BY SARAH BROWN
Meet Fiona McKean. Over the past eight months, the busy mother of three (and wife of Shopify head, Tobias Lütke) has presided over a massive overhaul of The Opinicon Resort, the century-old Chaffey’s Lock icon.
That overhaul includes a complete revamp of the expansive restaurant. Opened in June, the 115-seat eatery now tempts day trippers and nearby cottagers with an updated menu that moves beyond prime rib to include inventive salads, charcuterie, and fine baking. Ottawa Magazine quizzed McKean on the latest developments just days after the restaurant’s soft opening.
How long will you stay open this season?
For sure until the locks close, which is Thanksgiving weekend. We’ll be doing a full Thanksgiving dinner, which is an old tradition at The Opinicon. We might stay open a week or two longer than that, but it really depends on the weather.
You used to visit the restaurant at the “old” Opinicon. What was it like?
Way, way back, it was known for its good food and catered to a clientele of American fishermen and hunters. So there were big portions and lots of meat and potatoes. And that’s what carried on. My memories of this place are of lots of roasts and a set menu that rotated weekly so you knew that on a Tuesday, say, it was Chicken Kiev night or whatever, and Wednesday was a turkey dinner.
And that worked for a long time?
Yes, because a few decades ago The Opinicon was almost completely booked up for the whole summer with people who were staying long-term at the hotel or cabins. They didn’t really encourage “transients,” as they called the walk-in clientele. Now people don’t stay for a month at a time like they used to. It’s generally a week or two.
How big is the restaurant?
It’s big! Right now, it seats 115. We plan to expand, but we’re doing approvals in chunks so we’ll soon get the outdoor veranda space open, which will add another 40 spaces. The resort can host 90 people when it’s full, so the dining room has to be big enough to host paying guests and people who stop by just for brunch or lunch or dinner.
What did the restaurant look like before the renovation?
Just a couple of months ago, it felt really dated and dark. It had the nastiest carpet that had been put in in the 1980s and the wallpaper was an over-the-top floral print that was yellowed from the years when guests were allowed to smoke.
The transformation has been massive. It’s beautiful and fresh, with new hardwood floors, white wainscoting, and super-lovely warm light green on the walls. Honestly, it looks like something out of Dirty Dancing. It looks like it was meant to be danced in. When people who knew the “old” dining room walk in, they can’t believe it!
Tell me about the menu.
We’ve modified it to be more like a real restaurant. It no longer just caters to people staying at the resort. It’s much more welcoming to people stopping by from surrounding cottages to have lunch or enjoy a dinner before heading back for the evening.
Basically, we’ve tried to take simple and good, and kick it up a notch or two — actually two and a half! There are a wider variety of foods that cater to more varied tastes. So you can still order a perfectly done steak or prime rib, but you can also get a quinoa salad or a kale salad or a Caesar salad or a great charcuterie plate. There are vegetarian and vegan options. It’s all local meats and cheeses. It’s 2015 now!
How did you find the chef?
Her name is Angela Baldwin and she’s from the area, which is great. She grew up living and breathing the culture and knows the people. She sowed her culinary oats in all kinds of places, including Saskatchewan for a number of years, where she followed her boyfriend. But when she returned to Ontario, we had the job opening at just the right time. We really lucked out. She’s fantastic and she knows her stuff. And she specializes in desserts!
Do you also have plans to host large groups?
Definitely. For instance, last Saturday the restaurant was packed with 90 members of the same family for a 50th wedding anniversary. The vibe was great. A day before that, we had a full house of 115 for the Cataraqui Trail fundraising dinner. And on the first night we got our occupancy permit (June 5), we hosted a high-school prom!
Has it been as much work as you thought?
We got the keys at the end of January and I don’t think we’ve slept since! We wanted to get started right away, but the winter was so deeply cold and awful that we couldn’t even paint inside. Once we saw what furniture could be salvaged — not much — we spent much of the winter figuring out a plan of attack for when it warmed up so we could be really organized. There are 25 buildings on 16 acres so it is a huge and ongoing job.
You were quoted as saying that when you bought The Opinicon Resort in January, it was with your heart. Now it’s all about the practicalities of turning it into a viable business again. Are you having fun?
Most days I’m loving it. I make decisions quickly, but when you’re dealing with permits and trades they don’t always have the same sense of urgency. So I’ve had to roll with other people’s timelines a bit.
We’re doing renovations on a three-year plan. This year it’s open for everyone who misses the place — who has a connection and can see all the effort we’ve put in. We’ll do more improvements and renovations over the winter so that next year we’ll be ready to market to new visitors. I want people who don’t know The Opinicon to be blown away.
One-sentence description of the past six months?
I feel like I’ve been drinking information through a fire hose!