Elgin Street makeover on the menu: Popular strip sees changing of the guard

David Sali
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While many people would say he’s joining an Elgin Street restaurant scene that is in the midst of upheaval, Joshua Bishop prefers to think he’s arriving right on time for a revival.

Whalesbone owner Joshua Bishop is opening a second location on Elgin Street.

The co-owner of The Whalesbone on Bank Street says his new location, slated to open this spring in the former @Home housewares store at 231 Elgin St., is just one more addition to a restaurant district that is evolving for the better.

“Perfect timing,” he says. “There are lots of great things happening on (Elgin) Street. The more the merrier.”

One of Ottawa’s most popular dining and entertainment strips made headlines recently when venerable nightspot Maxwell’s at 340 Elgin announced it was closing its doors for good on Jan. 17 after 30 years in business.

Although it once thrived as a combination nightclub and restaurant, Maxwell’s had simply run its course as a go-to destination for food and drinks, says retail analyst Barry Nabatian of Shore Tanner & Associates.

“It definitely needs renovation,” he says of the second-floor bar. “It needs different colours, a different concept and it has got to attract different demographics. They have to change their image.”

Despite dining out more than anyone else in the country the average Ottawan spends about $1,300 a year on food at restaurants, pubs and coffee shops – residents of the capital are tightening their belts, says Mr. Nabatian, and Maxwell’s is simply the latest casualty.

The ground-floor restaurant changed its menu about a year ago, but even that wasn’t enough to stave off the inevitable, he adds, noting the establishment’s failure is part of a disturbing trend for Ottawa eateries.

“Things just did not work out and it’s really not surprising,” Mr. Nabatian says. “The reason is not that anything was necessarily wrong with them. The reason is that people are just not going out as much. Most restaurants in the city of Ottawa are not doing well. It is quite a challenge for them and quite a number of them are near bankruptcy.”

But there are exceptions, he notes. Restaurants that focus on vegetarian and organic offerings “anything that is kind of new and has got cachet” seem to be doing fine. He thinks the establishment that will soon replace the restaurant portion of Maxwell’s, vegetarian and vegan eatery Pure Kitchen, will find a niche on the street. It will be Pure Kitchen’s second location in the city.

“In Ottawa, we do not have that many good vegetarian restaurants,” Mr. Nabatian says. “The location is right for them. It will be quite a novelty and I think that at least for a couple of years it will do well, if and only if they keep their prices in check.”

Although it serves mainly seafood, he also expects Whalesbone to do well at its new location because it already has a devoted following on Bank Street for its quality oysters and other seafood as well as its rustic atmosphere.

“They have developed a very good reputation and I think that people are quite receptive to what they have,” he says.

Mr. Bishop says there is no magic formula for Whalesbone’s success, crediting his staff for their loyalty and dedication. But whatever he’s doing, it’s clearly working.

His Bank Street restaurant, which he owns with his wife Cheri, has been earning rapturous reviews from foodies since it opened in 2005. At just 900 square feet, it has a capacity of only 30 and often has to turn away as many as 300 customers a week.

Mr. Bishop says he’d already started thinking about expanding last summer after he found out the parking lot next to the Whalesbone wholesale outlet on Kent Street was being sold, leaving it a questionable spot for handling deliveries. Longtime customer Mike Fleming, the landlord at 231 Elgin, told him he might have some space opening up in his building.

“We went and had a look at it, and here we are,” Mr. Bishop says.

The new location will be 3,600 square feet, about four times the size of his Bank Street establishment, with seating for 90. The menu will likely feature a bit more red meat, he adds, and the site will also be the new home of Whalesbone’s wholesale operations.

After seeing years of “slow and steady” growth, he’s not complaining. But he says he also sees better days ahead for the city’s restaurant industry as a whole.

“The current economy is obviously not the best one, but history shows it will always go up again,” he says.

Organizations: The Whalesbone, Shore Tanner Associates

Geographic location: Ottawa, Elgin Street, Kent Street

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Recent comments

  • Les
    February 06, 2016 - 10:58

    Hey there Elgin Street, I have a plan to make your community into a rejuvenated, exciting and thriving destination for shopping, social and entertainment. #letstalk