Restaurant takeover

With more places to dine per capita than almost any other city in Canada, the bar is set high for Kingston’s independent eateries

A chef at work in the kitchen at Dianne's Fish Bar.
A chef at work in the kitchen at Dianne's Fish Bar.
Just outside Tango Nuevo on King St.
Just outside Tango Nuevo on King St.
Fresh pastries at Pan Chancho bakery.
Fresh pastries at Pan Chancho bakery.
Olivea owners, Stev George and Deanna Harrington at their Italian trattoria.
Olivea owners, Stev George and Deanna Harrington at their Italian trattoria.
Mermaids make a splash on the interior walls of Dianne's Fish Bar.
Mermaids make a splash on the interior walls of Dianne's Fish Bar.
Pan Chancho bakery sits in a refurbished limestone heritage building on Princess St.
Pan Chancho bakery sits in a refurbished limestone heritage building on Princess St.

It’s hard to ignore your cravings in downtown Kingston.

Take a walk down Princess St. and your dining options will seem endless.

According to Tourism Kingston, the Limestone City is host to more restaurants per capita than almost any other city in Canada. This is thanks to one of the fastest growing tourism markets in the country and the city’s close proximity to Prince Edward County, one of Canada’s most buzzed-about wine-growing districts.

According to Statistics Canada, the city saw an eight per cent increase in tourism demand between 2004-07, beating out Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal with this growth rate, and employment in Kingston’s food services sector grew 60 per cent between 1997 and 2007.

When it comes to dining out though, it’s not only tourists enjoying the tastes of Kingston — it’s the locals too.

In 2011, the Toronto Sun reported that Kingston is “practically recession-proof” due to employment in the penal system, the Canadian Armed Forces and at Queen’s.

Gokhan Cifci, owner and operating manager of Tango Nuevo on King St. is well aware of these facts. Shortly after moving here from Istanbul, Cifci surveyed Kingston’s restaurant market for five years as a server, and decided it was the perfect place to open his own restaurant.

While he was its general manager, Cifci purchased Tango from its previous owners in 2013. After a few months of renovations, he reopened the same location as Tango Nuevo, with a tapas menu rooted in a variety of Mediterranean cuisines.

While the old Tango served tapas on its menu, Cifci said the restaurant hadn’t asserted a specific identity.

“That’s very important in the restaurant business — your identity,” Cifci said. For Tango Nuevo, it’s tapas.

“Tapas in Spain are these very, very small delicious finger foods, but we are in North America so you cannot do that — it’s too small,” Cifci said.

Tango serves a plethora of sharing plates, equivalent to or slightly smaller than the size of an appetizer. All these plates leave no room for smartphones on the table.

“You’re tasting from the same plates,” he said. “Automatically, it’s a conversation-starter.” While he’s proud of his tapas-only menu, the food is only the beginning for Cifci.

“A restaurant is not just a place to come and eat food. A restaurant is a place that people come [to] for an experience,” he said.

Cifci noted the challenge this presents to restaurateurs. “Kingston is not an easy market. In the last three years, I can count six or seven restaurants or pubs in the downtown that failed and shut down,” he said.

According to Cifci, there are four ingredients for running a successful restaurant: prime location, great food, attentive service and inviting ambiance. If one of these ingredients is absent, the recipe won’t measure up.

Spill some cold weather in and it’s much less likely diners will dig in.

According to Tim Pater, owner of Brock St.’s Le Chien Noir Bistro and Atomica Pizza and Wine Bar, the winter season is never a restaurant owner’s favourite time of year.

“Since we opened Chien Noir in 2000, there’s probably an additional 2,000 dining seats downtown,” Pater said, referring to Kingston’s downtown core. “In the wintertime, there’s not enough people to fill those seats.”

Despite efforts to remain competitive, many local, fresh ingredients are simply unavailable during the winter, according to Pater, who also owns Harper’s Burger Bar on Princess St. and Ontario St.’s Dianne’s Fish Bar.

Come summer, it’s a different story.

“We know all the farmers by name,” Pater said. “Some of them grow specific crops for our menus, so the chefs will get together in the early spring and talk about what they’re planning for that year.”

A Kingston native, Pater has worked in restaurants in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

“For a mid-sized Canadian city, I think what differentiates Kingston is the vibrancy of its downtown,” Pater said. “It’s rare that in a city this size, you see this active a downtown. Usually it’s what they calls a ‘donut-city’ where the downtown is desolate and it’s boxed in, surrounded by stores.”

Pater said he knew he wanted to return to Kingston, and following his passion meant opening his first restaurant, Chien Noir.

