Barton Street East becoming new target for Toronto restaurateurs

More than half a dozen food places have opened recently, or are about to open, on Barton Street East.

More than half a dozen food places have opened recently, or are about to open, on Barton Street

Alun and Maddy Elias will open The Second Bowl at Barton and Emerald in July. They're one of about half a dozen new restaurants in the area. They also plan a King Street East location. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Matt Cowan opened a $75-per-meal restaurant on Barton Street East last year, and it hasn't always been easy.

I love the idea of helping something change.- Chris Hewlett, owner of Motel on Barton Street East

Someone smashed his window last month. Another littered his front step with flyers with "a stupid poem" on it, he said. People have screamed at him that his time is up, that he should go back to Toronto.

"There's definitely an anarchist, anti-gentrification-slash-f--k Toronto backlash," he said. "They say people like us are forcing out people on social assistance."

Cowan, whose restaurant The Heather offers a seven-course tasting menu, is undeterred. He sees Barton Street East as Hamilton's next food haven, and he's willing to stick it out.

There's mounting evidence the dream of Barton Street East as a trendy restaurant area is starting to happen. It has a rough recent history — one as a place of crime and street-corner sex work, and vacant derelict buildings where people live in storefronts and pay rent to absentee landlords.

But Cowan opened near Barton and Emerald in November, and already, he has company. 

James Kayser, owner of The Butcher and The Vegan, started his restaurant on Barton Street East in 2015 envisioning Barton as the next trendy restaurant area. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Next door, the owners of School, a wildly popular Toronto brunch place, are opening a themed restaurant called Motel.

A few doors away, father-and-daughter team Alun and Maddy Elias are opening The Second Bowl Food Project, a vegetarian place with a fresh market, and a wooden nickel system to help those with no money eat there. That will open in July, and they already plan another location on King Street East.

There's another "top secret" food place coming to Barton and Sherman, said Rachel Braithwaite, executive director of the Barton Village BIA.

Go Tango just opened at Barton and Wellington in the Hamilton Health Sciences building. Chao, a ramen place, just opened at Barton and Hughson near the Butcher and Vegan, a trailblazer when it opened at Barton and John in 2015.

They're driven, as Cowan was, by the cheap lease rates, the classic buildings and the sense that they're contributing to an up-and-coming area.

The city put renewed effort into Barton Street in 2014. A staff report told of derelict buildings, absentee landlords and people living in storefronts. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Cowan knew about Barton Street East's reputation. And still, "there wasn't a moment's hesitation about where I wanted to open."

If anything, we want to fight harder.- Matt Cowan , The Heather

He sees Barton Street East as "the next area of Hamilton redevelopment," especially with so many restaurants showing up.

Restaurants do well in clusters, he said. People will head to an area —downtown, for example, or Locke Street — in search of a place to eat, and not necessarily know where they're going.

Cowan says his landlord even plans to open a pub next door.

Locating on Barton isn't always easy. The buildings are older, said Rachel Braithwaite, executive director of Barton Village BIA. Some have been vacant for a long time. They require a lot of renovating.

Alun and Maddy Elias plan to open The Second Bowl, which will include a wooden nickel system for diners short on money. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Many buildings have residential units above the restaurant space, Braithwaite said. So if the commercial space wasn't previously a restaurant, a new layer of fire-proofing is required.

But restaurant owners want character buildings now, said Mike Marini, marketing co-ordinator with Hamilton's economic development department.

They want older buildings with "good bones," or as he calls it, "brick and beam."

"That's what Barton has in spades."

It's also cheap. Downtown Hamilton square footage costs around $10 to $25 net per square foot. In Toronto, Marini said, it can be as much as $45. That's partly why eating establishments accounted for 27 or the 54 new businesses that opened in downtown Hamilton last year.

Taxpayers have contributed too. The city has several incentive programs for the "Barton/Kenilworth Commercial Corridor," and Marini says those are a critical selling point. 

For that area in particular, there's a grant program for tax incentives, a program to improve and repurpose buildings, and a building fee rebate program to help with planning and building fees.

When developers took over the old Hendry's Shoes building, it had seen better days. Now it's being renovated. (Adam Carter/CBC)

They're also dazzled by Hamilton in general. Chris Hewlett, owner of School Toronto, had never even visited before when he came to look at restaurant space next to The Heather.

That was eight weeks ago. Motel opens June 9.

Hewlett's not worried.

"When we opened School, it was on a terrible street in the middle of nowhere on Parkdale. It was a flourishing area," he said.

"I love the idea of helping something change, and being on the ground level of that change happening. I think Barton Street could be a really cool street."

This property at at 374 Barton St. E. benefited from a Barton/Kenilworth tax increment grant program grant estimated at just over $37,000. (City of Hamilton)

Motel will be "an homage to an old Florida-style motel," he said. When diners enter, they'll find a bell desk and a rotary phone, and "all those crazy colours — those light pinks and blues," he said. It'll be "cute and kitschy and fun."

It's not just restaurants signaling a turnaround on Barton. Developers are renovating the former Hendry's Shoes building. Another is using the tax increment grant program to restore a vacant blue eyesore at 374 Barton St. E.

Cowan understands the gentrification effect. He doesn't want to displace anyone. He also wants to be here enough to put up with shattered windows.

"If anything, we want to fight harder," he said. "We ignore it. Barton Street is where we'll be for as long as they'll have us."

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