June 7, 2023

What's new and what's closing in Waterloo Region: Andrew Coppolino

on Feb 19, 2023

Restaurants close and new restaurants open: it's a regular cycle in the industry, and one that has likely seen a bit more churn given the pandemic.

Here are just a few select notable closures and a few new food-and-beverage projects that have been shaped, to a degree, by the forces of pandemic disruption and the normal course of business. 

Obie's Bar and Grille in Cambridge has closed after several years. Its from-scratch food earned the small venue a loyal following, but pressures from the pandemic and heavy road construction took its toll.

Across from Cambridge Memorial Hospital, Galt View restaurant, a 60-year-old diner famous for its all-day breakfast, closed its doors this August due to leasing issues.

After three and a half years, Nuestro 88 restaurant will close its doors in the Deer Ridge area of Kitchener at month's end. A long-time cook in Waterloo Region, chef and co-owner Paul Masbad was instrumental in introducing diners to Filipino cuisine, which he blended with Latin flavours from his wife's Nicaraguan background.

Artisanale had its last day on the Labour Day weekend after an incredible 15 years in Guelph, first inside the Bookshelf Café but for the majority of its time on Woolwich. If five years is considered a good run for a restaurant of its type, three times that is incredible.

Artisanale, Owner and chef Yasser Qahawish, says it's time to move on from cooking (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Owner and chef Yasser Qahawish said he was facing a steep rent increase, but he also stated that it was simply time to move on from cooking and pursue other interests. His goal was to cook "beautiful food," as he called it, in the French country style. And that it certainly was.

Famous since 1965, Sonny's Drive-in, the iconic Waterloo burger joint, closed in August. Neighbouring Conestoga College has purchased the property, but there have been no plans announced about what they will do with it.

What's new in the local food scene?

With fall and back to school, normal routines tend to return – and new restaurants seem to appear, including a new concept in a 45-year-old space: Fat Sparrow Group (FSG) has shuttered the Stone Crock and is creating a 3,500 square-foot boutique marketplace with a 45-seat wine and charcuterie bar. The Butcher and Market and The Charcuterie Bar will open this fall.

"What makes it unique is that it will be a true charcuterie bar where you can see chefs and butcher working in the back creating these products. We're putting all that theatre on display," says FSG co-owner Nick Benninger.

A unique addition as a boutique one-stop shop has been Victoria Street Market: the fine butcher shop, deli, fishmonger and grocery store celebrated 10 years this summer on busy Victoria Street North near the Grand River.

When The Flour Co. Bakeshop on Frederick Street was shuttered this past spring, another was waiting in the wings to open: Crushed Almond Bakery Café. 

Owner Ferah Cagoglu offers a range of treats and baked goods to enjoy with delicious Turkish coffee; while at this early juncture not all the pastries are made in-house, her home-made baklava is superlative.

Crushed Almond Bakery Café opened on Frederick St. earlier this year (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

New restaurant concepts emerge

With lessons learned from the massive changes prompted by Covid-19, a couple of new restaurant concepts have just opened.

In the Hurst Street commissary space vacated by Wooden Boat's restaurant service is Odd Duck Wine and Provisions, the joint venture of chef Jon Rennie and sommelier Wes Klassen. It aims to modify the usual restaurant structure.

"We're looking at blurring the lines between front-of-house and back-of-house, where the kitchen serves food and the servers wash dishes," says Rennie. "We will all participate as one team."

The Humble Lotus, in downtown Kitchener, offers "eclectic sushi" says co-owner My Nguyen (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The model works for Odd Duck, according to Rennie and Klassen, who have both experienced the ravages the pandemic wrought on the restaurant industry. "The model means lower staffing for better revenue," says Rennie. And good food for customers, it should be added.

The grab-and-go and take-out model that became essential during the pandemic is now a tried-and-true business model – at least for Jared Wood and My Nguyen of The Humble Lotus, a new sushi take-away on King Street in Kitchener's east end. The pair are trying to carve out a different niche for their Japanese-inspired cuisine.

"Most sushi places have a very traditional feel, but we also cater to a more North American palate and love doing different kinds of combinations with what's fresh in our region," according to Wood.

"We are always playing with different flavours and combinations and steering away from traditional sushi. That's not the niche we are going after."

In the kitchen at The Humble Lotus, form follows function (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

What Nguyen calls "eclectic sushi" could be a jalapeno popper roll with fire-blistered Ontario jalapenos, cream cheese and smoked mackerel.

But a defining feature of Humble Lotus is that the kitchen is much bigger than the point-of-sale area: except for a few patio tables, it really is a take-out operation only.

Form follows function, adds Nguyen, who is trained in architectural design. She says that even before they had the space, they knew they would be a walk-up and take-out and eventually online ordering and delivery.

"The pandemic didn't really change our layout, but it solidified the fact that no matter what market we're in we are always going to have a need for take-out," she says.

The business, according Wood, is about "conscientious eating," plant-based compostable packaging and dedication to creating awareness about issues in the community; as such, tips they receive from customers are donated to Food 4 Kids Waterloo Region, for instance.

That sense of "mindfulness" and understanding what their customers want since the pandemic has perhaps inspired many new restaurants to reconsider how they operate.

"It's community business helping take care of community issues."