The once-celebrated Church Restaurant, previously Mackenzie Memorial Gospel Church, is now Revival House. The inspired and ambitious revitalization of the former grand dame of Stratford’s culinary scene took restaurateurs Rob and Candice Wigan just over seven months to complete.
The location and the building’s architectural features and spacious interior inspired its original transformation. The property remains one of Ontario’s finest instances of the conversion of a historic property into a hospitality venue done with integrity and respect for the cultural heritage.
Revival House is the Wigans’ second restaurant rejuvenation in Stratford. The couple purchased Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub in 2008 and put their own unique stamp on every aspect of that business.
The beautifully restored Revival House is decorated in a mix of wood, exposed brick, light walls, gold railings, and ecclesiastical purple accents and banquettes. Ornamenting the bright interior are original light fixtures and stained glass windows. The dark-wood organ pipes provide a striking backdrop for the stunning curved bar that is crowned with a theatrical copper chandelier that was built by former Stratford Festival prop maker Frank Holt. The main room, known as Sanctuary, has the elegance and simple beauty that comes with restrained taste. The room’s former elevated altar can easily be transformed into a stage or dining area because of the modular furnishings.
In contrast the upstairs gastro-lounge The Belfry, a 65-seat venue, delivers an ambience that has been described as “exotic modern” with peacock blues, a vaulted ceiling and a working copper fireplace that draws inspiration from the downstairs chandelier. The Belfry is welcoming and chic. Snuggled in the former organ loft overlooking the Sanctuary, Confession is the most intimate of the trio of spaces.
The backstory of the Church Restaurant involves former Stratford Festival artistic director Robin Phillips. He was hired in 1975 and spent six years directing many productions, cultivating fresh talent and reinvigorating the Festival. Phillips’ first season coincided with the opening of what would become the landmark Church Restaurant, by his partner, restaurateur Joe Mandel. Of note also is the fact that The Stratford Chefs School started in the kitchens back in 1983. The restaurant would later be sold to and operated by Mark Craft.
I worked at The Church Restaurant when it was in its prime, in the mid-1980s. During those years Maggie Smith and her husband playwright Beverly Cross, like many well-known thespians and celebrities, dined at The Church. They were among the crowd of late night habitués who frequented The Belfry, which was The Church’s upstairs room and a popular pre- and post-theatre destination. The Belfry was the bastion of hospitality and completed many a visitor’s Stratford theatre experience.
The Wigans met and recently befriended Joe Mandel, who provided historical context to The Church’s early days, which in turn has reinforced their vision. Candice explains that they have revived some of the traditions that made The Church such a popular hotspot in its heyday. Unlike its seasonal predecessor, The Belfry remains open for the winter months, offering a menu expressing the depth of Perth County’s food culture. Since opening, its menus have revealed a passion for using local and sustainable ingredients, showcasing nose-to-tail cuisine and the best of what Ontario has to offer.
This winter, chef Loreena Miller and her culinary team will bring back French country cuisine to The Belfry. Chef Miller explains that she shares a love for maple, duck fat and everything delicious and sinful that underpins French country cooking with Candice, whose maternal heritage originates in Quebec.
Miller worked alongside previous chefs at Revival House, and her progression to head chef is the natural evolution. Joining Miller in the kitchen is Andrew McLean, known for his tenure at Rundles as sommelier and head waiter.
Chef told me she recently invited some colleagues to help break down a pig. The restaurant is known for its charcuterie, which I have tasted on several occasions. On one visit the charcuterie board included house-cured lamb ham, duck prosciutto, wild boar rillettes, smoked trout rillettes, speck (smoked pork leg) and lonza (cured pork loin). Recently we sampled Miller’s potted chicken liver, a hearty mousse with pickled rhubarb and black pepper jam. There was a seminal gazpacho of tomato embellished with tomato gel, aioli and smoked paprika, and a delicate seared whitefish on warm greens with grilled polenta which made a perfect repast.
The latest menu in The Belfry will revive French-styled cuisine, with an added modern sensibility. Expect to find dishes such as fresh oysters, Lyonnaise salad frisée, lardon, soft egg and pumpkin seed vinaigrette; bone marrow with parsley salad; poutine with Quebec cheese curds, gravy and rosemary fries; Croque Monsieur with sourdough, ham, gruyere cheese and béchamel; and salmon with braised fennel, celeriac, vichyssoise and dill. There is a well-chosen selection of VQA wines and an inspired cocktail list.
Revival House is a sought-after venue for celebrations, conferences and weddings. Music continues to be an essential part of the programs and Revival House is home to the Stratford Summer Music’s cabaret and opera series. The staff hosted 22 weddings this year and events manager Alysha Ford has 23 weddings booked for next year. There is a stunning 48-seat garden terrace beside the Brunswick Street entrance. High Tea and Sunday Brunch add yet another layer of temptation to the offerings.
70 Brunswick Street, Stratford
Tuesday to Thursday 11am–9pm;
Friday and Saturday 11am–1am;
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.