The saloon-style doors to the kitchen at Smackwater Jack’s barely have time to close before they are swung open once more as a server emerges with another order. With a quickened step she glides across the stamped concrete floors and through the wood-framed glass doors to the outside.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Smackwater Jack’s is its al fresco space, where 170 patrons can laugh, dine and drink beneath the stars, while several well-spaced propane torches nix the nip from the air. Even in unseasonably cool weather, the two-tiered patio space is bustling. While the interior can seat approximately 80 people, the expansive river-view deck, canopied by umbrellas and dotted with fresh flowers, is where most will opt to sit until the frost rolls in.
Located on the edge of River Road in Grand Bend, the restaurant overlooks the water and the view is stunning, day and night. A forty-foot dock allows for easy access to the restaurant from the water, and local musicians often take to the outdoor stage to add a hint of romance to the air.
As owner Brad Oke passes a group of smiling diners he asks if they’d like a blanket to warm their laps. It doesn’t take long to realize that customer service is the extra mile walked by the staff of this community-minded establishment. It is an attitude that is winning the hearts, minds and appetites of locals and tourists alike. When Oke goes back inside to grab a few throw blankets, one of the women leans over and says, “All I have to say is that it’s about time that there was a place like this.”
The seasonally-inspired and locally-sourced menu offers guests a wide selection of creations. While Oke insists that fish and chips are the most popular, chef Taylor adds that the southern fried turkey fillet and braised Ontario lamb are also crowd favourites.
Everything is made from scratch on site, right down to the sauce, and meat and produce don’t have to travel far from the farm to the table. Smackwater Jack’s sources fresh fish from Purdy’s Fish Market, beef from Metzger’s, pork from The Whole Pig, turkey from Hayter’s Farm and potatoes from Grand Bend Produce Co Ltd.
On tap is a wide assortment of craft, domestic and imported beers, including two varieties brewed only for Smackwater Jack’s: Smack Attack and Just Joe are custom concoctions made especially for the restaurant by the Stratford Brewing Co.
The restaurant has two bar spaces. The first is a standard indoor bar. The second is an outdoor engineering achievement, complete with enormous flat screen TV’s, mood lighting and James Bond-like secret machinery. With the flick of a switch, the bar’s roof can close down over the liquor storage area, sealing it so tightly it couldn’t be opened with a crowbar.
The clever structural designs that abound at the restaurant allude to the undercurrent of ingenuity supplied by Oke and his outside-of-the-box thinking. When Oke first laid eyes on the building, the old fish hut hadn’t been used in over a decade and had suffered through other renovation and revival attempts. While others may have shied from the challenge, Oke was inspired. “It was destiny,” he says.
Drawing on his 29 years of experience as a home designer and builder, Oke determined the best use of space and began to work. The roof was raised, floors re-poured and the space reinsulated. The result is an atmosphere that is energetic, and sophisticated but still comfortably beachside.
The remodeling was only one of the challenges. With the overwhelming influx of tourists into Grand Bend during the summer, the restaurant faces an odd logistical problem: the area is so popular, that the establishment is hard to get to. So Oke came up with a unique solution.
As you approach Smackwater Jack’s, don’t be alarmed by the ominous presence of the ambulance. Its days of medical emergencies are over. Oke purchased the decommissioned vehicle and turned it into a “patron transfer service,” now known affectionately as the Smackulance, so that guests who have traveled by foot, as well as those too tipsy to drive, may have safe transport without the hassle of worrying over their own vehicles. Guests are dropped off at their doorsteps, for free, anywhere across the Grand Bend area and up to Port Franks. “All I ask is that you don’t play doctor,” jokes Oke as he loads a laughing group into the back.
A second Smackulance will soon be put on the road, thanks to the popularity of the service. It is another testament to the business’s transformation from a humble fish hut into an anchor that holds the community together around a comfort-food laden table … with an excellent view.
Smackwater Jack’s Taphouse
71 River Road, Grand Bend
Open daily 12 noon–9 pm
Friday & Saturday until 10 pm
TANYA CHOPP is London-based marketing communications specialist and freelance writer whose work is focused on the promotion of health, wellness and support of the arts. She cooks with wine, and sometimes she even adds it to the food of a beautiful relationship.