I live in the Wellington Village. Characteristic of my neighborhood is a stretch of Wellington Street that has a higher density of restaurants, specialty food shops, coffee shops, and bakeries than arguably any other street in the National Capital Region. Elgin Street comes a close second. However, unlike Elgin, there are no large chain restaurants on this end of Wellington Street.
Any foodie in Ottawa will know the names: Saslove’s Meat Shop, Parma Ravioli, the Ottawa Bagel Shop, Il Negozio Nicastro, and the Herb and Spice Shop. All are within steps of each other on Wellington Street West. Need I even mention the Caffé Mio, Siam Bistro, Bella’s Bistro, The Roses Café, or the Wellington Gastro-pub? I thought not!
There are even more eateries if you travel further westwards where Wellington becomes Richmond Road. Juniper immediately comest to mind. As a matter of fact, this lovely restaurant is a Wellington expatriate that recently took over a portion of the Subaru dealership on Richmond Road. However, this entry is going to concentrate on a new restaurant that joins the Wellington Street epicurean row, “The Diner.”
According to the Xpress, a local newspaper, The Diner hails from the same owner who runs the Elgin Street Diner. It is located two doors east of the Island Park intersection, 1 Richmond Road, where the Amber Gardens Restaurant once stood. This happens to be the first address where Wellington Street becomes Richmond Road.
When I visited the Diner, it was still an item of curiosity. Much of the Wellington Village residents were talking about the new and rather posh-looking restaurant that calls itself a diner. Some even ventured through its doors to try some of its fares. Today, there are two reviews for it in OttawaFoodies.com. The Ottawa Magazine published an article praising the Diner’s milkshakes. The place seems popular with the after-work crowd during weekdays and it is often crowded on Friday and Saturday evenings.
However, my better half and I were warned of a disastrous lunch a colleague of hers had when he visited the establishment with his mother. The experience was so off-putting that he vowed never to return. Accordingly, the food was cold, the prices were high and the service was poor.
With a buzz in the air and despite one bad review, I persuaded Jenn to give it a go on a Wednesday evening.
The Diner seems indeed to be a juxtaposition of food and its typical environment. The menu reads like a “diner” menu. There are desserts in the front case beside the till. The very name of the restaurant has the word “diner” in it. However, the seating, the furniture, the place settings, and the decor say something else. The owners decidedly made the place warm. There is no checkered parquet floor. The tables are not rimmed with metal. There is no soda bar. Instead, patrons are bathed in warm light that bounces off dark mahogany accents and rich crimson colors. All furniture is wood and so is the floor. There is even a second dining room on the second floor that opens in mid-air to the first. This second dining room has tables setup against a elegant glass half wall that looks out on the first dining room.
Unfortunately, the Diner is also physically restrictive. Behind the front window of the restaurant are 3 rows of tables alone; 9 tables in total. The furthest row, away from the window, has booth seats that butt up against the front counter and case. If you eat on the first floor, be prepared to be jostled by arriving patrons or those who need to goto the washroom. There is barely enough room for the waiters themselves to move around.
Speaking of waiters, they are plentiful, attentive, and friendly. Service was fast. Condiments were delivered quickly. Questions were knowledgeably answered and food came and dishes went with pleasant demeanor. The waiters seemed to float effortlessly between tables, carrying larger burdens of dishes.
Though, someone, either the restaurant manager or owner, seemed to usurp the flow of the service delivery every now and then. He would visit tables and grab plates that waiters were on their way to fetch. He would also direct the waiters despite the fact that they seemed to have everything well in hand.
The waiters did not seem to mind. One was even eating in the first floor dining room on his day off. He was accompanied by a female companion and spoke highly of the establishment.
The food was disappointing and pricey.
Jenn and I purchased the following two platters. I had the latter. She, the former.
My cheese burger was dreadful. The patty was cold, dry, crumbly, and flavorless. Good burger flavor typically comes from searing a nice ground chuck patty on a well seasoned flat griddle or grill. What results is a nice crust that adds texture as well. And, no, the crust does NOT seal in juices. Using the right cut of meat and not pressing down on a burger as it cooks makes a burger juicy. My burger did not seem to have any juices at all. Fortunately, its lettuce, onion, and tomato were fresh. Then again, if you read The End of Food: How the Food Industry is Destroying our Food Supply by Thomas Pawlick, colour and crispness are not really indicative of freshness anymore, only careful breeding.
Our fries were another story. They were far from fresh. They were cold, limp, and starchy. Whatever happened to these poor fries after they came out of the fryer? Obviously, they were not made to order. Fries are a staple for a diner. They should not be lifeless. Some diners even cut their own fries. One of the reviewers on OttawaFoodies.com feels that The Diner’s fries are purchased par-cooked and frozen. This may explain the extra starch that gave a dry mouth feel.
Regarding dry food, I noticed that my fellow patrons were unusually thirsty. Several tables ordered two or three rounds of drinks after their meals were served. In my case, the tall iced tea I ordered was very thirst quenching and did not taste powdery. It served me well.
Finally, to my genuine dismay, I saw my better half expending great effort on her platter. The bacon looked indestructible and every mouthful seemed to include an entire rasher. In the end, the ample portions had her pack almost a third of her meal to go.
The entire meal cost $31 CAD with a 15% tip. Charging approximately $15 for a burger, fries, and a drink at any traditional diner is unorthodox. It is unreasonable, given the quality of the food.
Logic would dictate that a successful restaurant in the Wellington Village needs to ascribe to the tastes and palates of its residents. At the very least, it must meet the fairly high level of culinary excellence set by the purveyors around it. For instance, the neighboring Wellington Gastropub has at its helm Chris Deraiche, an alumnus of Ei8teen. It features an unfixed menu of inexpensive dishes, that changes daily. And, it tops the list of “restaurants to watch”, according to the November 2006 issue of the Ottawa Magazine.
The Diner doesn’t belong. Eating at the Diner was a mixed experience. The physical restaurant itself was unexpected. Its food was poor. Its service was phenomenal. Normally, if a restaurant only gets the service and atmosphere right, it just misses the mark because patrons do not only go to eat. In the Wellington Village, this is sacrilege. With the sheer variety of eateries, we can eat well and relatively inexpensively. I only hope that the people I see crowding the Diner are not Wellington West natives. Otherwise, the gastronomic oasis I live in is doomed.
1 Richmond Road