Opening a new restaurant in Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic could be a recipe for disaster or a promising sign that the culinary scene is still brimming with cosmopolitan flavour.
Ottawa-based Linebox Studio has designed three new downtown restaurants this year. Fine dining restaurant Aiana at 50 O’Connor St. and Arlo at 340 Somerset St. W. are up and running. Authentic pizza restaurant Giulia will be coming to 350 Elgin St.
Linebox Studio is owned by principal architect Andrew Reeves, whose firm was behind the design work for such dining hotspots as Riviera and Datsun, El Camino and Fauna. He and his team collaborated with restaurateurs to create striking and memorable spaces that allow patrons to gather and socialize together.
“It’s pretty motivating when you meet these chef-owners who put their heart and soul into food, and who are as passionate and dedicated to their craft as I am to mine,” said Reeves, who’s of the opinion that many restaurants in our region have risen to the top of their game. “I think the Ottawa food scene, for the past three or four years, has been the best in Canada.”
‘Built for this kind of climate’
Jordan Holley is the chef-owner of Riviera, a fine-dining restaurant at 62 Sparks St. He’s launching a new eatery with business partners in the ByWard Market. Shelby Burger, located at 11 William St., will be open for customers in early October.
He believes Shelby Burger will be able to ride out the pandemic through its “fast-casual” format, which emphasizes product quality, freshness and speedy service.
“It’s almost built for this kind of climate with online ordering and phone ordering and quick service takeout,” Holley said.
As for Riviera, increasingly more of its customers are heading back indoors to dine.
“It’s far from the normal that we’re used to, of course, but it’s just great to see people back in the space and enjoying their time, feeling safe and comfortable. We’re making sure they’re well taken care of,” said Holley, who is keeping his fingers crossed that indoor dining rooms won’t be forced to shut down again.
One could almost feel the collective cringe when the Canadian Chamber of Commerce recently warned that as many as 60 per cent of restaurants could permanently close this fall.
“It’s a tough business; margins are tight,” said Holley. “A lot of businesses could not sustain being closed for, what was it, four months? There’s no instruction manual on how to guide your business through a pandemic, and remodel and rebrand and come up with new ideas.”
Many restaurateurs – trained at the culinary school of hard knocks – have adapted to the pandemic challenges as best they can by expanding their outdoor patio spaces, serving more food-to-go meals and getting temporary permission to sell alcohol with food takeout and delivery orders.
“For most of these chef-owners, this is their livelihood,” said Reeves. “It’s an intense industry. I don’t know any other industry that works as hard and is as committed as the restaurant industry.”
Reeves’ heart goes out to the restaurant and dining sector, which has seen its share of casualties in 2020.
“It’s extremely sad to see,” he said. “It wasn’t that they had a bad business plan. It wasn’t that they made bad mistakes or horrible decisions. Sometimes, things are just stolen from you.”
Sarah Chown is the Ottawa board chair of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association and managing partner of Metropolitain Brasserie at 700 Sussex Dr.
She credits the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy with helping many restaurants stay afloat during the pandemic.
“It’s been very helpful for all of us,” said Chown. “Our sales are down so substantially that it really helps to carry some of those costs and allow us to still operate.”
To help its members survive what’s expected to be several bleak months, the ORHMA pushed for the wage subsidy program to be extended beyond December – a measure that was included in the Liberals' throne speech last month.
“Time is really going to tell but we certainly have some significant concerns, especially being in Ottawa – one of the coldest capitals on the planet – and not knowing what winter will look like here once the patios are shut down for the season and you’re limited to inside dining and six feet of social distancing,” said Chown.
“Sadly, I think you will see a lot more places shut down in those winter months ... or early in the spring. It’s just going to be tough for some people to make it through.”