Saturday, January 23, 2016

Feeling hungry? Head to downtown St. Catharines!

It's been a little while since I wrote about downtown St. Catharines and the many changes that have taken place, so in light of the many infrastructure improvements to our city core, I thought a bit of a gastronomic tour of our downtown would be in order right about now.

I got to thinking about this a little while ago as I exited the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre following a Friday evening performance and marvelled at the people walking downtown in the evening, many on their way to or from an event or perhaps a late-evening snack or dinner.  After all, if we bring all these people downtown with the PAC, the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts Centre and of course, the Meridian Centre, you have to give them dining options as well, right?

I have always loved coming downtown to nosh, from the days of Diana Sweets on St. Paul Street and The Astoria on King Street to today's more contemporary dining establishments.  While some tried and true favourites remain, many others we remember fondly have passed on to become a distant memory, such as The Astoria and Diana Sweets.

Still, there are always new places to experience, catering to a wide variety of tastes and at several different price-points.  Let's look at a few of my favourite dining options at the moment, but remember, this is by no means a definitive list of everywhere you should go.  This is simply a list of some of my favourites.

You have yours, I'm sure, and I welcome your suggestions for inclusion in this space in the future.

It's been over a year now since La Scala moved from their former location on Church Street, a cozy little nook near Queen Street, to a totally renovated space at 12 Queen Street, the former location of a fabled women's wear boutique.  I've been there a couple of times since the move, and both times the dinner was inventive and very well presented.

My last visit was on my birthday last June, as we took advantage of their vegan dining options.  Now, I should point out my far better half is vegan while I am not.  However, I am open-minded enough to give almost anything a try at least once, and I have really enjoyed a number of the vegan options I have tried over the years at several establishments.

At La Scala, the menu is creative and ever changing, and in the summer you can do no better than watching the world go by while enjoying a relaxing dinner on their patio.

Just around the corner and down St. Paul Street resides probably the best burger on the planet in my estimation, at The Guilty Burger.  Owners Winston and Penny have worked hard to make this cozy space next door to one of the walkways to The Meridian Centre a go-to destination before or after almost any event downtown.  On weekends they stay open very late, so you can almost always get your fix.

The burger options here are extensive, with my favourite being the Amara burger, named after their daughter.  It is not a fancy burger, but the quality ingredients are allowed to shine through because of that.  Pair it with fresh-cut fries and your taste buds will thank you.

Incidentally, they have recently introduced two meatless burger options, a portobello burger and a black bean burger, the latter I plan to try myself some time.

The other burger haven downtown is The Works, at the corner of King and James Streets, and almost always full to capacity.  The atmosphere is especially fun here, with 70s-era music filling the air and almost too many burger combinations to contemplate.  My wife enjoys their meatless burger, while I often go for the turkey burger.  The onion rings and fries are both first-rate, too.

It is hard not to feel good once you enter The Works, and the great people who serve you deserve a tip of the hat as they work very hard to make you glad you came.

Just a little further along James Street you'll find The Fine Grind Cafe, a haven for people with laptops or just chatting with friends in a relaxed, casual atmosphere.  I've enjoyed many of the menu items over the years here, and all are well-presented and reasonably priced.  They also have one of the best chocolate shakes in the city, served in a real glass tumbler, which is nice.

Head the opposite way along James Street and you can't help but stop in at Gord's Place, home of great meal deals and lots of fun before or after games and other events downtown.  This place is even fun on a Sunday afternoon, as we discovered back in September.

The menu is extensive, with my favourites being the Gordo burger or the chicken fingers.  The cheddar & ale soup is also extraordinary, by the way.  If there is a game on somewhere, you'll see it on one of the many big-screen TVs at Gord's.

Heading along St. Paul Street towards the new PAC, lots of new restaurants have opened up to cater to the after-theatre crowd downtown as well as those working downtown during the daytime.  The first of these to open was the Carlisle Cafe directly across from the PAC.  They opened a few years ago in anticipation of what was going up across the street, and now that the PAC is open, the Carlisle stays open for pre-show dinners on weekends.

Very small and clean, the Carlisle Cafe boasts seasoned fries that are to die for, as well as several interesting brunch items on weekends worth getting up for.