“I got bitten by the food bug when I was 18. I was lucky enough to do my last year of high school in France,” Pater said. “I lived with a French family and that really got me into the whole thing. I was able to open Chien Noir, mind you on a real shoestring, but we got it open and the rest is history.”

For Pater, one restaurant was only the beginning.

In 2003, right next to Chien, Pater opened Atomica, a traditional Italian restaurant that he said had trouble taking off at first.

“The issue there was we opened with a really, really authentic Italian menu,” Pater said. “It was just too out there for Kingston, so we refigured it and made it have more of a mass-appeal.”

Seven years after the birth of Atomica, Pater introduced Harper’s Burger Bar to Princess St. and, last summer, the fourth addition to Pater’s restaurants arrived on Ontario St., Dianne’s Fish Bar, serving a hybrid menu of East Coast seafood and Mexican cuisine.

Pater’s not the only Kingston restaurant owner inspired by his travels.

Stev George, head chef and owner of Olivea, at the corner of King and Brock Streets serves what he calls “rustic Italian cuisine”.

In 2008, George and his wife, Deanna Harrington, opened Olivea, a traditional Italian trattoria, opposite Market Square. Opening in this prime location at the height of summer tourist season didn’t come without its challenges, however.

“We didn’t even advertise our opening. We just unlocked the door and people started coming in,” George said. “Everything didn’t always go smoothly but it was a lot of fun.”

George said his and Harrington’s initial goal was a casual but quality restaurant.

“Everything’s made here — it’s true to [what] I think the Italian food values [are]: buy the best-possible food ingredients and then do as little to them as possible before you serve them. Keep the integrity of the food.”

It’s a passion for what he does as a chef and entrepreneur that keeps George enthralled with his work.

“I don’t like to call it work,” he said. “It’s not work; it’s my life. It’s what I love to do.”

After learning the tricks of the trade at Stratford Chefs School in Stratford, Ontario, George furthered his culinary education where Kingston’s restaurant romance began: Chez Piggy.

“It was a huge inspiration for me,” George said.

Zoe Yanovsky, current owner of both Chez Piggy and Pan Chancho Bakery said she remembers how curious Kingston was when her parents opened Chez Piggy in 1979.

“People didn’t dine in the way that Chez Piggy offered, in those days,” she said. “My parents were avid foodies, they were avid travellers, and they wanted a place in Kingston that they would like to hang out at and eat at.”

Yanovksy’s father, Canadian rock musician, Zal Yanovsky, opened the restaurant with his wife Rose Richardson, intent on delivering ethnically diverse entrees made from local ingredients.

In 1994, Zal and Rose opened a small bakery to bring fresh bread to the tables of Chez Piggy. Originally located in a coach house at King and Johnston Streets, it’s now a 10,000 square foot landmark on lower Princess St. — Pan Chancho.

Thirty-five years later, Chez Piggy remains a destination for diners and tourists alike, according to Yanovsky, who is celebrating Pan Chancho’s 20th anniversary this year.

“We have grown and thrived and survived solely on word of mouth. I certainly don’t take any of our reputation and the years that we’ve had as a cornerstone in Kingston, for granted,” she said. “You have to work at it every single day.”

After the sudden loss of her father in 2002, Yanovsky took over as operating owner of both Chez Piggy and Pan Chancho. Since then, she’s seen Kingston’s downtown restaurant industry change considerably, welcoming both more independent restaurants and chain franchises.

While staying true to her parents’ passion for quality food, Yanovsky said it’s important to respond to consumer demands.

“Celiac [disease] is very real and Wheat Belly is a massive trend,” she said. “I don’t like all of it because our heart and soul is in bread.” Nevertheless, Pan Chancho has recently developed a completely gluten-free bread line.

“You have to change a little bit and stick to your guns,” Yanovsky said.

These efforts are rewarded, she said, when she hears glowing reviews from customers.

Nick Waterfield has been Chez Piggy’s general manager for over 30 years, and has been part of the restaurant since its inception, also managing the evolution of Pan Chancho.

“Thirty-five years ago, there was no tourist business here,” he said. “We used to count tourists in the tens of thousands … now it’s in the millions. There’s a huge interest in eating in this town; a huge appreciation for food — for good food.”

Waterfield mentioned just how strong an appreciation for good food can be.

“We had a phone call last night at 5:30,” he said. “A gentleman was in Toronto, delayed, couldn’t get to Kingston until 8:30 and all he could think about having for dinner was the Pan Chancho roast beef sandwich.”

Waterfield added that neither establishment would exist today without its patrons.

“I think that we’re a talking point,” he said. Waterfield noted, however, that he’s aware that reputations can come and go like the wind.

“You’re only as good as your last meal.”

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