When Ann and David Lindsay moved Ann McColl’s Kitchen Shop to Richmond and Hyman Streets, after five years on Dundas Street in 1972, it was one of just three small owner-operated specialty shops on Richmond Row. Of course, there were restaurants like the Toddle Inn, which opened as a modest establishment with a simple menu and a large, horseshoe-shaped counter in 1947. Today, The Toddle Inn remains the Row’s oldest restaurant and most enduring, nearly seventy years later.
In case you think that’s determination, the iconic CPR Hotel and Tavern, known today by its more familiar name, The Ceeps, has been operating since 1890. When Ontario went dry in 1916, the business continued by operating the rooms. In 1927, when Prohibition ended, the taps began flowing again. Today Colin Tattersall operates three distinct parts to that iconic business: The Ceeps, Barney’s and the outdoor patio on Richmond Street.
In the early days, Richmond Street was an eclectic array of Victorian architecture, ranging in style from Georgian interpretations to modifications of the Italian school. The emergence of the Richmond Row/Village into a unique area of specialty merchants, independent services and a tourist-oriented theatre district came when the Grand Theatre changed from its repertory system in 1984. By then, people were already comparing the area to Toronto’s Yorkville. Despite several large office-retail-apartment developments, Richmond Row sustained its commercial and architectural uniqueness. Diners, shoppers, theatre-goers and university students continue to enjoy strolling along the Row with its wide sidewalks, leafy trees, boutiques, shops, bars, cafés and upscale restaurants. Today there are estimated to be some 275 to 300 businesses in the Richmond Row district.
London City Council unanimously passed the boundary expansion of Downtown London, effective January 1, 2015, taking in Richmond Row and the surrounding area all the way to the north side of Oxford St. and to the Thames River. Janette MacDonald, executive director of Downtown London, said Richmond Row will keep its “fantastic brand” and retain its unique identity under the Downtown London umbrella.
Dennis Winkler, (the co-owner/general manager of Wink’s who has chaired the Richmond Row group until recently), stated “I am extremely positive about the Richmond Row Merchant Association joining with the London Downtown Business Association (LBDA). Our association had reached a point where it had grown to over 60 members and over the past 15 years has been run by volunteers. By joining the LDBA there will be enough funds generated to have their paid professional team take Richmond Row into the future. The same group of volunteers were finding it difficult to find the time to keep the marketing and event programs expanding to give the members what they deserve. Plus all the merchants in the area will contribute financially, instead of just those concerned merchants who paid their $400 per year to keep advertising the Row. The volunteers over the years have done an excellent job of promoting Richmond across the city and province but it is time to take it to the next level.”
Things keep on evolving on the Row. Restaurateur Mike Smith owns a number of restaurants in the area—The Runt Club, Fellini Koolini’s, The Toboggan Brewing Company, and the landmark Joe Kool’s. Smith recently installed a brewery in the basement of his former Jim Bob Ray’s bar and is launching a line of locally-brewed craft beer. The brew will be made and served at the Toboggan Brewing Co., the new name for the freshly renovated bar and grill that is next door to Joe Kool’s, Smith’s flagship restaurant on Richmond Row. Joe Kool’s is a must-see attraction for tourists visiting downtown London. The following section highlights some, but certainly not all, of the interesting culinary options found on Richmond Row.
