Vitality of Waterloo region's food scene evident in investment and inventiveness

Food columnist Andrew Coppolino looks at the latest news in Waterloo region's food scene, including new and expanding restaurants and a growing patio scene.

Region's evolving dining scene is drawing interest from larger centres

Zerka Mya of Pulao Gals is seen in the kitchen with spices. The Pulao Gals specialize in Pashtun foods and have plans to open a takeaway restaurant in Kitchener's east end. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The food scene in Waterloo region is a dynamic one with kitchen takeovers, local bakers on national television, rebranded breweries, new restaurants and another summer of bigger and better patios.

Some of the recent developments come as a result and response to COVID-19 measures. Others are a reflection of the changing demographics in the area.

But all of them are an indication of the evolution into a "foodie city" cultural environment.

Rebranding and rationalizing

One of the more dramatic changes is taking place in St. Jacobs, the region's summer tourism hot spot. Fat Sparrow Group is in the planning stages of re-building and re-branding what was the Stone Crock restaurant.

The as yet unnamed space will become a 3,500-sq.-ft. marché that will serve customers year-round and not only summer tourists, according to Fat Sparrow Group co-owner Nick Benninger.

"We envision something unique that speaks genuinely to the region and its agriculture and cuisine and which represents St. Jacobs and the region," Benninger said, adding that the move rationalizes their St. Jacobs operations.

The Fat Sparrow Group purchased the Stone Crock Inc., in St. Jacobs in 2018 and have plans to revamp the space. (Google StreetView)

The space will sell local foods, ready-made meals and feature a unique 45-seat wine and charcuterie bar that allows you to browse the store with a drink in hand.

Close by in the St. Jacobs Market District, another re-branding is taking place.

During COVID-19, the Ignite Group re-vamped their brewery and coffee-roasting operations to become Stockyards Beverage Co. In anticipation of the large-scale operation, demolition for a new Stockyards facility has begun with a target date for opening in the fall of 2023.

The 80,000 sq.-ft. facility will be home to the brewery, coffee roastery, tap room, restaurant and retail areas. Upstairs will be events space with three large banquet rooms and support kitchen, all of which are geared to supporting farm-to-table as much as possible, says Ryan Lloyd-Craig of Ignite.

"It's also a connection with the local hotels and the St. Jacobs Market as a whole providing experiences for weekend stays and destination tourism opportunities," he said. 

Stockyards beer and coffee is currently available at their Catalyst137 location in Belmont Village.

Moving and improving

With consumer confidence growing and with the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, even smaller businesses have taken steps to grow and re-brand despite struggles with debt, reduced revenue, staffing and supply-line issues. 

Many people were sad to see that submarine-sandwich joint Big John's was closing in Belmont Village, but the late-night spot, a favourite since the 1970s, has instead moved a few blocks away to new and improved digs at 530 Belmont Avenue West.

Popular pasta house 271 West, in downtown Kitchener, has moved to the shiny new ground floor of the 20-storey Charlie West condos on Charles Street; taking its place on King Street is Bello Mio restaurant in a straight-up switch Italian for Italian. 

A few blocks away,at the Tannery, The Civil has opened: the small venue inside the former Mon Ami Pizza place serves wood-fired pizza and cocktails; the venue is part of a restaurant ownership team out of Guelph.

Like many other restaurants emerging from a COVID-19 closure cocoon, TWH Social in the Walper Hotel recently announced it was expanding their hours to include more weeknight dinner service.

TWH Social is located in the Walper Hotel in downtown Kitchener. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Jon Rennie, formerly of The Bauer Butcher, re-introduced himself to the dining public through pop-up events through his Odd Duck Wine and Provisions and is now planning a bricks-and-mortar establishment.

Cambridge-based caterer Little Mushroom continues to expand. Moving beyond catering and their recently opened dining lounge, Little Mushroom has extended its reach into food preparation for a half-dozen businesses looking to focus on their core products instead of a kitchen.

Little Mushroom now provides food services for breweries, wine bars and a golf course as well as assuming food service-duties for the CentreStage Lounge at Kitchener's Centre in the Square in the past few weeks.

Much smaller restaurateurs have done the same thing of late: for example, The Pulao Gals, specializing in Pashtun foods, have gone from pop-up status to opening their own small takeaway restaurant in Kitchener's east end and recently took over operating food service at Cambridge's Old Galt Bottle Shop.

Bigger and better patio lanterns

Eagerly anticipated by customers, restaurants and downtown business associations alike, patios will be back in full force again starting in the next several weeks.

In Cambridge, according to Trevor McWilliams, manager of business development in the city's economic development division, there will be many patios at individual Cambridge restaurants and along sidewalks and that open patio space is being designed for pedestrians during the summer in the amalgamated city's many downtown cores.

"We're excited about creating a pedestrian environment to help businesses at this time. The number of patio permits are growing," McWilliams said. "We're looking to have music and other events heading into Thanksgiving."

The on-street patio program in Hespeler and Galt, as seen above in a photo posted to Facebook by Downtown Cambridge, proved so popular in 2021 that city council voted in favour of closing roads to do it again this summer. (Downtown Cambridge/Facebook)

That means Main Street (Galt) will be closed to cars to facilitate full pedestrian and patio space from May 20 to October 10, while Queen Street in Hespeler will close on weekends (4:30 p.m. Friday to 9 p.m. Sunday) beginning June 3 until October 9.

As one of example of a private patio in Cambridge, Gator's Tail is celebrating 10 years in business and have announced the return of their annual Ontario craft beer show in June. 

In downtown Kitchener, Lori Muller, Downtown Kitchener BIA manager of events and member integration, says that the core's patios will be better than ever this year and should be up in a few weeks (after a delay caused when a good portion of the installation crews came down with COVID-19). A patio map will be ready shortly, she says.

"We have ordered new sails for the patios that are better quality material for outdoors which will help with both sun and rain. They're meant to be installed by the end of May, so we can look forward to a downtown Kitchener patio party in the first or second weekend in June," Muller said.

The number of patios in uptown Waterloo has grown considerably recently, according to Uptown Waterloo BIA executive director Tracy Van Kalsbeek: where there were 35 patios a couple of years ago, there are now well over 50 that will likely appear this summer out of roughly 70 or so restaurants in uptown.

Street closures on Dominion Lane and Princess Street will once again accommodate patios hubs and pedestrian traffic.

"Patios mean vibrancy and now more than ever people are wanting to come outside and do things. Patios provide that opportunity to come back together and do it in a safe way for those that aren't feeling comfortable inside," Van Kalsbeek said.

Getting attention

Overall, it's safe to say that the region's evolving dining scene is drawing interest from larger centres: Toronto blogs, for instance, have touted Waterloo Region as a food destination for its 416-area code readers. It's a feather in our cap.

That fact hasn't been lost on baker Lenore Johnson who opened LenJo Bakes in Kitchener a couple of years ago and  appears as a judge on Food Network's "Wall of Bakers." Originally from Toronto, Johnson has worked as a pastry chef in several places in the world, giving her a broad perspective on the Waterloo Region food landscape.

"There's a hidden diversity here. I don't think that most people would assume that it is as diverse as it is," Johnson said.

"I don't think that I've lived anywhere else, including Toronto, which has had such a concentration of different cuisines or interpretations of cuisines in such a localized place, such a relatively small area."


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.