Saturday, September 26, 2015

Four down in the Niagara Restaurant business

I don't often write about dining out and restaurants in this space, which I probably should since my wife and I have frequented more than a few over the years.  So this weekend, as the Niagara Wine Festival reaches its climax and everyone is out and about and enjoying themselves, I'll bring the mood down a bit with news of the passing of four local eateries of note.

Let me state first of all it is well known running a restaurant in this day and age is not easy.  Many of our favourites are owned by large corporate entities and the individual, locally-owned success story sometimes appears harder to come by.  When locals discover a locally-owned establishment they tend to want to keep it to themselves and not let the secret out.

One local restaurant that has experienced tremendous success over the years at several ever-larger locations is Cafe Amore, now on Martindale at Erion.  Previous locations were closer to the heart of the city and possessed a more urban, almost bohemian feel to them.  Owners Al and Nadia Sawatsky have been good friends of ours for years and they continually reinvent themselves in order to make their restaurant an absolute must-try on a regular basis.

In my bachelor days I tended to frequent Cafe Amore almost weekly as well as a couple of other so-called "family" restaurants in Niagara I was fond of, usually trying to keep my dinner tab down to $15 or so each time.  Yes I know, the last of the big spenders...

My wife, however, comes from a family deeply entrenched in the restaurant trade and she herself served for many years in what she refers to as "fine dining" establishments throughout the Niagara area.  So it came as no surprise when we started dating, some of my restaurant choices needed serious upgrading.  They did, and I will be the first to admit I have experienced so much more since we met than before, and my palette has grown as a result.

Be that as it may, I still enjoy what I call "slumming" on occasion if I happen to be out on my own and in need of some familiar fare from some trusted restauranteurs in the Region.  They say you can't go home again, but they never said anything about not going back to your favourite hangouts on occasion.  Besides, I have forged tremendous relationships with the owners of some of my favourite hangouts, and that means a lot to me even to this day.

Now, the four restaurants I wanted to touch on in this space all had their specific clientele, and all but one of them included me as a regular customer.  The one that didn't was Nini Panini on St. Paul Street, next to one of my wife's favourite hangouts, the Carlisle Cafe.  Not knocking Nini Panini; I just never got the chance to stop in while they were open.

But passing by this week while walking downtown, I noticed the windows papered over and thought that must be rather recent.  The next time I walked by later in the week, I noticed a sign in the window indicating it will reopen shortly as a new pizza destination.  No idea when, though.

Nini Panini, Carlisle Cafe and the newly-relocated Dani's Bistro all share space in that block overshadowed by the venerable Leonard Hotel, right across the street from the soon-to-be-open FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.  Savvy restauranteurs know location is everything, and getting in on the ground floor of the old Leonard Hotel right across the street from where lots of people will be attending concerts and things on a regular basis seemed like a good idea.

It still does.  Sadly, though, Nini Panini didn't make it to the arts ball.  Just why it closed I can only guess, but at least it will reopen under a new name shortly, so the space will not be empty.

About a month ago the owners of Frado's Dining Lounge on Queenston Street at the Homer Bridge also closed for good, having been open at the busy location since the 60s.  Business was still good and the view of the Welland Canal is still amazing, but the owners were tired and ready to pack it in, so a sale to new owners was arranged and a new eating establishment will presumably open in the old Frado's location in the future.

I only made it to Frado's once, but it was certainly enjoyable.  If I remember correctly I ordered a sampler plate of their most popular pasta dishes, and the food was exceptional.  They were not cheap, but the quality was very good and I loved sitting there watching the occasional traffic on the Welland Canal.

Next on the list is the venerable Dom's Resto-Bar and Grill on Academy at King, right beside the bus terminal.  Dom's had been a mainstay of downtown St. Catharines for about eight years now, after moving from a previous location on Schmon Parkway.

The building where Dom's was located, of course, is the old Yorkshire House location, much in need of repair before owner Heather Fasulo took over years ago and made a going concern.  Heather worked tirelessly seven days a week, as many in the restaurant trade often do, to make a go of it in the historic downtown location, but the end has come.

I ran in to Heather a couple of weekends ago and asked about the For Sale/Lease sign on the building, asking if she was indeed still open for business.  No came the answer, with Heather explaining she ultimately couldn't make a go of it.  So Dom's served their last pasta dish about midway through the summer.

I loved Dom's both for the food and the atmosphere, both of which were in abundance when Heather ran the place.  There is no more warm-hearted, good-natured individual in the business than Heather, and her presence in the downtown core will be sorely missed.

Of course, margins are thin in the food business and everyone wants a deal, but Dom's just seemed to rise above the rest with their quality and service for so many years, it's hard to imagine not going there in the future.

I hope Heather finds a new gig somewhere.  She knows the business inside out and always had a large and loyal following at Dom's.

The final restaurant to close recently was the venerable Regal Diner on Main Street in Niagara Falls.  A local institution since about the 40s, Angela Peebles and husband Simon purchased the restaurant a few years ago after driving to Ontario from B.C. with their own food truck.  Settling down in a bricks-and-mortar location made sense to the couple, and picking up the Regal Diner just seemed to be the right move at the right time.

I got to know Ang through social media when I was in the radio business years ago, and when I finally visited the restaurant after several months of conversing on Twitter and Facebook, Ang immediately knew who I was.  I was more than a little taken aback by this.

But I soon realized what others in the busy Main & Ferry business district knew:  the Regal Diner was your go-to place for breakfast or lunch of exceptional quality.  The menu was not large, but filled with great items with a healthy helping of attitude.

The location is small - well, tiny, really - and can not seat really all that many at one time compared to more familiar breakfast and lunch establishments.  But the diner developed a loyal following over the years, both for the food and Ang's politically-skewed social media posts.  She was nothing if not interesting!

Over the years we learned about her garden woes, the so-called "diner orphans" and long-suffering Simon toiling away in the cramped kitchen quarters at the diner.  We also learned about another problem when you own a local restaurant:  people who pretend to be a customer, requesting a menu and then excusing themselves to use the washroom, mysteriously disappearing out the door without ordering.  Yes, people actually do this sort of thing.

If I am in need of a washroom while out and about, I usually find a Tim Hortons and make sure I give them some business before leaving.  Not doing so is an abuse of the privilege in my view.   But I digress...

Last month, Ang posted they have had enough of the long days and constant work and are preparing to return to B.C.  The restaurant would close September 24th, with what she called a "Grand Closing Party" during the annual Niagara Night of Art.  The Regal Diner had always been an integral part of the Night of Art in the past, so Ang figured why not go out on a high note and throw a party to celebrate all they have achieved in Niagara Falls with the restaurant and as citizens.

People who know Angela Peebles will not be the least bit surprised by this fact.  Go big or go home seems to be their motto, and Ang and Simon plan to do both.

I stopped by for lunch one last time on Wednesday afternoon, prior to an appointment I had in Niagara Falls, and enjoyed my time at the old hangout.  The food as always was excellent and eminently affordable.

I'll miss the old place, not that I got there all that often, really, but it always seemed to be your go-to place if you wanted exceptional quality on a budget and/or you were short on time.

Today they held a garage sale at the restaurant to sell off the tools of their trade, and then they are off to B.C. and to new adventures.  Lots of people including myself will miss them and their dedication to the community.

Safe trip home, Ang and Simon, and thanks for the memories.  Oh and the amazing burgers, too.

Enjoy your weekend!

September 26th, 2015.

1 comment:

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