Donna Chevrier opened the original Ola Cocina two and a half years ago in Vanier, a tiny 24-seat spot that has rapidly become a go-to destination for a varied clientele that includes neighbours grabbing takeout tacos and chefs stopping in for an afternoon bite and to trade industry gossip. Cocina’s is a creative take on Mexican cuisine, with traditional taco fillings sharing space on the menu with irreverent interlopers like duck confit and tandoori chicken.
But over the past year, the ambitious owner says she began to feel squeezed. It was good that her cozy restaurant was so busy, but Chevrier was also itching to expand. Three months ago, she teamed up with ever-busy restaurateur Ion Aimers to launch a second Ola Cocina in Hintonburg (in the former ZaZaZa space at 1079 Wellington St. W.).
City Bites Insider caught up with a surprisingly calm Chevrier just days ahead of the restaurant’s grand opening on Wednesday, May 25.
Let me guess, running one restaurant was so relaxing that you decided to open a second?
No! But Ola Cocina was definitely outgrowing its space in Vanier. A second restaurant gives people more options. For a long time, the first Ola Cocina was a well-kept secret, but it was getting busier and busier and I knew I wanted to expand. I had spoken to people involved with the St. Charles Market project [just down the street on Beechwood], but that’s two years down road.
So how did you come to team up with restaurateur Ion Aimers?
Ion stops in to eat once or twice a week so we’re always talking. He has been a big supporter for over 20 years. He had already closed his other ZaZaZa [pizza] restaurants and we just started talking about the possibility.
When was this?
February or March . It came together quickly. Being partners is a win-win for us. I love to get my hands dirty, but when it comes to numbers my eyes glaze over. Ion is great at the money and management.
How will the two Ola Cocina restaurants compare?
We’ll have the same menu at both places. The Vanier location has 24 seats and this one has 55, so that’s a big difference. And this location has a more street-side feel because it’s right on Wellington. You can’t really duplicate the feel of the original restaurant in a small house — it’s just not transferrable.
Will you be doing brunch?
Yes, but not right away. I want the kitchen to have time to get settled. We won’t do takeout at the start, either. I don’t want everyone to get overwhelmed and have us screw things up. We already have a great reputation and I want to keep it that way.
I hear you will have a liquor license in Hintonburg.
Yes! And a signature margarita is on the menu.
How will you split your time between the two Ola Cocinas?
It’s going to be difficult. I’ve been removing myself very slowly from Vanier. I did all the prep and cooking there, so it’s hard to step away. I’ll be spending most of my time in Hintonburg at the beginning to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Tell me about the decor.
It’s a collaboration. At the Vanier location, I did everything by myself. Here, I made four of the tables, I chose the colours, I have had a hand in a lot of the decorating. It’s very important to me to feel like I’ve touched everything.
That mural in the entrance is incredible.
It’s great. I promise no one smoked pot before we did it! It’s a Day of the Dead mask, but it’s kind of a happy one. They can be really creepy.
I like what you did with the wall, too. Is it plaster?
There’s a funny story there. We plastered over the wallpaper that was there and it looked really good. Then about two minutes later, the whole thing fell down! Now it’s a mix of plaster and paint — it looks like we meant to do it.
What are you most excited about?
The future. It has been a long grind, but I feel now like I am a “real” restaurant owner. It takes a lifetime to become an overnight success [laughs].