Kitchener-Waterloo

Dining out: Andrew Coppolino looks at the food culture in Waterloo region

There are multiple food sub-cultures in Waterloo region, Guelph and Stratford, writes CBC K-W food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

'Everyone has a specific market, and it’s different for each restaurant,' Jody Palubiski says

Each area of Waterloo region has unique food sub-cultures, writes CBC K-W food columnist Andrew Coppolino. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Fall represents the kickoff to the dining season with summer holidays over and harvest tables filled to overflowing.

So it's a good time to take stock of the current state of the local food culture as we move into the busy period for restaurants.

The phrase "food culture" represents the network of organizations, businesses and institutions that make up what we grow, what we produce and what we eat, and the host of relationships around food.

Even though there is a union of cities in Waterloo region, when it comes to food, different areas — and even different neighbourhoods — can make up "sub-cultures." Every place you go, the people are different, and restaurants react to that. It's part of what defines the food landscape.

While it's impossible to mention all food venues in this space, here's an overview focusing on a few areas.

The haddock and chips from Ernie’s Roadhouse in Cambridge. (Andrew Coppolino)

Cambridge

With three distinct cores in Preston, Galt and Hespeler, the city's food culture is fragmented on one hand and compact and reflective of its immediate surrounding neighbourhoods on the other.

Preston has a few blocks of food outlets and continues to develop: there's a classic old diner serving what it calls "Canadian food" a few doors down from a Salvadoran restaurant and a new Caribbean restaurant.​

Galt has the benefit of some Hollywood movie-worthy architecture and the river as a background for a number of venues, from a French-based bistro and Thai restaurant to a chocolatier and a café selling Portuguese bifanas and donuts called malasadas. It also has a farmers' market that dates to the mid-1800s.

Having evolved significantly in the last few years, Hespeler's food scene includes a walkable three or four blocks with a specialty food store, an old pub (Ernie's Roadhouse), and the Aging Oak restaurant with a couple dozen whisky selections, among others.

According to John Cerny, owner of Cambridge's Blackshop! and sister restaurant Sole in Waterloo, the customer-base in the region is much more educated today, and he sees slight differences in his customers, though many visit both locations.

"There are some shared customers between the two restaurants, but there are different preferences. Cambridge customers are a bit more traditional and look for more classics. They also are more feature-driven," Cerny said.

He adds that craft beer speaks a local language: his Cambridge restaurant chooses Cambridge breweries and his Waterloo venue chooses Waterloo suds.

With restaurants also in Cambridge, Waterloo and outside the region, Beertown has similarly different clients.

"Everyone has a specific market, and it's different for each restaurant," according to Jody Palubiski, managing partner of The Charcoal Group and Beertown. "We try to curate the beverage mix based on that and focus on the stories of the breweries in that local place."

In Kitchener, there's a wide variety of cultures represented in the local, often independent restaurants. This Serbian dish at Veslo Family Restaurant in Kitchener is one example. (Andrew Coppolino)

Kitchener

Driven to a good degree by a downtown tech sector, Kitchener has seen restaurant growth east to west and north to south in its core.

The blending of international cooking and coffee shops creates choices from the Duke Food Block down Ontario Street to the small Salvadoran food stand inside Mi Tienda Latina near the bus terminal. Many of these restaurants offer the home-cooking of their owners.

Running along King Street is a diverse blend of restaurants: a Portuguese bakery, a French-based bakery, pho noodles, banh mi, a Latino market — is Kitchener the pupusa capital of southwestern Ontario? — a Japanese donburi house, shawarma, an Ethiopian café and market, live-fire cookery at The Rich Uncle, an Italian pizzeria and pasta joint and Abe Erb brew pub at The Tannery.

When it comes to beverages, there is a defined cocktail culture that continues to grow in Kitchener with Grand Surf Lounge recently joining Gilt and TWH Social at The Walper.

Billing itself as "Waterloo's nerdiest restaurant" The Watchtower Restaurant is a place to for lovers of science fiction, comics and fantasy to find breakfast, lunch and dinner. (The Watchtower Restaurant/Facebook)

Waterloo

By virtue of its universities and technology companies, Waterloo, roughly half the size of Kitchener, has a robust food culture, albeit one divided between the city centre and the areas adjacent to the universities.

The downtown features primarily independent restaurants and pubs such as King Street Trio, Red House, Marbles and Taco Farm, as well as cocktails bars such as the remarkable new Loloan Lobby Bar, 21 Fir and White Rabbit. More beer driven, Ethel's Lounge, a quarter-century old watering hole, has no deep-fryer and really is the neighbourhood local.

The universities, however, have a significant influence on what we can find to eat. Near Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo is restaurant after restaurant, sometimes an entire block, possessed of a veritable smorgasbord of international foods: Persian, Korean, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Uyghur and more.

One particularly defining gustatory contrast at King Street and University Avenue in the Laurier neighbourhood is the exquisite and more expensive Indonesian and southeast Asian restaurant Bhima's Warung sitting right next door to Morty's pub, a popular wings-and-beer sports bar.

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