There is an on-going surge of redevelopment that has gradually strengthened the vitality of the Old East Village (OEV) neighbourhood. It’s not exactly classic gentrification — instead, it’s a more inclusive grass-roots kind of rebirth, one that reflects and accommodates the diversity of the OEV’s residents and business owners while encouraging community engagement.
The Old East Village Business Improvement Area (OEVBIA) is a community-driven urban reinvestment and revitalization initiative working in partnership with the Old East Village Community Association (OEVCA) and a variety of community partners to help stimulate neighbourhood stability and encourage a blending of viable commercial activities along and off the Dundas Street corridor.
According to Dr. Jason Gilliland (HEAL & Department of Geography at Western and OEVIA executive board member) “The OEVBIA and its advisors have been working on an economic development to strengthen the area as a food district.”
To the uninitiated, the OEV has a long-standing reputation as a destination for community, health and social service agencies. The area has also become the undisputed centre of all things counter-culture and the centre of the city’s edgy art and music scene, as well as a growing restaurant cluster on the corridor. Sarah Merritt, manager of the OEVBIA, observes “The spacing of the food businesses and restaurants on Dundas Street is creating a very walkable food district”.
The neighbourhood contains 28% of the city’s listed and designated heritage properties as well as some key city venues. Dundas Street is home to the London Clay Arts Centre, the Palace Theatre, the Aeolian Performing Arts Centre and the Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market (WFFAM).
A revival of culinary entrepreneurs and food enthusiasts has gravitated to the OEV and has added to the mix of established culinary businesses like Mykonos, Tony’s of London, Vietnam Restaurant and True Taco Authentic Comedor Latino.
Creative, independent, and cultishly popular restaurants and cafés like The Root Cellar, Unique Food Attitudes, Momo’s at the Market, Ten Up Chinese and Sushi, The Starving Artist Bistro, Asmara Caffee and East Village Coffeehouse have added another level of diversity and accessibility to the cultural fabric and the evolving restaurant/café scene in the neighbourhood. A business like The Wisdom Tea Shop is an example of OEV landlords taking the ultimate plunge by opening their own small businesses in their own buildings.
The WFFAM continues to serve as an anchor for the village by providing a setting for enhanced culinary programming, and cultural and civic activities that complement the market and its location in a neighbourhood previously identified as a food desert.
The market itself has a plethora of more than sixty small-scale food makers that include Saucy Meats, which brings together small-scale farmers, butchers and customers through a unique artisanal business model; Café Bourgeois chef/caterer Mary Ann Wrona, whose healthy catering and gourmet-to-go café form a repertoire of the Polish culinary tradition; and Downie Street Bakehouse, which features from-scratch, hand-shaped, artisanal and specialty breads made with time and care by baker Alan Mailloux.
Visionary culinary entrepreneur and WFFAM owner Dave Cook says, “Market management supports smaller-scale producers and farmers in an economic environment that’s challenging for anyone not performing industrial-scale agriculture, with opportunities for informal mentorship”.
As an informal incubator for emerging businesses the WFFAM has evolved into a regional culinary epicentre for small-scale food makers and farmers, “foodies” and innovators. Cook, who is at the vanguard of local culinary innovation, is looking to open a 20,000 to 25,000 square foot food production facility in the OEV to accommodate two to three anchor tenants (including his Fire Roasted Coffee Company) and other spillover market opportunities and interests. Cook estimates that the current economic impact from the WFFAM is $7.5 million annually.
Various food businesses have emerged from the market to open or expand into retail and wholesale businesses in the OEV, downtown London or other farmers’ markets. Miki Hambleck’s Hungary Butcher, Rick Peori’s All ’Bout Cheese, and Theo and Gerda Korthof’s Artisan Bakery have all set up shop on Dundas Street across from the market. On the Move Organics, a premium market vendor, recently opened a pop-up retail location on the corridor close to its progeny, the Root Cellar Organic Café.
The market continues to be home to an evolving community of culinary professionals who are actively fostering the development of a distinctive food district and encouraging innovation in food and sustainable strategies for the development of quality culinary practices. Cook’s many business interests interlock and promote one another, and the success of the WFFAM illustrates the potential economic spin-off of a food production facility in OEV.
