We’re in an unmarked white van (the best kind of van) cruising through downtown Hamilton’s streets as our unofficial guide directs our attention to shuttered storefronts where new restaurants could potentially move in. On our left is a small corner space that was formerly a barbecue smokehouse, but quickly closed when the neighbouhood boycotted the owner (for apparently not being a very nice man). At another stop was a derelict five-floor nightclub where the previous owners spent $4 million in renovations. Our ride also passed by the future site of a new GO station and a century-old hotel being converted into condos.
For nearly a decade, Hamilton wore the badge of “next big thing” but it wasn’t until the last three or four years that local business owners have really noticed their city growing, particularly in the food sector. With cheaper rent, less restrictive food truck bylaws, and a less saturated field of young chefs, now could be the time for budding restaurateurs to plant a culinary flag.
Hamilton urban renewal manager Glen Norton gives a tour of downtown Hamilton to Fresh co-owner Barry Alper (left), Harbord Room chef Cory Vitello (centre), and Fresh manager Lynn Alexander.
“My job is to match up businesses with the building owners,” says Glen Norton, manager of urban renewal at Hamilton’s economic development division. He’s at the front of the van showing myself, chef Cory Vitello of The Harbord Room and THR&Co., and vegetarian restaurant Fresh co-owner Barry Alper and manager Lynn Alexander why Toronto restaurateurs should open in his city. Norton lists off the benefits of doing business here (like grants to help a new business spruce-up its storefront), and explains how he’ll step in when businesses have disputes with landlords. (Norton is a building owner himself.) He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every restaurant we walked by, so if you ever bump into this bespectacled grey-haired man who walks fast and talks even faster, he’s the one to hit up for restaurant recommendations.
Norton made quite the splash when he took the job in 2009 with ambitious goals of revitalizing the manufacturing town that was hit hard by the recent recession into a mini-metropolis where residents would, essentially, not have to feel like they have to skip town to get a dose of culture. He’s also part owner of a building in the hip James Street North Area where old Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Italian communities are juxtaposed with new galleries. At the bottom of the building is the Mulberry Street Coffee House, where students pore over textbooks amid the soundtrack of a whirling espresso machine. Above is studio space for those in the creative field, like artists and non-profits. “Honestly, we didn’t want a franchise to move in, even though we probably could have let in a Pizza Pizza for more money,” he says. “We want anything that isn’t a choice right now, like a good barbecue place.”
Clockwise from top left: Turkey wings at Chuck’s Burger Bar, which is opening a second location in the city; the cute Cheese Shoppe on Locke; Mulberry Street cafe on James Street North; cooks prepping for dinner service at Rapscallion.
Norton, along with a Toronto-based PR company whose principal moved to Hamilton three years ago, arranged a food tour of the city. (The firm previously did a similar tour, but with music venues.) One of the first stops is Earth to Table Bread Bar, an all-day, kid friendly restaurant specializing in pizzas and burgers on the coveted (read: slim chance there’s a vacancy) Locke Street strip that, over the years, has transformed from a biker’s hangout to antique-shop central to a row of quaint restaurants and food shops.
“When we opened four years ago, we hoped this place would do $600,000 in sales—we did $2.8 million,” says restaurant and building owner Jeff Crump, who is also the chef at the Landmark Restaurant Group. “Look around, it’s Monday at 4 p.m. and people are eating here. We do 500 covers a day at this 36-seat restaurant.” Crump bought the building for $500,000 and spent $300,000 on renovating the 800 square-foot dining room and the offices and storage space downstairs.
“It sounds obvious, but people in Hamilton want good food,” he continues. “Five years ago, we had places that were good, but not great. We’re still in a bit of a no-man’s land and we’re waiting for more [chefs] to show up. In the meantime, we can have a bit of fun.” By fun, he means having weekly specials riffing on trends that have gone beyond the point of saturation in other towns: tacos, fried chicken, a porchetta burger inspired by Porchetta and Co., the fabled umami burger, and even ramen. (One of their prep cooks used to be at Momofuku.)
Two Black Sheep co-owner and chef Matthew Kershaw talk to the Toronto investors about Hamilton’s restaurant scene.
