Expanding the Empire

Courtney Symons
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Restaurateurs look for culinary clusters beyond the ByWard Market

As Moe's Newport Restaurant prepares to leave its longtime post on the corner of Churchill Avenue and Richmond Road in Westboro, a team of successful Ottawa restaurateurs is getting ready to move in.

Ottawa restaurateur John Borsten.

John Borsten and business partners Gary Thompson and Dave Mangano own the Empire Grill restaurant in the ByWard Market, along with Metropolitain Brasserie and The Grand Pizzeria and Bar. Zak’s Diner, which recently expanded with a Kanata location, is owned solely by Mr. Borsten.

The trio was approached by a realtor about the newly available Westboro location, and decided to open a new brasserie-style restaurant similar to Metropolitain.

“We’re always looking for opportunities,” said Mr. Borsten, an OBJ Forty under 40 recipient in 2001. “I live in Westboro and it’s growing like crazy. Every day there’s a new condo popping up.”

Four of the group’s five restaurants sit downtown in the Market, where they already occupy some of what Mr. Borsten describes as the best locations in the city.

Now comes the chance to expand into another hot market that’s drawing some of the most well-known names from Ottawa’s culinary community.

The duo behind Beckta and Play – restaurateur Stephen Beckta and executive chef Michael Moffatt – also chose the Westboro intersection of Richmond Road and Churchill Avenue for their latest venture, gezellig.

To the east, a string of popular restaurants including the Wellington Gastropub and the Hintonburg Public House line Wellington Street West. At least one more is on the horizon; the owners of the popular Bank Street oyster house Whalesbone recently purchased the Elmdale House Tavern and plan to add a kitchen.

Mr. Borsten noted, “That neighbourhood is starting to become a culinary destination.”



Currently, Mr. Borsten and his team run four different restaurant brands in Ottawa, all with different menus and concepts.

The main reason for this is because they all sit in the same geographical area, and more than one Empire Grill in the ByWard Market, for example, wouldn’t make sense.

Entering a new neighbourhood could mean the launch of a chain, but Mr. Borsten said it remains unclear whether the new spot will have a tie-in to the Metropolitain restaurant or if it will be another new entity.

The Newport Restaurant moves out on Jan. 2, at which time the team of restaurateurs will begin cosmetic renovations costing an estimated $1 million to update the building’s exterior, add new windows and make way for a potential patio. The plan is to open in March or April.

“It’ll be very prominent,” Mr. Borsten said of the planned changes. “We’re going to transform that corner.”

The restaurant is about the same size as Zak’s Diner – around 3,000 square feet – and will seat slightly more than 100 guests. Although still in the design phase, Mr. Borsten said the new location will be a brasserie, a French restaurant with a relaxed, upscale setting. It will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, with brunch on the weekends.

Although there will be a bar, the as-yet-unnamed restaurant won’t be a pub.

“I’ve never seen a pub fail, but I just don’t want to add to the onslaught,” said Mr. Borsten of the many that have popped up in Westboro.



Although there may be news of further expansions for the restaurateurs, they will likely remain local stories.

“It’s what we know,” said Mr. Borsten. “Our company is still really hands-on, the owners are in the stores every day. That would be hard to do if we were in Kingston or Toronto.”

Although each additional restaurant is like a new child with accompanying problems, it remains an interesting challenge, Mr. Borsten said. And the growing number of restaurants results in better quality food, which is a good thing.

“You gotta eat,” he said. “But there’s more places to eat, and you gotta hope they choose you.”



1986: Zak’s Diner opens as a 30-seat restaurant at 14 ByWard Market Sq. The entire restaurant sat in what is now the smaller back section of the diner.

1987: Zak’s expands into the 3,000-square-foot space it occupies today.

1989: John Borsten establishes Blue Cactus Bar & Grill at 2 ByWard Market Sq. (He no longer owns the restaurant.)

1995: Mr. Borsten becomes an investor in Tommy Tango Kitchen & Cafe on Baseline Road.

1998: Mr. Borsten, Dave Leith and Dave Mangano acquire 47 Clarence St. and open Empire Grill.

2005: Mr. Borsten, Mr. Mangano and Gary Thompson open Metropolitain Brasserie at 700 Sussex Dr.

2009: The Grand Pizzeria opens at 74 George St., the site of the former Grand Hotel that was built in 1882.

2011: A second Zak’s diner location opens in Kanata’s Signature Centre on Terry Fox Drive.

2012: The goup announces plans to take over the lease at 334 Richmond Rd., currently home to Moe’s Newport Restaurant.

Organizations: Empire Grill, Hintonburg Public House, Elmdale House Tavern Empire Grill.2005 Grand Hotel

Geographic location: Westboro, Kanata, Ottawa Richmond Road Churchill Avenue Westboro.HOME SWEET HOMEAlthough Kingston Toronto Richmond

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