The OEVBIA continues to work on a local economic development plan for the neighborhood that involves the creation of an “agri-food district,” and considers building stronger linkages between the farmers’ market and the neighboring commercial corridor as a central objective.
In the meantime, there continues to be discussion regarding an eco-food hub and a possible social enterprise grocery store in the OEV.
The following page highlights just some of the interesting dining options found in the Old East Village:
The Root Cellar Organic Café
Community-focused, local, sustainable and accountable are the words used to describe the Root Cellar’s philosophy. With an emphasis on “from scratch” seasonal menus, the culinary team led by chef Dani Gruden-Murphy procures ingredients from local organic farmers for this hip artisanal culinary collective and London’s first co-operatively owned nanobrewery. 623 Dundas Street, 519-719-7675
True Taco Authentic Comedor Latino
True Taco continues to wow diehard taco-lovers by providing superior Mexican and El Salvadorian cuisine in new and much larger premises. An all-day breakfast of huevos rancheros (sunny-side up eggs with homemade sauce and locally-sourced beans and tortillas) is a staple. Tacos and pupusas are house specialities. Burritos, tacquitos, quesadillas, enchiladas and tamales are also on offer. The standout is the chicken Milanesa. 789 Dundas Street, 519-433-0909
Unique Food Attitudes
The success of Barbara Czyz’s foodie-mobbed bistro is due to its modern European cuisine, chalkboard offerings, and attentive vibe. Specialties include goulash with potato pancakes, krokiety (crepes) and red borsch made from beets, slow cooked cabbage rolls, and tender peirogi with sweet and savoury fillings. 697 Dundas Street, 519-649-2225
Heidi and Bill Vamvalis are pillars of hospitality, and have been serving Mediterranean cuisine and traditional English Fish and Chips for over 38 years. Mykonos sports a festive covered patio at the back of the restaurant, which is heated during the cooler weather. The Mykonos Platter with moussaka, pastichio, souvlaki, tsaziki, tiropitaki, spanakopita, loukanica and dolmathaki is outstanding. 572 Adelaide Street N., 519-434-6736
The Spring (You Yi Cun)
An OEV mainstay, The Spring has recently changed hands. The décor could still use a rethink. The signature wonton “purses” — house-made pork dumplings — are browned to pan-fried perfection. We love the sautéed Asian eggplant with chili and sauce, al dente long green beans bathed in a fiery sauce, spring rolls and crispy deep-fried wontons. 768 Dundas Street, 519-266-4421
Chi Hi Vietnamese
Chef Trinh’s Chi Hi Vietnamese restaurant features traditional Vietnamese fare including bánh mì (black bean tofu or beef subs), pad Thai, vegetarian Singapore noodles, beef noodle brisket soup, and black bean tofu vermicelli. 791 Dundas Street, (beside Aeolian Hall at Rectory) 519-601-8448
Tony’s of London
Tony’s Famous Italian has been serving pizza, panzerotti, lasagna, chicken parmigiana and other Italian-inspired comfort foods in this cavernous dining room since 1961. 980 Dundas Street, 519 544 4520
The Vietnam Restaurant
Long Duc Ngo, the welcoming hands-on proprietor, offers a selection of accessibly priced noodle, rice and soup dishes. The substantive menu includes superb spring rolls, pho, sizzling hot pots, and many seafood and chicken dishes. Pho Dac Biet is the signature rice noodle broth with rare and brisket beef, beef balls and tripe with fresh herbs. 1074 Dundas Street, 519-457-0762
This family-owned unassuming hole-in-the-wall, with cramped booth seating offers superior Thai food. Served with pride and attention to detail Thai Taste is an OEV favourite. Don’t be put off by the narrow interior—the food shines. 671 Dundas Street, 519-646-2909
Starving Artist Bistro and Lounge
This small open-kitchen bills itself as a café, breakfast and brunch restaurant. This is where you’ll find some amazing work from local artists displayed in the cozy dining area. Try the First Nation’s bannock tacos if they are available. 680 Dundas Street, 226-680-0526
BRYAN LAVERY is a contributing editor and eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.