating at the hockey rink, but elevated to high-brow snacks.
Scott: Our plan is to have fun mixing high-brow and low-brow with every aspect of Robo.
The food-prep area is super-tight and in full view of the guests. Does that make things tricky?
Connor: Mike [Frank] was used to working in a very small space at Mellos, so he has helped us to figure out what equipment we can fit in that space, and how to cook creatively with what we have.
Mike, can you tell me about a few menu items?
Mike: In the morning we’ve got a signature breakfast sandwich. It will have the ingredients you’d expect, but also a barbecue sauce and cilantro — a nod to the neighbourhood. There will also be homemade muffins, cookies, and croissants for the morning crowd. Pressed sandwiches with great fillings for lunch.
And that “haute concession food” you’ll be serving once Bar Robo is open at night?
Mike: We’ve got these big homemade pretzels with melted ham and swiss cheese and pickles and onions. Homemade dip with chips. Crackers and terrine. The duck nachos will be our take on a classic — imagine that canned cheese, but we’ll be making a homemade version. There will definitely be avocados involved — and banana peppers. Everything will be at a really good price point — $5-$10.
Connor, you’re trained as a bartender. What’s on the drink menu?
Connor: I’m working on the cocktails right now. I like pushing the boundaries and having fun so the list will definitely be creative and fresh — cocktails Ottawa hasn’t seen before. Because we’re in Chinatown, I have been experimenting with a few Asian ingredients like sake and yuzu. I just got back from Montreal where I did a little research and development.
Tell me about the Lisbon Grocer and Smokeshop sign. There must be a story.
Scott: We called it “Operation Liberate Lisbon.”
Connor: It had been hanging, unlit, in Sang Video for years. I love the idea of giving found objects a new purpose. Seeing it lit up is really cool — and I love the idea that the sign stays in Chinatown.
And the other pieces?
Scott: The main artwork is by Gatineau artist Anne-Marie Dumouchel. We got it from PDA Projects. The “Un délice… Japonais” was rescued from a junk pile.
Last but not least, what are your plans for entertainment?
Scott: We’re partnering up with Ottawa Showbox and Debaser to bring in cool acts. We’ve also been talking to Rolf Klausener of Arboretum Fest about collaborating, as well as OMIC [Ottawa Music Industry Coalition]. We’ll get a feel for how many shows we’ll do each week once we’re open. We’ll see how it goes.
Connor: But looking way ahead, we already have Pony Girl booked for July.