In the same area is the newly opened Dani's Bistro, under new management apparently.  I have not been since they moved from further up on St. Paul Street, but it looks great and is on our list of places to visit soon.

Walk the other direction of St. Paul Street past James again and you find the new home of Bella Noella's Pizza, formerly tucked away on Summer's Lane.  They offer several interesting pizza options including several vegan choices, along with vegan cannoli made fresh on the premises.  The pizza here is exceptional and very well priced for the quality you receive.

Back on James Street you see one of the best doughnut shops around, and I am happy they chose to spell it properly, doughnuts rather than donuts.  Beechwood Doughnuts just recently celebrated their first anniversary downtown and although the lineups are not as long as they were at first, they are always busy and worth a visit.

They have a seasonally-rotating doughnut menu with some standard-bearers always there, and every one I have had is exceptional.  Vegan never tasted so good!

Speaking of great-tasting vegan, today I finally visited Rescue Dogs, a outdoor barbecue operation set up at the corner of James and St. Paul where the old Russell Hotel used to stand.  Even in the dead of winter, they brave the cold and offer up some of the tastiest meatless hot dogs I have ever had.

Asked how business is in January, I was told their traffic is what they expected in the summer months, so this summer should be gangbusters for them.  Started in the fall, this is a small operation with a big heart:  they donate a portion of every sale to animal rescue, thereby explaining the name of the business.

I had the Classic hot dog today, but will be returning to try some of the other interesting options on the menu, all 100% vegan.

If you're downtown on a Thursday or Saturday and hit the farmer's market, you can do no better than trying the jumbo Andrzejewski Perogies.  John and Sandra Anderson just celebrated the second anniversary of their little business making big perogies, both for eating right there or frozen to take home.

The line up of flavours is astounding, with new additions coming along all the time.  I am a purist, so the potato numbers are my favourite, but pulled pork, taco and many other varieties are also available.

These are the biggest perogies you'll ever find, based on a family recipe going back several generations.  So two for lunch is plenty for just $5.

There you go - plenty of dining options downtown, all within easy walking distance of each other.  These and many other fine establishments make dining downtown a pleasure and an adventure.

Bon appetit!

January 23rd, 2016.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The year gets off to a sombre start

Every December, between Christmas and New Year's we get the inevitable lists of things that happened during the previous 12 months and most often, a roll-call of well-known people who have passed away the previous year.

The list for 2016 is inordinately long already, and we are only two weeks into the new year!  Many of the celebrities and people in the news who have passed away so far this year have gotten a lot of ink or airtime already - people like David Bowie and Celine Dion's brother and husband, for example.

As tragic as these passings are, they do serve a purpose.  They remind us we are all mortal, and no matter how rich and famous we are, we are not going to live forever.  Oh, some may think so, but the sad reality is, we all have to go sometime.

Cruel as the timing might appear to be this early into 2016, the cycle of life really follows no particular calendar, so we may have a number of high-profile passings in a relatively short period of time, and then inexplicably go several months without a familiar name leaving us.

What we can take away from these passings is we have to live our lives now, not wait until we feel the time is right for whatever particular reason.  I am guilty of this as the next person, really.  I worry too much about things that in the overall scheme of things really don't matter at all.

The greatest gift we can have is the gift of good health.  With it you can do almost anything.  Without it, and you might find it difficult to see the good in life and those around you.

Still, I have met many people and I am sure you have too, who know the importance of living life in the moment because they see their own mortality for one reason or another, and don't worry about the future they have no control over.  Then there are the others who don't realize how lucky they are they have been blessed with good health.

I spent a lot of time thinking about all these things this weekend after the recent spate of celebrity passings, but also two passings in the arts world that have not gotten as much publicity as they deserve.

This past week, two high-profile actors with the Stratford Festival passed away, and I have fond memories of watching them both on stage at Stratford for many years.  Let's take a few moments and celebrate the rich lives lived by William Needles and Brian Bedford.

William Needles (or Bill to his many friends and fans) died January 12th at the age of 97.  He had been moved to a hospice in Alliston after suffering a massive heart attack in his adopted hometown of  Stratford on December 19th.

