An avid Ottawa foodie, I am always on the look-out for special hidden-away establishments only locals know about. I am also a fan of “hole-in-the-wall”-type restaurants where chefs or cooks are “just in it” for the food. I am a believer that a good eatery should have substance. Flashy signage, expensive furniture, crystal stemware, floor to wall displays of vintage wines, and leather-bound menus do not always make a good restaurant in my books. I wanted to believe I found such an establishment in Chez Lucien, which is located at 137 Murray Street on the “other side” of the Dalhousie Street in the Byward Market.
You see, Dalhousie marks the demarcation along Murry between a string of high-end restaurants (Murray Street, Navarra, and the Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro), a high-end bakery (French Bakery), and the beginning of a somewhat residential area. Nestled amongst the town houses and bungalows is an unsuspecting wood-encased alcove with a small sign, quietly marking the bar and grill that is reputedly one of Ottawa’s best places to kick back with a micro-brew.
I originally found Chez Lucien while navigating the Flickr stream belonging to one of the members (handle: LexnGer) of Cheap Eats Ottawa, the organization that publishes a book, listing frugal eats in our fair city. When I saw the following burger and fries, I called up friends to meet there that night.
Pictured is the signature Chez Lucien Burger, which is topped with crisped bacon, cream cheese, and sauteed mushrooms. I was a sucker for the perfectly charred patty and pile of golden shoe string fries.
That Friday night (9:00 pm-ish), over a year ago now (April 18, 2008), an old university friend named Kris, his then girlfriend (now wife), my better half, and I arrived to find a packed and bustling 3 floor pub. Asking if we needed to be seated, a very harried male waiter pointed to the lowest level, basement floor, where several booths were located adjacent to the kitchen. Wanting a peek at the heart of the eatery, I happily descended with everyone in tow.
Twenty minutes later, we managed to convince a waitress we were a new table. Twenty minutes after that, she returned with menus and drinks. We ordered and waited another twenty minutes for our food. From entry to exit, our stay was easily an hour and a half.
Chez Lucien is a rather handsome establishment with lots of wood wall finishings, a brass detailed bar, hardwood floors, and well-worn wood stained furniture. There is even a jukebox facing the bar, filled with CD’s.
The alcove itself houses 4-6 tables and is very bright during the day, owing to its large windows. The main floor has the bar. The upper floor is a loft with rows of tables.
According to its Ottawa Xpress’s 2004 review, the kitchen serves some upper end pub food. By any other definition, this makes it a gastro-pub.
Four years later, the menu seemed identical with the restaurant still specialized in “gourmet burgers.”
My friends and I ordered burgers: 3 Chez Lucien Burgers and a “Frida and Diego.”
The Frida and Diego ($9) comes with the same patty as the Chez Lucien ($9), but it is topped with pickled jalepenos, Monterey jack, and “fried” (translated: sauteed) onions
Our burgers were served with cold and soggy shoestring fries, a fresh salad, and some bottled Caesar dressing on the side.
The Chez Lucien burgers sported patties, which were leathery white inside and charred on the outside. The Frida and Diego’s was raw in the center and leathery on the outside. It had to be sent back, but returned equally leathery throughout…All were haphazardly assembled.
To add insult to injury, our “do-it-all” waitress told us we had to share one set of condiments as they had run out of containers, and potentially condiments.
You see, in spite of its popularity, this restaurant is about as badly organized as a restaurant can be. Too few “do-it-all” waiters rush about, serving everything from drinks to food, oftentimes crashing into one another during their frequent runs to and from the kitchen. They pour drinks at the bar. They fetch what seems like a limited set of menus, moving them from table to table. They settle bills. They clear the tables they serve. They answer phones. They seat new patrons. I wasn’t even sure if the restaurant is broken up into sections for waiters to preside over.
It is no wonder people tell me going to Chez Lucien feels like being treated like mud in a Parisian restaurant. Good service there means you feel ignored.
To make matters worse, the kitchen has absolutely no idea what is going on on the floor, so, when the place is packed, they just sear up burger patty after burger patty, unsure how many they need to make. I saw one batch forgotten on the griddle and binned. I saw another stacked one atop the other next to the grill so the cooks could grab burgers for the incoming order. Unfortunately, juice was visibly squeezed out in the process.
Cost of 2 Chez Lucien Burgers then: $20.34 (after taxes, before tip). Our “do-it-all” waitress was named Michelle.
Recently (June 3, 2009), Jenn and I returned in the middle of a work week to try Chez Lucien anew. This time, we made sure we went shortly after dinner service began (6:00 pm-ish) and sat at a table beside the Juke Box on the main floor. I ordered a Frida and Diego Burger ($10, a dollar more than before). She, another Chez Lucien Burger ($10, again, a dollar more than before), minus the cheese.
Food and service at Chez Lucien in the early evening is markedly different than later on in the night. The difference is literally night and day. We only waited 5 minutes for drinks and menus. Our platters were served 15 minutes after we ordered. Best of all, the burgers weren’t being stockpiled. They were juicy, judiciously charred, and delicious, ever so slightly pink in the middle.
I added a dollop of mayonnaise to mine for added zing. The peppers and sauteed onions added bite and sweetness respectively. The bun was also grilled. It was a great burger.
Jenn was equally surprised by how much she enjoyed her burger.
The salads weres fresh. We were served our own condiments and the fries were piping hot, crispy on the outside and tender in the middle.
Cost of 2 burgers and an ice tea ($2.36) now: $25.27 (after taxes, before tip). Our “do-it-all” waiter was named Guy.
Honestly, I’m not sure at the moment what my determination should be. However, if you want a decent burger at a decent price, you’re in the Byward Market, and it’s early (6:00 pm-ish), you can do worse than one at Chez Lucien.
Update: Regarding why I mentioned the first names of the waiters who served me at Chez Lucien, when I never have before, I honestly think these good people are doing their best and are forced to be super-human during their shifts. The issues with the restaurant are those of its management. I hope these waiters proudly state on their resumes that they worked at Chez Lucien. Surviving the frenzy I witnessed for any prolonged period of time demonstrates the ability to work under severe stress.
137 Murray Street