Those who say Ottawa rolls up its downtown sidewalks at 5 p.m. had better reconsider: There’s a new buzzworthy entertainment district in the area south of Parliament — or SoPa, as it’s quickly becoming known.
The official launch party held Wednesday at Queen St. Fare could not have gone any better. The sold-out crowd started streaming into the food hall as soon as doors opened, packing the place for a night of culinary delights and drinks, surrounded by a lively atmosphere of music and community.
The evening served as a reminder that the downtown is not all government and business; it also offers a social and cultural scene. If you don’t know where to find it exactly, SoPa has produced a physical map to help you.
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The level of public support, said organizers Devinder Chaudhary and Scott May, has been “overwhelming”.
“The question of whether SoPa is going to be a success is answered by the 200 people here tonight, just by their sheer presence,” Chaudhary told OBJ.
Early on, Mayor Mark Sutcliffe took to the stage with Somerset Ward Coun. Ariel Troster to present a framed letter of congratulations to organizers of SoPa. It was gifted to Chaudhary and May for their leadership in the rebranding of the downtown district.
May co-owns Bar Robo inside Queen St. Fare. Chaudhary owns nearby Aiāna and is also a board member with the Ottawa Board of Trade, a non-profit association that serves as a voice for business in Ottawa.
The launch party was supported by a fabulous group of chefs who work at and/or own restaurants located in the SoPa district. The executive chefs were Chaudhary’s son, Raghav Chaudhary (Aiāna), Joe Thottungal (Thali), Adam Vettorel (North & Navy), Stephen La Salle (Cocotte Bistro) and Katie Ardington (Beckta). From the 1 Elgin restaurant at the National Arts Centre were executive sous chef Connor McQuay and his colleague Christopher Commandant.
“I think a lot of people have expressed concerns about the future of downtown Ottawa; there’s a lot of change happening,” said Sutcliffe. “But, I’m excited about the future of downtown Ottawa. I think we have a lot to look forward to, and it’s because of initiatives like this one that I think, for downtown Ottawa, the best is yet to come.”
The launch took place the same day Ottawa city council approved a motion to reopen a section of Wellington Street, across from Parliament Hill, that’s been closed to traffic since the highly disruptive trucker convoy protest a year ago. The area will once again be accessible in March at the earliest.
The crowd broke into cheers as the mayor updated it on this new development. There’s so much potential for the area, Sutcliffe added.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for Wellington to become so much more than it is right now, as part of a revitalized downtown Ottawa.”
Ottawa Centre Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi further rallied the crowd with his excitement and enthusiasm over the future of the downtown core. It’s going to require imagination and a willingness to take bold risks, he recognized. But Ottawa is a G7 capital, after all.
“We need to be able to compete with London and Berlin and Tokyo and Washington,” said Naqvi. “That’s our place in the world, and I’m confident that by all of us working together … that we can really reimagine and rebuild downtown Ottawa, so that it becomes one of the envies of the world.”
Naqvi created a downtown Ottawa revitalization task force last year after accelerated remote work trends triggered by the pandemic caused an alarming drop in foot traffic in the downtown area.
Attendees included several OBoT board members, including Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, Melissa Reeves, COO of Linebox Studio, and Rick Chase, consultant with Canada Life. Restaurant magnate, celebrity chef and entrepreneur Vikram Vij, a former panelist on Dragons’ Den, was also there.
Downtown business owners such as Amir Rahim appreciated how the evening shone a light on an area that is “perhaps a little forgotten” while also creating a sense of community (this was on full display later in the evening, when some of the chefs were seen bringing gifts of food to one another from their respective culinary stations).
“It’s good to see a bunch of local neighbours actually be neighbours by coming together,” said Rahim, owner of Grounded Kitchen, Coffee and Bar on Gloucester Street.
Melanie Brulée, executive director of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, was seen soaking up the vibes that night.
“I love that there are so many people here,” she said while speaking to the benefits of building distinct districts. “I think it makes the whole city stronger when we have little sections, or little ‘quartiers’, that are really thriving.”
Among the business leaders to fully support SoPa was Stefanie Siska, board vice-chair of Ottawa Tourism.
“One thing that I think Ottawa does really well is collaboration and partnerships and pushing forward,” said Siska, co-owner, president and general manager of C’est Bon Ottawa, a cooking class and food tour company. “It goes beyond surviving. There’s a thriving essence in a lot of our small businesses and communities. I think it’s just a great initiative.”