Bill was Canada's oldest working actor, having retired from the stage only ten years ago at the age of 87.  His later years saw him visit the Festival often, travelling through the halls on his scooter and sharing lunch with many of his theatre friends in the greenroom.

His last performance at the Festival was in 2006 when he portrayed Castruchio in The Duchess of Malfi.  His first was playing Norfolk in Shakespeare's Richard III under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie.

Think about that for a moment:  William Needles appeared in over 100 productions over 47 seasons at Stratford.  Amazing.

I saw Bill many times over the years but never got a chance to meet him personally.  The closest I came was about 20 years ago when I happened to be passing by the stage door of the Festival Theatre on my way out from a performance and Bill was already in his street clothes, hurrying out the door.  Most would never have guessed it was him, I suspect.  He commanded the world from the stage, yet became yet another citizen of it when he left the stage.

The other Stratford veteran we lost this week was the inimitable Brian Bedford, who passed away the day after Bill Needles died, January 13th.  Brian was 80 and had been battling cancer for some time.

Brian Bedford was one of the "big guns" at the Festival for many years, starting in his first season in 1975 when he was part of Robin Philips' inaugural Stratford season.  Brian played Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure, opposite Martha Henry's Isabella.

Brian performed in over 50 Stratford productions over 29 seasons and directed another 20.  His work away from Stratford brought him acclaim on the Broadway stage and in many films.  But his Stratford work will be what he is best remembered for, I think.

His final production at Stratford was 2013's Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, and I recall it was a masterful show.  Oddly enough, it turned out to be the final year I would be reviewing from Stratford.

Other memories include the title role in 2007's King Lear, and his memorable turn as Lady Bracknell in 2009's The Importance of Being Earnest.  It proved to be a crowd favourite that year.  I also recall many other productions he appeared in, from Moliere's Tartuffe to the stage version of Amadeus to Waiting for Godot.  There didn't seem to be anything Brian couldn't do well.

Alas, both Brian Bedford and William Needles, who did perform together quite often at Stratford over the years, are now gone.  But neither will be forgotten.

The Festival is dedicating the 2016 production of As You Like It to Mr. Needles' memory, and the 2016 production of Macbeth to Mr. Bedford's memory.  In both cases, a memorial will be held for both actors at a later date.

Yes, life can seem cruel at times when so many we admire pass away too soon or in quick succession.  But rather than lament their passing, let's celebrate their lives, and remember them fondly.

I'm sure both gentlemen would not want it any other way.

January 16th, 2016.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Celebrating history in Niagara with Sherman Zavitz and Niagara Falls Museums

I love history.

It was probably one of my favourite topics in school, and in fact in high school it was one of the courses I particularly excelled at.  Maybe it is the maxim you can't know your future without knowing your past, but I love to immerse myself in history and learn about what went before at every opportunity.

This could be the reason I many years ago became a huge fan of Sherman Zavitz, the elder statesman of Niagara history.   He is, in fact, the Official Historian of the City of Niagara Falls as well as the Niagara Parks Commission.

As far back as 1991 I was making the trek to Niagara Falls every weekend to pick up a copy of the Niagara Falls Review for no other reason than to read his weekly column on Niagara history.  Back then if I remember correctly, he alternated between a full column one week and an old postcard view next to the modern-day scene the next.

I, and so many others who followed his columns back in the day, learned so much about the rich history of the area in which we live.  It is colourful, it is at times dramatic and it is never, ever boring.  Credit the longstanding relationship of two great countries meeting at the border, certainly, but it is more than that.

What makes Niagara history so great and entertaining is the people.  Colourful characters who lived years ago and made a name for themselves in the most interesting ways.  Sure, they were recorded in Sherman's columns alongside the hard-working common folk who just made the city tick, but every one of them has had a story to tell and added to the history of the area.

A few years ago, Sherman decided to slow down the pace a little and began writing his column only twice a month, the first and third Saturdays.  So now I have to look at the calendar and decide whether it is one of those weekends or not and if I should pick up a copy of the Review.  Usually I get it right, but occasionally like last weekend, I get it wrong.  Oh well...still enjoyed the paper, though.

