I rarely fly, so when I do I still enjoy the little things, like reading the airline magazine. En route to Ottawa recently, I read one of the magazine features that listed some of the top restaurants in Canada, with a short review of each. I often take those kinds of reviews with a grain of salt. (Despite the bad raps, I happen to like salt and continue to keep it my arsenal of seasonings.)
As I perused the list two thoughts jumped to mind. First, this was really a list of the best restaurants in cities with major airports. So that left out a whole swath of contenders who were geographically disadvantaged. And a quick glance told me these were mainly upscale dining establishments, the kind that could afford to advertise in publications like airline magazines. So it might automatically exclude some amazing but advertising-budget-disadvantaged restaurants.
Despite my skepticism I read on, thinking it would be kind of cool to check out the best restaurants in the country in person at some point. To my pleasant surprise, I learned that three of them were located in Ottawa!
Which is how I came to dine at Union 613 at 315 Somerset Street West. A self-described ‘Brotherhood of Growers, Cookers, Eaters’, this eatery oozes Southern charm from the food to the hospitality. Long communal tables, plank floors, and a funky Southern themed décor add to the ambience.
The pièce de resistance is below street level, where a hidden speakeasy can be found tucked behind a bookcase. Although it wasn’t open for drinks that night, the staff were kind enough to take us down for a quick peek before we settled in for dinner.
And what a dinner!! The menu offers a variety of traditional Deep South dishes, from catfish and hog jowls to gumbo and grits. We ordered an eclectic variety of things that I would never make at home. In the communal theme of ‘the Union’, we opted to have our food served on a common platter.
While we were waiting for our meal we were treated to a huge bowl of boiled peanuts, which I discovered are really tasty. I happily munched on them with the sound of Burl Ives singing in my head: “Peas, peas, peas, peas, eating goober peas…” It’s quite a catchy folk song that pays tribute to the lowly boiled peanuts, which were popular rations for Confederate soldiers and sometimes the only staple that Southerners had to eat in the last few years of the American Civil War. Getting into the spirit of things, I was almost tempted to whet my whistle with whiskey or bourbon. Almost but not quite. In the end I went with a local craft beer instead, which arrived in a mason jar.
A lot of Ottawa restaurants seem to cater to the tastes and budgets of diplomats, dignitaries and tourists on a splurge. I’ve seen and dined in a few of them over the years, and it’s easy to name a few that might be in the running for a ‘best in Canada’ title. Still I can’t imagine how those reviewers could even begin to narrow the list, even taking major airports and advertising budgets into account. But after my evening at Union 613, I have to concede that sometimes you are wise to trust their recommendations. This time they definitely got it right.
Kym Wolfe is freelance writer based in London.