A year in review with food columnist Andrew Coppolino
When it comes to food and restaurants, 2015 was a busy and complicated year, perhaps especially so in the central cores of Kitchener and Waterloo, where Ion light rail transit (LRT) construction has closed many downtown streets in both cities for months on end.
The construction has also helped hasten the closure of several businesses, including restaurants. Even fast food giants like McDonald's felt the pinch as lack of road access to the franchise at King Street and Moore Avenue forced the restaurant to close its doors because of lack of customers.
Independent restaurants in Kitchener's east and west ends and in parts of Uptown Waterloo struggled mightily to hold on to their customers as closed roads and narrowed or impassable sidewalks strangled business. These restaurants seem to be holding on for now, but there are still many, many months before construction is completed.
Weak Canadian dollar hurts restaurant buying power
Added to the LRT construction-crunch is the weak Canadian dollar and drought conditions in California, which means how the cost for restaurants to stock their fridges is rising.
A case of cauliflower is now upwards of $90 (a single head might be as much as $8 at the grocery store) and tomatoes are wholesaling at $3.50 per pound. That makes it tough for restaurants to hold down costs on their menus.
Canadians have to purchase about 81 per cent of their fresh produce from sources outside of Canada and that hurts both families shopping and our restaurants.
Landmark restaurants close
For other reasons, there were several significant closures in 2015 which have contributed to the fluid and evolving restaurant scene in Waterloo Region.
Long-standing restaurant anchor The Waterlot in New Hamburg announced that it will be closing its doors on December 31. The French restaurant opened on the banks of the Nith River in 1974, at a time when liquor sales were illegal in the town. The Waterlot had a huge impact on the dining scene: its employees went on to open restaurants such as Kitchener's Verses, EJ's pub in Baden, Café 13 in Cambridge, Jake & Humphrey's in New Hamburg and the Aberfoyle Mill.
Another significant closure in downtown Kitchener was Marisol Restaurante, which was shuttered after its success and luck ran out; the final straw might well have been the closure of Charles Street for LRT construction, which made access to the restaurant difficult.
New beginnings in Kitchener
There are lots of exciting openings, however, the most significant of which is likely the re-appearance of former Langdon Hall chef Jonathan Gushue and his new Kitchener restaurant The Berlin at 45 King St.
In addition, just around the corner at the aforementioned Marisol location, a new venture is slated to open: the Grand Trunk Saloon should appear early in the new year offering casual snacks and beverages to satisfy an urban clientele.
At the corner of Frederick and Filbert streets in Kitchener, look for Public Market – which I've written about earlier – a venture by the folks at Public Kitchen and Bar on Lancaster Avenue. The café and corner food store will serve prepared foods for take-away as well as light lunches.
The local beer scene is growing into a more vibrant one too: Kitchener's Boathouse re-opened in early 2015 with many local and craft beers. A re-furbished Imbibe at TheMuseum re-appeared as B @ TheMuseum, under the management of the Cambridge Hotel.
Descendants Beer and Beverage Company will be open in the first quarter of 2016 on Victoria Street near Lancaster Street in Kitchener, having moved their home base from Wellesley. The outlet will combine a brewhouse, a retail operation and a small bar. Bitte Schon Brauhaus is scheduled to open in Wellesley in early 2016, and the Elora Brewing Company is open for business on the main street of Elora as well.
The build out has only begun, but the former Entertaining Elements and Nash Bistro space will become Rhapsody offering patrons music, coffee and something known as a barrel bar, if window coverings are any indication. That will be a welcome use of that large space on King Street in the heart of downtown Kitchener.
New in Waterloo
In Waterloo, tucked in behind the new Laurier business building on University Avenue, Bogda Restaurant has re-opened on Balsam Street after having moved from Laurelwood in north Waterloo. They are joined by an exciting new venture in the same building, Bao Sandwich Bar. There's a good chance of success for these two, part of an urban development model in which restaurants are finding homes on the ground floor of high-rise condominiums ensuring a built-in customer base living just above them.
In similar circumstances, the popular Abe Erb brew pub and restaurant is rumoured to be opening in The Tannery with the new Settlement Coffee Company opening at 1 Victoria Commons - their first location opened in Waterloo on King Street near Dupont. And sticking with coffee: the owners of Matter of Taste on King Street in Kitchener's centre block say they will open a roaster and café in north Waterloo early in the new year.
2016 should prove to be an exciting and delicious year: I, for one, can't wait.