You can imagine my excitement about five years ago when I was invited to attend a press conference at the Niagara Parks head offices overlooking the Falls and in attendance would be Sherman Zavitz.  I had talked to him on the phone many times when I was booking interviews for the CKTB morning show, but we had never actually met before then.

It was almost as if I was meeting a rock star.  In a sense, I was, really.  To those of us who love history and especially history of Niagara, he is something of a rock star.  But he is also gracious, down to earth, great to converse with and overall, one of the best individuals you could want on your team for a Niagara history trivia night.

Needless to say, Sherman has published several books on Niagara history over the years, and I think I have all of them.

Last month he published a new book, and today I finally acquired my copy of it.  Entitled "It Seemed as if 100 Men Were Pounding My Head", the colourful title derives from adventurer Peter Nissen's depiction of what it felt like being trapped in the Niagara River rapids as the lone occupant of his wooden craft, Fool Killer at the turn of the last century.

The new book, published by Grey Borders Books, is set out in the style of an old, stained and tattered newspaper account of each story.  The print is much like a typeset you would see in the local newspaper many years ago, with an occasional black and white photograph to accompany the article.

Stories range from Superman at Niagara Falls to the myriad of people who went over the Falls in any number of contraptions to military and civic leaders to forgotten Canadian jazz legend Mynie Sutton, who passed away in 1982.  Literally there is something for everyone in this new book.

Alas, if you want your own copy of Sherman's new tome, you will have to wait.  I had to wait until more copies came in to the Niagara Falls History Museum on Lundy's Lane earlier this week in order to claim mine, and they are all spoken for again.  Same goes for the second location where the book is available, the Niagara Falls Public Library on Victoria Avenue.

Thing is, so many people have wanted to get their hands on the new book, the entire first printing is apparently now sold out in less than a month!  A second printing is on the way, I'm told, but it will be a little while before it is available for purchase.  When I hear it is available, I will let you know.

In the meantime, you could do worse to spend some quality time at the Niagara Falls History Museum and marvel at the remarkable transformation now that the expansion is completed.  The expansion a few years ago greatly enhanced the exhibit space as well as modernized the facility for the 21st century, adding a cosy little theatre along the way.

That theatre, in fact, plays host to a wonderful film series each winter on Thursday evenings, when the museum is open until 9 pm and is free to visit.  The next series of films get underway this coming Thursday evening, in fact, with a screening of Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown.  The rest of the series includes Water by Deepa Mehta on January 28th; Waterlife by Kevin McMahon on February 11th; The Water Diviner by Russell Crowe on February 25th; Water for Elephants by Francis Lawrence on March 10th and Howard Hawks' Red River on March 24th.

As you might have gathered, the theme this year is water, with each film being prefaced with some comments by noted film fan and academic Joan Nicks.  The films screen at 7 pm and are free to the public.  The other Thursdays between now and March have activities planned such as a performance by Niagara String Band on January 21st and a screening of the short film Lucky Penny on February 4th.

Bet you didn't know all this was happening right in your own backyard and it is free to attend, eh?  Now you know!  Get out there and see what your Niagara Falls History Museum has in store for you this winter, and when you can get a copy of Sherman Zavitz' new book by all means do that, too.

For more information on events at the Niagara Falls History Museum, call them at 905-358-5082 or go to

Have a great weekend!

January 9th, 2016.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Some collected thoughts to begin the year...

My apologies for not writing the last couple of weeks, but it has been a very busy time with work and the usual holiday duties to take care of, including hosting the 83rd annual Midnight Mass broadcast at the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandra in downtown St. Catharines on Christmas Eve.

That was my 26th consecutive year hosting the broadcast on CKTB Radio, my former home, and I am always amazed at the response to the broadcast afterwards.  There really are people besides myself who stay up well past midnight on Christmas Eve!

So, getting back to my reasons for not writing, I just had so much on my plate and when I was not working I was just so tired, I decided to wait until after things calm down a little before resuming my usual duties in this space.  Besides, they say a change is as good as a vacation, and since I can't afford the time for a vacation at the moment, I might as well deal with change as it happens.

