In the crowded and competitive restaurant business, 10 years is a lifetime.
Stephen Beckta, one of Ottawa’s biggest names in fine dining, and his team hosted a party Thursday night to celebrate the milestone anniversary of Play food & wine, a popular restaurant located at 1 York St. in the ByWard Market.
Play is one of three eateries owned by Beckta. Its sister restaurants are Beckta Dining & Wine on Elgin Street and Gezellig in Westboro. Combined, they employ 140 people.
The Ottawa born-and-raised businessman fell in love with the restaurant industry at the early age of 13 while bussing tables only a couple blocks away from Play, at the now-closed Malibu Jacks. There, Beckta found a place of belonging, as well as the desire to open his own restaurant one day. He did, at age 29, with his award-winning flagship Beckta, in 2003, followed by Play in 2009 and Gezellig almost seven years ago.
Today, Beckta runs the three locations with his “restaurant family” that includes managing partner Clay Cardillo and executive chef Katie Ardington.
There was a strong sense of kinship at the party, particularly with the presence of Ardington’s wee son Russell, as well as baby Iris, daughter of Play general manager Sarah French.
“There’s a great line, that hospitality is a team sport,” Beckta told OBJ.social. “Without that team, all pulling in the same direction and all sharing the same values that you do, it doesn’t succeed; people don’t feel cared for, they don’t feel that great experience that’s like being welcomed into someone’s home.
“Caring for people comes first,” he said. “Caring for our staff, caring for our guests, caring for our suppliers and our community.
“We care for people, and food and wine are just merely tools. They’re not ends in of themselves.”
Beckta officially welcomed everyone to the party, substituting a chair to stand on for a stage so that he could reach those guests standing at the back of the room as he expressed his deep gratitude in his usual kind and classy way. “This means so much to me and to the people who work here every day,” he said while thanking the crowd for “all the amazing support that you have given us over the past 10 years.”
The 150 invited guests included Colleen Mooney, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, of which Beckta is the board chair. Not to be missed was Beckta’s best buddy, Harley Finkelstein, chief operating officer of Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify. Its head office is located in the same office building, Performance Court, as Beckta Dining & Wine.
It’s been a big month for Finkelstein, who recently welcomed with his wife, Lindsay Taub, the birth of their second daughter, Zoe Rae. Realizing the folks at Play weren't the type to toot their own horn, Finkelstein publicly expressed his appreciation to the restaurant, on behalf of its loyal customers.
“I want to say something that Steve and Clay and Katie cannot say, which is that Play has become an institution in this city,” Finkelstein told the room. “You have raised the bar in every single culinary experience across Ottawa, and across Canada.
“Thank you guys so much for everything you do for us. You guys have totally created something so special here and it’s an honour for us all to dine here.”
Also from Shopify was its HR boss, Brittany Forsyth, with the company’s new vice president of talent acquisition, Janeen Speer, previously with WestJet, lululemon athletica and Starbucks. Forsyth is also on the board of the Boys and Girls Club, as is fellow party guest Robyn Osgood, managing director of national public affairs firm McMillan Vantage.
There were a few faces at the party, including Beckta’s wife, Maureen Cunningham, who also attended Play’s grand opening bash. So did Carley and Oliver Schelck, who own The Urban Element culinary event studio, and Danica Robertson, principal at Martin Robertson Architects. It did the original design work on Play.
The past decade has been exciting for the culinary scene in Ottawa, opined Beckta. He could “count on one hand the number of good restaurants in town” when he first returned to the nation’s capital in the early 2000s, after gaining valuable work experience and skills in New York City.
“What I really love to see are that so many great independent restaurants have sprouted up,” said Beckta. “Young chefs, young restaurateurs, young managers are taking the risk to open their own shop, to hang their own shingle, and to be committed to this idea of caring for people through hospitality.”