DARTMOUTH, N.S. — It's 3:30 on a Friday afternoon after a busy lunch rush that filled a 60-seat restaurant in downtown Dartmouth.
Standing behind The Canteen's bar, chef and co-owner Renee Lavallee fills her glass with something from a local selection of craft beer and cider on tap.
"There were a few sleepless nights after we decided to open a restaurant here," says Canteen co-owner Doug Townsend, Lavallee's husband, as he sidles up to the bar.
"The reality is this block of Portland Street for years was sort of a no-go zone at certain times of day for the average person."
Not anymore. The Canteen is among an explosion of retail and restaurant start-ups that have transformed downtown Dartmouth into something akin to Halifax's Brooklyn: some of the hottest eateries, trendiest shops and coolest hipster hangouts emerge on the gritty streets across the harbour from downtown Halifax.
Dartmouth has become a food lovers', craft-beer-drinking paradise, with the Portland Street Creperie, Yeah Yeahs Pizza, and Battery Park Beer Bar & Eatery.
Local rock star Joel Plaskett opened the New Scotland Yard Emporium two years ago, a barbershop, record shop and cafe attached to his recording studio.
And King's Wharf, a large retail and residential development at the former Dartmouth marine slips, is home to Il Trullo Ristorante and a new cocktail and wine bar The Watch that Ends the Night and an influx of residents in search of upscale condos overlooking the harbour.
Now, passengers on cruise ships docked in Halifax dole out $2.50 to take the pleasant, 12-minute ferry ride to Dartmouth.
"You can use the big G-word. It's gentrifying," says Arthur Gaudreau, who writes about the city's retail and restaurant scene. "In the last few years, one of the things I've really noticed is a lot of young families are moving to downtown Dartmouth."
For years, Dartmouth stood in the shadows of Nova Scotia's capital, its nickname the darkside, its reputation affectionately summed up as a little "rough around the edges" by locals.
"We still have a little bit of that 'Oh don't go down that dark alley' atmosphere but now we also have good food and new restaurants and shops," says Katy Jean, a local resident and poet who writes whimsical haiku about Dartmouth.
"About a decade ago, taking a bus down Portland Street to catch the ferry to Halifax was a ghost town. I can't recall anything other than tattoo and pizza shops," she says. "Now you can get anything from cordon bleu fine dining to gourmet coffee."
Local councillor Sam Austin calls it a resurgence.
"In the past, people came to downtown Dartmouth to shop," he says. "This is where your local hardware store and your department store was. This is where you would go to buy stuff."
But the once bustling main streets were hallowed out by post-war suburbanization, the automobile and a bridge to Halifax. Malls and industrial parks thrived as local shops shuttered, with a small smattering of pawn shops, tattoo parlours and bars surviving.
The renaissance was kick-started eight years ago with the opening of Two If By Sea, a fiercely proud Dartmouth cafe on Ochterloney Street that serves locally roasted coffee and croissants big enough to sink a small ship.
"TIBS was a catalyst," says Gaudreau, a self-proclaimed "Dartmouth boy," referring to the cafe by its acronym. "Then a few years ago, there was a quick little bang of awesomeness."
A number of independently owned businesses cropped up in the downtown area, including Bodega Boutique, Kept gift shop, the Dart Gallery, Picnic, Room 152 Clothing Boutique, The Bike Pedaler, KoKo Mod Floral Design, and Hazelnut & Rose Nursing and Maternity Boutique.
For those in search of an authentic flavour, the mainstays of Portland Street remain, such as Whiskey's Lounge, Revana Pizza, Staggers Pub and Grub and Best Kept Secret Bar and Entertainment.
"When I was a teenager, Portland Street was known for strip clubs and bars," says Neil Cook, owner of the Portland Street Creperie. "There is still a little bit of an edge but it's a good thing."