Waterloo region's restaurant scene changes in COVID-19 pandemic

Food columnist Andrew Coppolino takes a look at what restaurants have closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and, on the brighter side, a ghost light burns for those that have opened or reinvented themselves.

'The pandemic has changed all aspects of life in a short time,' coffee shop writes on Instagram

Rhapsody Barrel Bar in downtown Kitchener is among many businesses that have closed during the pandemic. For lease signs now hang in the windows of the shuttered restaurant and live music venue. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the course of the restaurant business. Closures and job losses have been significant during the turmoil.

In several cases, COVID-19 has been cited by owners as a reason, yet we've also seen new food operations open in the past several months.

Here's a look at some of what's happened in our area. Announcements and closures can happen abruptly, so there will be things missed in this snapshot of the local food scene. 

Even as this column was being written, Hacienda Sarria, a popular Kitchener event and wedding venue — and the site of a community garden — closed abruptly and announced it was filing for bankruptcy this week due to pandemic circumstances.

Larger restaurant groups have similarly announced closures: one that made waves last week was that of Abe Erb brewery-restaurants in Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph and Ayr, along with two coffee shops. 

With two dozen restaurants in Ontario, Symposium in uptown Waterloo has "temporarily closed" (the Cambridge Can-Amera Parkway cafe is still open for those wanting their Symposium fix).

Smaller businesses have closed too, despite seeming to be quite busy, including Quick Sandwiches in downtown Kitchener (the Waterloo location remains open), Naranj Middle Eastern Cuisine on Erb Street W., and Nanaz Mediterranean Kitchen in north Waterloo.

Both DVLB in uptown Waterloo and Blackwing coffee shops in Galt, Cambridge, shut down in August, though there was no indication it was pandemic-related.

Another coffee shop, Matter of Taste, announced it was closing its Waterloo location permanently while the downtown Kitchener shop remains open.

"The pandemic has changed all aspects of life in a short time and will continue for the foreseeable future," Matter of Taste said on its Instagram account. "We want to thank our Waterloo crew and customers. We had some memorable times while it lasted."

The popular My-Thai in uptown Waterloo closed at the end of September after a solid decade at the location. A Facebook statement posted by the restaurant gave an indication: "Pandemic is one thing, life direction is another key factor for closing Waterloo location." The Cambridge My-Thai, and others, remain open.

A bit further afield, The Danish Place in Puslinch will close its doors after two decades. Management stated on Facebook, "This pandemic has brought us so very many changes and this business is not sustainable at this time."

They had good success with a Go Fund Me campaign, but apparently couldn't make ends meet. Nov. 1 is the restaurant's last day.

In Guelph, Fred's Food Co downtown closed abruptly at the end of July, citing "the social and economic ramifications of COVID-19" in an Instagram post

Shifting focus to remain open

Many restaurants have shifted their focus and shortened their hours, such as popular Waterloo café Seven Shores, and added retail components.

Gilt closed their restaurant doors in downtown Kitchener and is now Gilt Catering. Nearby, recently-opened Crafty Ramen has been adding products to its lineup and is boosting retail sales as it continues to serve its dine-in and takeout customers.

Dan McCowan says Red House Uptown is now only open for dinner and takeout starting at 4 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday. He adds that the restaurant is adding additional retail items.

"We are still brainstorming some ideas, but grab-and-go meals will be at Vincenzo's soon, including another curry sauce, probably spicy red Thai," McCowan said.

A St. Jacobs restaurant 45-years-old, the Stone Crock has a refreshed interior and a menu that has been re-designed to fully serve a range of German, Swiss and Alsatian dishes that speak to Waterloo Region's pioneer heritage.

Meanwhile Taco Farm Co. has added a weekend "pop-up," Syd and Hilda's Cocina; look for a new look to the restaurant's food program that builds off the cocina coming soon.

New delivery initiative coming

To help many such restaurants with their delivery sales, Waterloo Region Tourism is collaborating in a restaurant delivery and take-out pilot program in conjunction with local BIAs and Digital Main Street. The program will launch in mid-November and include about 30 restaurants in downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo and Belmont Village.

Designed to help restaurants reduce the cost of third-party delivery fees, the program could eventually expand to the rest of Waterloo Region, according to Minto Schneider of Waterloo Regional Tourism Marketing Corporation.

"Explore Waterloo Region is working with our BIA partners to try to ensure restaurants have the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver service to their customers, so that they will have the resources to continue to do so," Schneider said.

New spots to try

As for new venues, this list isn't comprehensive but includes both larger and smaller business — a good sign in these trying times.

In Guelph, Piatto Pizzeria + Enoteca opened downtown in August   Lady Glaze doughnuts of K-W opened a Guelph location in Sept. 

In Kitchener on King Street E., near Fergus Avenue, the Grand Mehfil Indian restaurant opened at the end of September.

After a couple of years and dealing with various building issues at the site, Ignite Group of Brands has just opened Crowsfoot Smokehaus in the former Black Forest Inn in Conestogo. In the future post-COVID era, Crowsfoot will offer seating for over 300. The menu prepares many dishes based on the Region's Germanic roots.

Look also for a refresh of Ignite's Rich Uncle Tavern in downtown Kitchener. Having re-opened only a few days ago, the new Rich Uncle will offer the same menu items starting at 4 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday. There are currently 60 seats available for indoor dining.

Hot Pot Noodle near University of Waterloo is self-serve shopping for your ingredients with an individual bubbling-hot pot of broth brought to your table, so you can cook your own meal. It's sparkling inside, well-designed and with an interesting décor.

A few blocks away, you will find the relatively new Tsujiri tea house and soba restaurant on Phillip Street. Nearby at University and Phillip a new 50-item Korean menu at Onnuri (a note: in what is likely a new restaurant reality, Onnuri closes each Tuesday for what they call "deep cleaning").

And at the end of the summer, the Ghost Light Café in The Courtyard Kitchens at Whitney Place turned on its lights to make croissants and a few other pastries. The owner, Mira Henderson, hopes to open a café and arts venue when the economic and pandemic conditions settle.

Until then, the ghost light — an allusion to the bare light bulb that stands sentinel over the darkened theatre stage until the next performance — will glow until normalcy returns to the food and beverage scene.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.


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