Aroma Restaurant and Café
Felipe Gomes’ Aroma Restaurant and the separately situated Café combine classic Mediterranean cuisine with amenities for cooking classes, corporate team-building exercises, wine cellar dining and a private conference room. Aroma’s open courtyard dining room features a three-storey vaulted ceiling, creating a spacious yet cozy piazza evoking the vibrancy associated with al fresco dining. Attached to the restaurant is a Parisian-style café, which fronts onto 717 Richmond Street at Piccadilly Street, 519-435-0616 www.aromarestaurant.ca
Chef Scott Wesseling has a modern-day take on international classics, drawing from local and seasonal ingredients to create his innovative menu offerings. In season, a prestige spot for al fresco dining is the beautifully appointed and private Indonesian style garden. This secluded oasis, seating 60, is one of the city’s best kept secrets. 523 Richmond Street, 519-850-1500 www.blacktrumpet.ca
The Church Key Bistro-Pub
Vanessa and Pete Willis’s Church Key is a downtown gastropub with farm-to-table cuisine and an impressive selection of craft beers. Chef Michael Anglestad specializes in traditional food prepared with innovation and finesse. The salad with duck leg confit on greens, roasted mushrooms, and candied almonds is to die for. In season, there is a stunning outdoor courtyard. Stellar Sunday brunch. 476 Richmond Street, 519-936-0960 www.thechurchkey.ca
Simple, stylish and sophisticated is the best way to describe the charming Dragonfly Bistro. Donald and Nora Yuriaan have an irresistible kitchen, a moderately priced menu and welcoming service. We were enthused by the fragrant heat that bathed the Balinese-inspired Ayam Betutu (chicken breast served with a spicy red chili, tomato and spice sauce) on the current dinner menu. Other entrees at dinner include filet of salmon, beef tenderloin peppercorn steak and roasted rack of lamb. If you are planning to visit for lunch, dinner or the Indonesian set menu which is available every evening, be sure to make a reservation. 715 Richmond Street, 519-432-2191 www.dragonflybistro.ca
Fellini Koolini’s Italian Cuisini and The Runt Club
Fellini Koolini’s Italian Cuisini and its sibling restaurant, The Runt Club, operate twin patios on a charming backstreet just off Richmond Row. Fellini Koolini’s is uber-restaurateur Mike Smith’s homage to the surreal Italian director. Railings are intertwined with grape vines and the terracotta pots filled with bread sticks lend a touch of Italian kitsch. Menu favourites include a large selection of pastas, thin crust pizzas, steamed mussels, calamari and delicious steaks. 153 Albert Street, 519-642-2300 www.fellinikoolini.com
Garlic’s of London
Edo Pehilj’s Garlic’s is the prototype for the ethical modern Ontario restaurant. The cooking repertoire of chef Chad Steward is influenced by a strong commitment to supporting local and sustainable food and agriculture, and has been instrumental in helping to raise the bar for intelligent and ethical dining in London. 481 Richmond Street, 519-432-4092 www.garlicsoflondon.com
Traditional Greek cuisine with a modern flare, served in a quaint bistro atmosphere. There is seating for 34 inside and another 18 on the popular patio. Tender lamb chops, sizzling saganaki, and succulent calamari are signature dishes. The ambience of the Mythic Grill appeals to diners looking for an intimate dining experience. No reservations on weekends. 179 Albert Street, 519-433-0230 www.mythicgrill.ca
Sakata Bar and Grill
The cozy Japanese-inspired Sakata Bar and Grill has opened in the premises that Blue Ginger previously occupied on Richmond Street. Try tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen, tako yako (with chunks of octopus) and top-grade sashimi and sushi rolls. iPad menu. 644 Richmond Street, 519-601-2866
This Richmond Row mainstay is owner/chef Shawn Ham‘s take on authentic Korean, sushi and fusion-inspired Japanese favourites. Be sure to try the okonomi yaki (Japanese-style pancakes). 607 Richmond Street, 519-642-2558 www.ozenlondon.com
The Talbot St Whisky House
The Talbot St Whisky House is a brand-new 1920’s-prohibition-themed bar and restaurant. The menu is a blend of fine dining and comfort food made from scratch, fresh daily. The Whisky House showcases a large assortment of whisky and designer cocktails, as well as offering beer on tap and in bottles, and a wide variety of red and white wine. 580 Talbot Street, 519-601-2589
The Tasting Room
Lively tapas bars were the inspiration for this popular hotspot. Menus are a montage of the latest culinary trends and updated classics. Small plates are the main focus and the list is extensive. Wine tasting flights are divided into four, 2-ounce glasses of red or white. 383 Richmond Street, 519-438-6262 www.thetastingroom.ca
Ian Kennard’s Willie’s Café has been a revered lunch spot for 19 years. Chef Gail Rains is a dynamo who combines efficient professionalism with friendly repartee in the small open kitchen. Menu items include over a dozen different sandwiches and wraps, along with a variety of soups, salads and other house specialties. Everything is made in-house and from scratch. Willie’s has built a reputation as a caterer, and fresh healthy fare can be delivered to your office at an affordable price. Set price, set menu dinner the last Friday of the month and a good Saturday brunch. 731 Wellington Street, 519-433-9027 www.williescafe.on.ca
Co-owned by Dennis and Adam Winkler, Wink’s is celebrating its 9th year. Wink’s casual menu has something for everyone ranging from breakfast, to burgers and nachos, to dinner entrees like steak, baby back ribs, salmon and pastas. 551 Richmond Street, 519-936-5079 www.winkseatery.com
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.