UrbSanity: Food for thought

Originally published in the Centretown Buzz
by Jeff Salmon
July 19, 2013

It is no secret that architecture has a special relationship with food, so I think it is worth highlighting a few “foodie” gems located in Centretown whose atmosphere distinguishes them from other restaurants.

Pressed. Photo: Kathryn Hunt

People, space, and food come together to create the atmosphere of a restaurant. Although food is likely the most important in determining the success of a restaurant—we all know of places where the service and/or space is lacking but we continue to go there because the food is great—when all three come together in a cohesive or complimentary way to create an atmosphere, you are usually in for a special experience. This is what I believe Union Local 613, The Whalesbone Oyster House, and Pressed offer to their patrons.

Union Local 613 (315 Somerset Street West)
The restaurant is a self-proclaimed Canadian take on southern hospitality, and as such you will feel welcome as soon as you enter. The predominantly communal seating can result in unexpected interactions while the buzz of conversations really gives life to the intimate space. One can easily get lost exploring the details of the interior, from the large mural by Five Cents to the beer tap handle made from old knives and a rolling pin. The communal theme seems to continue as your food is served on small aluminium cookie sheets that reminded me of vintage cafeteria trays. The food itself is anything but yesterday’s caf food with a variety of delicious offers that may have you considering licking the tray.

The Whalesbone Oyster House (430 Bank Street)
The unassuming wood entrance door and roll-up glass garage door that front onto Bank Street have a sense of honesty—this is not a restaurant that is trying to be something that it is not. For those just walking by, this may appear to be a hole in the wall; however, this is one of Ottawa’s finest seafood eateries. Whalesbone’s authenticity is derived from a commitment to sustainable seafood practices and a willingness to let the quality of their dishes speak for themselves. My visits to Whalesbone remind me of an Italian expression that translates to “at the dinner table you never age” because in the presence of good company and incredible food the conversation takes care of itself.

Pressed (750 Gladstone Avenue)
This gourmet sandwich bar could easily become your home away from home. During the day, you will find an eclectic mix of people who have settled into the reclaimed church pews or couches and are working away or catching up over a coffee, giving the feeling of a public living room. In the evenings, Pressed hosts a steady stream of events ranging from poetry readings to concerts and miscellaneous fundraisers. Yet they all feel like they are taking place at a friend’s house. The relaxed “at home” atmosphere conceals a quiet rigour in the kitchen where quality ingredients meet culinary passion. The result is likely the difference between your living room and Pressed’s—simple yet gourmet sandwiches.

This all-so-important atmosphere is something that is hard to describe because it relies on an individual’s perception, and as such is subjective. Yet I think Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s suggestion that it is akin to a gut feeling or first impression is apt. When we enter a space for the first time we unconsciously judge it, whether it is a restaurant or a friend’s house, but there are layers to an atmosphere and each must work together. As noted earlier, the quality of a space is only one aspect of the atmosphere of a restaurant; so, although the way a space “feels” is largely responsible for that first impression, it must also compliment the food and people, and vice versa.

Thus, I think that atmosphere is something that is born from an idea that has been applied holistically, giving it a presence. The atmosphere really becomes a measure of the quality and execution of an idea. So, whether we are designing a restaurant or a civic space, the question we have to ask of our ideas is, Can this resonate with someone, and how?



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