To get the ball rolling for the New Year, some collected thoughts on items that have crossed my digital desk over the holidays.

First of all, I love learning new words, and in fact I subscribe to a couple of word-a-day email services that provide me with just that:  a new word every day and the history behind it.  Yesterday I learned of a word from Officer Wordnik I found particularly appropriate for this space at this time:  kakizome.

You don't know what kakizome means?  You're not alone, as I didn't before today either.  Basically the word refers to the first calligraphy written at the beginning of the year.  Kakizome is a ceremony held just after New Year's in which writing is done 'for the first time' that year.  The word derives from the Japanese 'kaku' or, to write, and 'someru', to start, thereby making it perfectly appropriate for mention in this space on the first day back at the routine this year.

The things you learn...

If you are looking for some entertainment early in this new year the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre has an innovative new music series planned starting tomorrow afternoon.  Billed as the "Hear! Here Niagara Music Series", performances take place in the Robertson Theatre at the PAC on several Sunday afternoons at 4 pm.

All the concerts feature local and/or international performers fronting the PAC house band, the Mark Lalama Trio, with the St. Catharines cityscape as the backdrop just beyond the large glass windows of the Robertson Theatre.

The inaugural concert teams up iconic singer-songwriter Marc Jordan with Niagara-on-the-Lake singer Whitney Pea tomorrow afternoon.  The monthly series continues with guitarist Kevin Briet paired up with Niagara Falls singer Beth Moore on the 14th of February; award-winning blues and gospel singer/songwriter Suzie Vinnick teams up with local musician and producer Joe Lapinski on March 13th; and on April 3rd Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Thomas joins an as-yet-to-be-named local artist.

Tickets are on sale now either individually or as a four-concert series pass at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office, by calling 905-688-0722 or 905-688-5601, ext. 3700.

Finally, I would be remiss if I were not to mention the unfortunate passing of local radio personality and valued colleague of mine for many years, Wayne MacLure.  Wayne passed away after a brief illness on Christmas Day at the Welland Hospital.  He was 81 years of age.

Wayne was the husband and best friend of Pat for 54 years, and father to three children and grandfather and great-grandfather to many more.

Wayne was a local radio legend, broadcasting for many years at my old home of CKTB as well as CJRN in Niagara Falls and CHRE-FM in St. Catharines before he retired in 1999.  I worked with Wayne from 1981 until he left CKTB in the mid-to-late 80s, at that point to try his hand at freelance voice work, which he was very good at.

Wayne had a knack for voicing a commercial right the first time more often than not, and I remember one day we were both in the production studio voicing a commercial together, and Wayne had to suffer through multiple takes while he nailed it every time and I stumbled along trying to get it right.  Practice makes perfect, of course, and many years later I would recall that painful experience when I could go into the studio and nail a commercial 'read' in one or two takes like he used to do.

His on-air persona was very professional with a sly sense of humour, always coming up with clever ways to promote his music show, which usually ran from 10 am to 2 pm on weekdays at CKTB.  I remember his theme song, in the days we used such a thing, a harpsichord piece by French-Canadian performer Andre Gagnon.  He would usher in the show with his "suitcase of sounds" or other such clever turn of phrase every day.

Wayne was also the local union president, and many months after I joined the CKTB team he took me to the old Henley Hotel on Ontario Street at the QEW for a drink and to pitch me on the union.  I remember being overwhelmed by the details, but he made it easy for me to make the right decision all those years ago.

There was Wayne the consummate broadcast professional, and there was Wayne the private family man.  I got to know the former well during my early years at the station, and only learned more of the latter in recent years when we would meet up at the quarterly CKTB alumni luncheon.  I missed the Christmas one, but the previous two I attended and caught up with Wayne on goings on at those earlier last year.

Thanks for the memories, Wayne, you will be greatly missed by many.  A class act to the very end.

There will be a Memorial Visitation at the Butler Funeral Home on Niagara Street in St. Catharines on January 13th from 10 to 10:45 am, followed by a Celebration of Wayne's life at 11 am.  Donations to the Canadian Diabetes Association would be greatly appreciated by the family.

January 2nd, 2016.