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For Ottawa chef and restaurateur Justin Champagne-Lagarde, 2022 could scarcely have ended better.
In early November, his tiny upscale restaurant Perch landed in fourth place on enRoute magazine’s annual list of Canada’s 10 best new restaurants. An avalanche of bookings ensued.
Practically overnight, his wee, narrow dining room on Preston Street was filled for the rest of the year.
“We got a lot of guests that hadn’t heard of us prior to the list,” said Champagne-Lagarde. “And a lot of guests that were maybe a little hesitant to do a tasting menu ended up deciding to try it.”
If only things were as unabashedly rosy for the entirety of Ottawa’s restaurant scene in 2022.
When the year began, a pandemic lockdown was in force, banning indoor dining. While those restrictions began to lift in late January, the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa then blockaded restaurants in the downtown “red zone,” which were unable to welcome guests in their dining rooms.
Even after the last truck pulled out, the restaurant industry was buffeted for the rest of the year with waves of COVID-19, ongoing staffing shortages, skyrocketing food costs and inflation. And the pandemic-related government subsidies that previously mitigated the woes of restaurants had wound down in the fall of 2021.
Though restaurants did not shut down in droves across the city, there were multiple notable and dispiriting closures in 2022. They joined the nearly 5,000 Canadian restaurants lost, according to Restaurants Canada, to post-pandemic debt and inflationary pressures.
Ferdi Ozkul, the chef-owner Zizi’s Kitchen, shut his Barrhaven restaurant in August, choosing to retire at 67 after running seven restaurants in Ottawa since the mid-1980s.
“I think 2023 is going to be a very tough year, again, especially for non-owner-run restaurants,” said Ozkul, adding that as already tiny profit margins shrink, restaurants will be forced to increase their prices in order to survive.
“The product and the service really have to be top-notch,” he said. “[Some] places will survive, if not excel. But it’s going to be really hard for the others, especially downtown ones.”
Meanwhile, two of the Ottawa area’s most prominent female chef-restaurateurs wound down their businesses in 2022.
Marysol Foucault, owner of the acclaimed brunch spot Edgar in Gatineau’s Hull sector, shut her 12-year-old eatery in mid-August, putting her business and its building up for sale to spend more time with family. “I still love food,” she said this summer. “I just need a break. It will be a welcome break.”
Then there’s Dominique Dufour, chef and co-owner of Gray Jay Hospitality, which champions Canadian ingredients and sustainable kitchen practices. Earlier this year, this newspaper raved about Gray Jay’s new Old Ottawa East location, exclaiming if Dufour doesn’t get some love on Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list in 2023, it will be a sad omission. Now, she won’t get the chance to make that list, as Dufour was to close her establishment after serving New Year’s Eve revellers Saturday night.
“We are so very sad to be turning the page on this very exciting adventure,” Dufour and her business and life partner Devon Bionda wrote in a message to this newspaper. “Our closure is due to a perfect storm of circumstances.”
The couple said last winter’s Omicron-related closure depleted their savings. More recently, silent partners in the restaurant had to cash out their assets. Finally, customer access to Gray Jay will be severely hindered for a prolonged time when construction of a nearby access bridge to the Queensway begins, they wrote.
“It just felt like we couldn’t fight it anymore and we had to close this chapter,” the couple wrote of their four-year-old restaurant.
Champagne-Lagarde was sad to see the two restaurants go. “But at the same time, I’m really excited to see what comes from them. Dominique and Marysol are two of the best chefs in the city,” he said. “You can’t keep people with that kind of talent quiet for long. They’re too creative and hungry.”
Other veteran restaurants that closed in 2022 include Das Lokal in Lowertown, which shut days before Christmas after 10 years of serving modern Eastern European-inspired dishes. Long-time Hintonburg favourites the Table and the Foolish Chicken both closed in the spring.
“We didn’t have the staff and we kind of burned ourselves out,” Rick Boland, co-owner of the Foolish Chicken, said of his 15-year-old restaurant.
Simon Saab, owner of the Table, said had it not been for COVID-19, he might have kept his 22-year-old vegetarian eatery open for another 15 years. But the pandemic basically deprived the Table of 60 per cent of its customer base — Tunney’s Pasture workers who went for lunch and Great Canadian Theatre Company patrons who went for an early dinner.
Saab said he asked himself if we wanted to spend another year to five years building the business back to what it was, or are there other things to do? His answer: “I really had no desire left to continue.”
As difficult as things were in 2022, restaurant watchers worry that the first few months of 2023 will be even more challenging.
“With inflation driving the costs of doing business up, being able to run a profitable food service establishment has gone from tough to nearly impossible,” said Tianna Goguen, public relations manager for Restaurants Canada, which represents the country’s food service industry. She pointed to a six-per-cent rise in utility costs, increases of up to 13 per cent for various meats, plus a 40-per-cent hike in the cost of cooking oil.
Candace Sutcliffe, co-owner of the restaurant supply store Chef’s Paradise, predicts a rough winter since this holiday season’s boom for restaurants, which can usually help provide a buffer for lean months ahead, was smaller than recent years. “We’re seeing fewer large parties,” she said. “People are still cautious of gathering in large groups.”
But as some establishments closed, new operators took over vacated restaurants. The Emperor Shawarma moved into the Table’s old digs. A second location of Punjab Canteen took over the space that was Zizi’s Kitchen. Bibi’s, a Middle Eastern eatery in New Edinburgh, opened a second location in Hintonburg after Chop Shop closed in mid-2022 after a year and a half in business.
In past years, restaurant watchers usually knew by December about intriguing restaurants planning to open the following year. But now, there are barely any blips on the radar, except for Alora, which is to open in early 2023 at 34 Clarence Street.
Co-owner Arash Zadeh said Alora will be a supper club with many shareable dishes, a big-city vibe and live music. He added its chef will be Adam Deline.
Perhaps the brightest spot for Ottawa’s restaurant scene in early 2023 will be the staging of the Canadian Culinary Championship in February at Algonquin College and the Shaw Centre. Nine chefs from across Canada will compete, including Briana Kim, chef-owner of Alice, the cutting-edge vegetable-focused restaurant on Adeline Street in Little Italy.
Kim earned her spot at the national competition by winning the Ottawa qualifier in September, where she fed judges and almost 170 attendees a radically creative dish of onion tuile, smoked potatoes, rhubarb jerky, maitake mushrooms, pickled onion, dill sour cream, lacto-fermented green tomato and koji broth. The judges unanimously ranked Kim’s dish as the best of the pack, and it also won the evening’s people’s choice award.
The Canadian Culinary Championship previously took place in Ottawa in early 2020. Then it went on a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. Next February’s event could scarcely come at a more opportune time for an industry in desperate need of better days ahead.
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