Mark your calendars for Feb. 8 launch party of downtown’s new name: SoPa

Restaurants host foodie event at Queen St. Fare, get behind grassroots initiative to rejuvenate city core

Devinder Chaudhary, Scott May SoPa
Aiāna Restaurant Collective owner Devinder Chaudhary (left) and Bar Robo owner Scott May are two of the organizers of the new SoPa downtown entertainment district. File photo

Restaurant owners aren’t used to having solutions served up to them on a silver platter. 

That’s why a group of them has come up with its own way of breathing new life into a downtown that has yet to fully recover from the fallout of COVID. It’s creating a new entertainment district known as SoPa (South of Parliament). 

Organizers are hosting a $75-a-ticket SoPa launch party on Wednesday, Feb. 8, featuring delicious dishes prepared by some of the city’s top chefs, surrounded by the ambience of live jazz. Tickets can be purchased here

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The special event is being held inside Queen St. Fare at 170 Queen St. between 7-10 p.m. 

The idea for SoPa came from a brainstorming session hosted several months ago by Devinder Chaudhary at his fine dining spot, Aiāna Restaurant Collective, at 50 O’Connor St. The business leader invited several fellow restaurateurs over to his place to discuss ways of rejuvenating the downtown, home to some of Ottawa’s best restaurants and within walking distance to Parliament Hill, the National Arts Centre, Rideau Canal, Château Laurier, and nearby museums and art galleries.

It was born out of the notion that somebody’s got to do something to help the downtown core,” said Scott May, owner of Bar Robo in Queen St. Fare. He’s leading the efforts with Chaudhary and Joe Thottungal, owner of Thali at 136 O’Connor St. “I think everyone can agree that the downtown is under some serious threat.”

The pandemic accelerated remote and hybrid work trends involving public servants and private-sector employees, leading to decreased foot traffic in the downtown core. “We should not be at the mercy of workers coming back or not,” said Chaudhary of what he calls a “time-sensitive” problem.

If not addressed, he added, small businesses will vacate the downtown once their leases are up. “This is the time for everyone to come together and do whatever it takes to revive our downtown.”

One of the goals of SoPa is to define and distinguish the area. Organizers have created a map of the new district. Parliament Hill is directly to the north, Somerset Street to the south, Elgin Street to the east and the Lyon Street area to the west. Marked on the map are popular places to eat and stay, along with the nearest LRT stations. The plan is to distribute copies to local hotels, to be shared with tourists and visitors.

Organizers want to erect flags or signage to demarcate the boundaries of SoPa. “Once we create more hype and awareness, and we have the resources, we can definitely expand (the area),” said Chaudhary.

The SoPa group will be reaching out to Ottawa Tourism and/or the City of Ottawa down the road to seek some assistance from them, he said.

“We just needed to be practical and demonstrate that this concept actually works, that the downtown can be rejuvenated without a lot of bureaucracy,” said Chaudhary, a director with the Ottawa Board of Trade. “If the business community is in, if the entrepreneurs are in, I think we can do wonders; I have no doubt about it.”

The SoPa group also wants to shed the image of a downtown that shuts down after five o’clock. Many small businesses – following the decreased presence of daytime office workers – have been offering more activity at night. Bar Robo, for example, regularly hosts live music and entertainment in the evening. “We’re both believers that if you build it, they’re going to come,” said May. “I’m open late; I’m putting shows on, and bravo to the people who are doing that.”

Funds raised from the launch party will help provide organizers with seed money to start promoting SoPa, which is a play on Lower Manhattan’s SoHo district. The event is being promoted through social media, particularly Instagram.

Participating in the official launch are chefs Raghav Chaudhary (Aiāna), Joe Thottungal (Thali), Adam Vettorel (North & Navy), Stephen La Salle (Cocotte Bistro), Kenton Leier (the National Art Centre’s 1 Elgin Restaurant) and Katie Ardington (Beckta Dining & Wine). They’re all donating their time. As for food costs, they’ll receive “minuscule compensation.”

“It’s nice to see everyone coming together,” said Chaudhary of the cooperative and collaborative efforts being made by restaurants in what he calls a “sink or swim together” mentality. “Everyone is very energized with this event and this entire concept.”

Credit goes to Chaudhary, said May, for creating a sense of unity in an industry that’s traditionally competitive. “I’ve always been the pessimist of the group, thinking it’s never going to happen but, to a certain degree, we’ve managed to come together for a common cause.”

Running a small business is a grind. It’s tough to spare a thought for one’s neighbour, May explained. “A lot of the day-to-day energy of a restaurateur is spent trying to keep his goddamn doors open. It’s hard, not just to reach out to speak to other people, but to root for them? I’ve got my own restaurant to root for, to be honest.

“So, the fact that we’re able to recruit six chefs from six restaurants to come together to launch this thing is pretty impressive, actually.”

Added Chaudhary: “It’s beautiful.”

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