On the Road to K-W: A Culinary Round-Up

Written by Bryan Lavery

I have been a fan of road trips since I was a child, as they provide great opportunities to explore the places you’re driving through. We always tried to visit that out-of-the-way museum or gallery, unique restaurant, farmgate or farmers’ market. Recently on a road trip to Kitchener-Waterloo (K-W) we stopped in the beautiful stone town of St. Marys for coffee at Barista’s, and to see Jon Ogryzlo’s exhibition of food photographs at the quaint and quirky St. Marys Station Gallery. On the way home we stopped in New Hamburg, where the Nith River winds through the historic town and flows through the downtown core. We discovered the charming, open-concept Imperial Market & Eatery in the newly renovated, historic Imperial building.

St. Jacobs Market

On other trips to K-W we’ve made the short trek to nearby Langdon Hall, for lunch and to tour the gardens. Another time we took a drive to The Arlington in Paris, Ontario. The boutique hotel is owned by The Other Bird group, which will soon be opening a restaurant (Hunter & Co.) in downtown London. On our latest trip to K-W area our first stop was the iconic St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, a tourist mecca. We arrived on a beautiful fall day when there were still row after row of farmers set up outdoors. The first floor at the Market is dedicated to food, and features many of the local Mennonite products for which the area is renowned.

I am particularly interested in the vibrant restaurant scene in K-W. It benefits from the thriving tech community, global think tanks, new condo developments, the revitalized downtown and Kitchener’s pedestrian-friendly vibe. In a few months the light rail transit line is expected to transform the area by linking Kitchener to Waterloo. Several initiatives have been launched by the City of Kitchener to galvanize the downtown core. New lighting was added to the streets, sidewalks were enlarged, and curbs were lowered. Anchored by Kitchener Market, this district is known to have the city’s most conspicuous cluster of culturally diverse restaurants and shops. Venture along King and Queen streets to explore dozens of indie cafés, pubs and great locally-owned restaurants like Gilt Restaurant Bar and Lounge, B at the Museum and The Berlin.

Kempton Munshawat and head chef Jonathan Gushue work in the kitchen at The Berlin. (Credit Jennifer Roberts for The Globe & Mail)

The Berlin, now two years old, is a partnership between Chef Johnathon Gushue and restaurateur Ryan Lloyd-Craig. The partners share an ethical and sustainable culinary philosophy, attentively caring about the provenance of their food and the way it is grown or raised. The constantly evolving menu is based on the availability of the best fresh and local ingredients from small, innovative farms and top-quality food producers in the surrounding area. Gushue shapes a formative, season-based and from scratch, farm-to-table dining experience that is both accessible and fresh.

The Walper Hotel has undergone extensive modernization

Kitchener’s grand dame Walper Hotel was built in 1893 and recently received a multi-million dollar makeover. I have distinct memories of meeting my grandmother at the Baroque Room in the Walper in the 1980’s when the cuisine was old fashioned, hearty and Mittel-European — it was a stunning white-linen and beaux-arts inspired dining room with arched windows and elaborate cornice work. Today the Walper is a unique, modern boutique experience combining contemporary building technology with the best of the hotel’s heritage features. There is a striking piano bar and lounge called Lokal located on the second floor. We enjoyed sipping craft cocktails and conversing with the friendly and upbeat staff in TWH Social, the subterranean bar/bistro. While exploring the venue I bumped into Chef Jeff Ward — his business card identifies him as Chief Cook and Bottle Washer despite a culinary pedigree that includes Stratford Chefs School, Langdon Hall, Toronto’s Canoe and Auberge du Pommier, and Kitchener’s former Marisol. Chef gave me an interesting tutorial about the elevator, the dining concept and future plans for the venue. The menu at TWH Social is touted as “local ingredients done well, with a thoughtfully sourced menu focused on sustainability and diversity”.

The Belmont Bistro

A lengthy telephone conversation about the culinary scene with Minto Schneider, CEO of Waterloo Region Tourism, directed me to the charming Belmont Village. This area, nestled mid-town between downtown Kitchener and uptown Waterloo, has been a long-time culinary destination with restaurant landmarks like the 40-year-old Café Rugantino and the 32-year-old Janet Lynn’s Bistro. The area is now making its mark as a happening culinary hub with venues like The Culinary Studio for cooking classes and Arabella Park Beer Bar, which opened near Union Boulevard at the north end of the village. Arabella Park’s kitchen team combines innovation with classic and modern ideas to create playful and shareable cuisine that pairs well with beer. We had a terrific lunch at The Belmont Bistro (formerly Village Creperie) next door to the relatively new gourmet coffeehouse Berlin Bicycle Café. At The Belmont Bistro Chef Brandon Gries, a Stratford Chef School alumnus, creates dishes from scratch, taking no short-cuts and changing the menu seasonally. We had an exceptional experience and the Cobb salad with griddle chicken, bacon, fresh corn, avocado, boiled eggs, candied walnuts, pickled onions, greens and shallot vinaigrette.

Abe Erb Brewing Co.’s brewhouse in the Tannery building, in downtown Kitchener near the corner of King and Victoria streets, boasts a full production facility on site, including a canning line, big brewing vats and tanks for storage. Part of the appeal of Abe Erb is pairing both brewing and restaurant experiences. The tongue-in-cheek mission statement reads “Our trifecta is the combination of beer, food and live entertainment. We take your patronage as seriously as we take our beards and moustaches”.

Waterloo, home to thousands of Canadian tech innovations, is also where tech titan Google is currently headquartered and the hometown of BlackBerry. Grin and Grind Holdings, the team that developed Abe Erb, has created Settlement Co. in uptown Waterloo. The urban café blends old-world, traditional craft with modern Scandinavian elements. It is part café, coffee roaster, social hub and cocktail lounge, featuring contemporary café cuisine and offering a toast and waffle bar.

Harmony Lunch is a Waterloo landmark

A must-visit is the 87-year-old Harmony Lunch in uptown Waterloo. The landmark has been revitalised by The Fat Sparrow Group which also operates the ever-popular Taco Farm, as well as the 1870s livery-stable-turned-restaurant Marbles, and Nick & Nat’s Uptown 21 (now an event venue). Ethel’s Lounge is the go-to-place for jazz and blues. Recommended by almost every local, restaurateur and waiter I spoke with were the nightly specials, standouts being Ethel’s burgers and meatloaf.

In advance of this latest road trip and for the purpose of this story I consulted colleagues and, of course, CBC K-W’s food columnist Andrew Coppolino’s seminal Waterloo Region Eats website.

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.