Flourishing Ottawa Restaurant Strip An Alternative To The Downtown Dine

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OTTAWA - On the first day that the word went out on Twitter that the new TacoLot food stand was slinging its wares, the place ran out of product somewhere around 1pm.

At SuzyQ doughnuts next door — with homemade, melt-in-your-mouth confections including a real bacon and maple syrup doughnut — you have to visit strategically to ensure you snag your favourites.

And trying to find a seat at Tennessy Willems, the wood-fired pizza joint across the street, takes some serious pre-planning.

Hintonburg, a rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood just minutes west of Ottawa's downtown, is home to a flourishing strip of corner restaurants, cult take-out joints and hipster hangouts.

The new foodie haven has a certain DIY quality. The TacoLot and SuzyQ's are both housed in simple shacks, with little fussy adornment. People sit on picnic tables or on stools and get sticky fingers.

"This neighbourhood is awesome ... I live here now again," said TacoLot manager Sam Bissessar, who was raised in neighbouring Mechanicsville — formerly one of Ottawa's poorest areas.

"When I grew up there was nothing, no stores, it was a bad neighbourhood. Here now there's a mix of everyone, so I really like that — I always say variety is the spice of life."

Inside Suzy's, the floors are on a tilt. Doughnuts are made by hand in the hot back kitchen, and dropped into an enormous vat of oil. The day's flavours are written on a chalkboard wall — caramel de sel, lemon raspberry, toasted coconut.

Sue Hamer began making homemade doughnuts while working at Canada Post. She got so many orders from work, and later at a local farmer's market, that she decided to make it a full-time gig.

"It's just turning out to be a really hip part of town, and I think people like that it's a little edgy still, but there's a lot of fresh, young entrepreneurs like myself who are taking a chance and trying new ideas and it's been received really well," said Hamer.

This stretch of Wellington Street is eclectic. Looming above the newer establishments is the enormous Saint-Francois d'Assise francophone church, built in 1890. Two of the area's anchors are the Elmdale House, a true tavern dating back to the '30s that hosts live bands, and the Giant Tiger, part of regional chain of discount stores.

Neighbourhood favourite Hintonburger was set up inside a defunct KFC outlet. The big bucket on the pole outside is still there, but now families cram in front of the takeout window inside to get fresh-cut fries and homemade burgers.

The Hintonburg Public House, a buzzing pub with fancier food than most beer joints, features a long wooden bar and mismatched tables and chairs. A kids menu includes house-breaded cod and fries, and sides of broccoli or creamed cabbage.

The Public House and nearby Back Lane Cafe, have both managed to achieve what has largely eluded Ottawa eateries over the years — that neighbourhood-haunt vibe that doesn't come with laminated plastic menus.

Restauranteur George Monsour, owner of the Back Lane, used to run the upscale Ritz chain of restaurants around Ottawa. After a number of years living in Paris, he returned to look for just the right pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood to start up his new venture.

The spot was a bakery nearly 100 years ago, but over time devolved into a drug house next to a sketchy alley. Monsour and the property owners transformed the alley into a patio and the restaurant into a homey niche he calls a cross between a Paris apartment and a farmhouse. He installed two wood-fired ovens in the kitchen with materials from France.

"Rustic chic is where we ended up going. It works. It feels like you're not in downtown Ottawa and it's sort of an escape from main street, which fits the back lane concept," said Monsour.

"The neighbourhood is sort of virtual at this point because people come from all over and feel like it's their place."

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If you go:

Back Lane Cafe:1087 Wellington St. W.

Hintonburger: 1096 Wellington St. W.

Hintonburg Public House: 1020 Wellington St. W.

SuzyQ Doughnuts: 991 Wellington St. W.

TacoLot: 995 Wellington St. W.

Tennessy Willems: 1082 Wellington St. W.