Long-serving Ottawa restaurants fêted for staying power

Ottawa Magazine's food- and drink-tasting event held in National Arts Centre's newly renovated Canada Room

When it comes to running a successful restaurant, there’s no secret ingredient behind it but, rather, a recipe that’s deceptively simple, like homemade whipped cream.

You need more than just a love of cooking. You have to offer excellent food and customer service, and be willing to work unpredictable and strenuous hours. And even if you have these things, you still can't get there unless you have a strong team.

Those tidbits of advice were shared with OBJ.social on Wednesday by local chefs and restaurateurs. They'd been gathered together to participate in a food and drink-tasting event, with other eateries, brewers, vintners and distillers, hosted by Ottawa Magazine. The evening celebrated the local culinary scene and, in particular, those restaurants that have not only survived but thrived for more than a decade.

The party featured the debut of the National Arts Centre’s new Canada Room. It’s a bigger, brighter and better version of the former Panorama Room. It has doubled in size and can now host dinners for up to 600 people or receptions for 1,200.

Some 400 people attended the event, held in support of Cornerstone Housing for Women. On hand was event planner Heather Lockwood, owner of HPL Meetings and Events, as well as the magazine’s publisher, Dianne Wing. Keeping a low profile was long-time Ottawa restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay.

The monthly magazine has compiled a Top 10 Over 10 list of eateries that have been around for at least a decade in an industry that’s highly competitive and always changing.

Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
From left, organizer Heather Lockwood with Jennifer Warren, co-owner of Les Fougères restaurant in Chelsea, Que., and Ottawa Magazine publisher Dianne Wing at a party hosted by the magazine on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room. Photo by Caroline Phillips
Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
Ottawa chefs from restaurants included in Ottawa Magazine's list of Top 10 Over 10 gather for a quick photo before the start of a food-tasting event hosted by the magazine on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Fifteen years ago, The Whalesbone started as a 36-seat restaurant in Ottawa. It’s now three licensed establishments, one retail outlet, a new online store and a catering company.

“You’ve done something right if you’ve been around for 10 years,” said owner Peter McCallum as he and his team set up Whalesbone’s stylish oyster boat serving station in anticipation of the hungry crowds soon to be arriving. “We offer what we think is a really fun environment with great food, and then we have great people working for us.

"We don’t try and do a lot of things; we’re always an oyster bar, first and foremost."

Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
Jesse Papastavros and the team from The Whalesbone shuck oysters at the Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event held in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Also on the list is Coconut Lagoon. Its award-winning chef and owner, Joe Thottungal, remembers earning $60 a day when his restaurant on St. Laurent Boulevard first came on scene, serving a unique menu of South Indian cuisine. Today, it’s a very popular place to eat.

He says the secret to success is his passion. He constantly works the floor to ensure smooth service and provide a personal touch. He typically puts in 11-to 12-hour days.

“It’s stressful but we’re happy to be around,” said Thottungal. “Fourteen years is a long time.”

Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
Coconut Lagoon chef and owner Joe Thottungal in action at the Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event held in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Photo by Caroline Phillips

And 25 years is even longer. That’s how long the Les Fougères restaurant in Chelsea, Que. has been open. It’s owned by Jennifer Warren and Charlie Part and employs about 40 full- and part-time staff. The business runs a store, makes natural prepared foods and recently had its restaurant undergo major renovations.

“It’s been full of ups and downs,” says Warren. “It’s amazing that we’re still standing, to be honest, but it’s because of that great team that we are. It’s all about the team. Absolutely.

“We believe in what we’re doing, the role that good food plays in our lives. Our times around the table are often our most precious and intimate.”

Patrick Garland has built a strong reputation at Absinthe, on Wellington Street West, by creating a busy bistro with good, timeless cooking. It’s been a Hintonburg hotspot for the past 15 years.

“It’s elbows on the table, wear Wellingtons if you want to. Eat too much, drink too much, laugh out loud, enjoy yourself,” says Garland, who also happens to really like what he does for a living. “It’s a restaurant of the people, for the people.”

Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
Patrick Garland, chef and owner of Absinthe, is busy at work during the Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event held in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Fraser Café on Springfield Road, along with its neighbouring private event space, Table 40, is another popular haunt, serving as a culinary mainstay for New Edinburghers. It was the young’un on the magazine's list. It's been open for a decade, as of this year.

“We haven’t forgotten our purpose; we’re here to serve customers,” said Ross Fraser, who co-owns the place with his brother, Simon Fraser. “They want to come in, they want to have a good time and they want to leave full. Value is something that was in our original business plan and we’re proud of the value that we still offer guests.

“We’re very lucky, touch wood, because it can fall out from underneath you in, like, months,” added Fraser, who made a point of touching wood as he said this. 

The brothers also run The Rowan restaurant in the Glebe.

Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
From left, sibling owners and chefs Simon Fraser and Ross Fraser, of Fraser Café, at the Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event held in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The most seasoned restaurant on the list is C’est Japon A Suisha on Slater Street. It was formerly Suisha Gardens, until employee Mike Arai took it over in 1995. The traditional Japanese-owned restaurant still serves some of its original customers, as well as second- and third-generation customers.

Teamwork has also been a key to its success.

“We have to work together, otherwise people change (jobs and) it’s no good; we cannot do quality business,” said Arai, who, by the way, never stopped working for a second while he and his team served guests that night.

Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Event
Mike Arai, owner of C'est Japon  a Suisha, didn't stop working during the Ottawa Magazine Restaurants Party held in the National Arts Centre's new Canada Room on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Photo by Caroline Phillips

-caroline@obj.ca