Foods and restaurant concepts that we take for granted (or have snobbishly deemed played-out) have yet to take hold here, giving chefs the freedom to be one of the first here. David Ricottone, a Hamilton native and manager at Dark Horse Espresso Bar on Queen West, runs a supper club called the Saint James and is looking to open a spot in the city he was born in. “For the first time, Torontonians don’t have a bad thing to say about Hamilton,” he says, adding that he’s thinking of an Italian-Mediterranean spot with influences from Porchetta and Co. “It’s like the Wild West right now. I can find a place that’s 2,500 square feet for $1,200 a month and it’ll be triple that in Toronto. Hamilton will never be Toronto, but it can be rich in culture.”
Ricottone joined the restaurateurs at another stop, an oyster and charcuterie bar called Two Black Sheep owned by business partners Matthew Kershaw and Erin Dunham who also run The Black Hoof-inspired Rapscallion across the street. (It specializes in meat, but on this day it’s a Meatless Monday menu.) Kershaw boasts that, since Two Black Sheep opened last November, they sell more oysters per seat than anywhere else in the province and that they made back their initial investment after two months of opening. “For 20 years, nothing really happened here,” he says. “No one tried anything new and then in the last three or four years we had 30, 40 places open. Some of them closed since, but it really exploded.” He’s thinking of opening another place specializing in non-traditional tacos.
Customers file in for an early dinner at The Burnt Tongue, which specializes in soups, burgers, and fries with imported Dutch mayo.
Hipster tacos appear to be on most people’s lips. At another stop, a seven-month-old hole-in-the wall soup and sandwich shop appropriately called The Burnt Tongue, I ask co-owner Leo Tsangarakis what he’d like to open in his town. “We really need something hip like a La Carnita or a Grand Electric, or a cool steamie place without the three-hour wait,” he says while dispensing giant bowls of rich and spicy carrot-cumin soup. (Some of their recipes can be found on The Food Network blogs.) “There’s talk about the pop-up dining experience, but it’ll be cool to get something like Come and Get It to do something for a few months. With the right idea, there’s certainly a pulse you can tap into.”
There is a definite glimmer in the eyes of these chefs, who see their town as a blank canvas—or in the very least, Ossington before it became you know, today’s Ossington. They all agree that, at this current rate, the window of opportunity will close in five years once more restaurants open, driving rent up and increasing bidding wars and the overlap in restaurant concepts. Still, opening a business in an unfamiliar city shouldn’t be taken lightly. For Fresh, the main concern is staffing, as Alper asks every restaurant owner how many people they hired and how difficult it is to retain and find qualified employees. Each Fresh location has 40 to 45 staffers (more than most of the restaurants we visited) and with every new location that opens in Toronto, existing staff simply move to the new spot that’s a short subway or streetcar ride away. But to open in a new city, they’ll basically be hiring from scratch.
Harbord Room’s chef Cory Vitellio, who’s originally from the nearby Brantford, is paying attention to how much foot traffic these restaurants get. “Saving on rent can only get you so far,” he says. “There are incentives, but there still needs to be a drive to get people here.” For chefs to come, there needs to be people—but for there to be people, there need to be chefs.
At the last stop, Radius—a spacious cafe and restaurant with reclaimed wood floors, exposed brick walls, and chandeliers hanging from high ceilings—the duo from Fresh contemplate which area they’d like to open in after all we’ve seen today.
“I’d say not Locke Street, because it’s residential,” says Lynn Alexander.
“But look at the pizza place. It’s busy at 4 p.m. on a Monday,” says Alper.
“But our lunch does a lot of high volume,” Alexander replies. “We turn tables in 30 to 40 minutes with lots of take-out. We need office buildings, places that would do the numbers we’re used to doing.”
“Jackson Square,” interjects unofficial tour guide Norton. “We’ve got the towers, the markets, you can hardly find a seat at lunch time.” Unable to finish the platter of falafel sliders in front of us, it was time to head back to Toronto.
By now, it’s nighttime and our stomachs are brimming from an all-day restaurant crawl that’s taken us from cheese shop to burger bar to pizzeria to oyster bar, to soup stall to cafe to lounge. On the way back, I ask Alper if the tour had any effect in persuading him to do business in Hamilton. “We’ll be here in 18 months, no question,” says Alper, who is having a franchise-development meeting next month. “We’ll have to figure out the real estate. I noticed that few places put investment into design; we could do it the old way we did it when we first opened. Hamilton will be on it for sure. You’re not going to find these spaces anywhere else outside of Toronto.”