By Dave Didylowski
I showed up early to speak with the owner, but that’s not the point. The fact is I had a fine cheeseburger (with mandatory sautéed onions) and a cold quart of beer as I killed time in my favorite tavern. Damn, I missed this place.
Fifteen years ago, while employed at the Tunney’s Pasture complex on the edge of Ottawa’s Hintonburg-Mechanicsville area, I would go for walks through the working-class neighbourhood and down the then gritty Wellington Street West. Other days I would have lunch with my co-workers at the Carleton Tavern (the CT) on Armstrong and Parkdale. It was then that I met the Saikley brothers: Simon, Sam and Billy.
The building dates back to 1935 and was then known as the Carleton Hotel. Beginning in 1962, their father owned the restaurant next door and supplied food to the “hotel.” The family of eight worked at the restaurant and lived upstairs in a small apartment. In 1989, the owners decided to sell and the Saikley family was given the first chance to take ownership. The family asked Simon if he wanted to manage the new establishment and, although hesitant at first, he accepted. After nearly a quarter century, he is still running the place.
The tavern remains one of the few touchstones to the old neighbourhood. It’s not a restaurant or a bar, although they serve food and drink. It is a tavern, and embodies everything that term conjures up.
The interior of the white, pre-World War II building is covered in wood panelling and decorated with swag from breweries, big-screen televisions and pictures of Carleton-sponsored sports team from years ago. There is also a pool table and a jukebox for your amusement. The beer is cold and served in quart bottles, which only adds to the tavern atmosphere. At small wooden tables, older men discuss sports and politics as they drink. Even when I was younger, I loved places like the Carleton and would gravitate towards them.
The polite term for what the Carleton has is “personality.” Like with people, its character can be judged as good or bad, but not indifferent. The heart of the tavern’s personality lies with the brothers. Sam and Billy take care of the kitchen, while Simon handles the day-to-day business of the tavern.
The most visible and vocal of the three is Billy. He is usually running food from the kitchen and empty plates from tables. In between his duties, Billy can be found talking trash about the Montreal Canadiens and defending his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Dishing out good-natured insults with the frequency of chicken wings is his way of thanking you for your patronage and telling you that you belong at the CT. It feels good to be appreciated by the establishment you help support.
Over the past decade, the Hintonburg area has changed. Re-development throughout Ottawa has meant that working-class neighbourhoods have become increasingly upscale. Simon recalls the neighbourhood was “a blue-collar area surrounded by factories” but that is the past. The area is now known as Wellington Street West and advertised as a “Creative and Eclectic Urban Shopping District.”
The instigating factor for this change is the replacing of houses and small buildings with luxury condominiums. This is especially evident on Holland and Parkdale Avenues and Wellington Street West. Simon agrees and believes that the area has “gone away from being blue collar.” Considering his long history with the neighbourhood, he would know as well as anyone.
The owners of these condo units are generally well-off and have a lifestyle that reflects their wealth. Businesses that suit these tastes have become commonplace. This is exemplified by a number of art galleries, fitness studios and eclectic restaurants that have popped up over the last few years. On a positive note, I see this as a reminder of the bustling hub that this area once was.
Some restaurants have at least attempted to preserve the personality of the old neighbourhood. Earlier this year, the Elmdale Tavern was purchased by the owners of the Whalesbone Oyster House on Bank Street. By keeping the interior similar to the way it was and bringing in sustainable seafood, they have tried to reach the middleground of being an “upscale tavern.” Reviews have been mostly favourable, but people expect more affordable fare in a tavern setting.
I wondered how a place like the Carleton has managed to survive during thesetrying times.
Not only has there been a change in the clientele in the area, but also increased competition in attracting those customers. Coupled with these concerns over changes in the urban landscape, people talked a few years ago about the effect of federal government job cuts on businesses near government offices. Simon sees the effects as give and take. Lunches are slower, evening crowds are larger and they are still in business.
After some pondering, and another quart, I concluded that The Carleton is what it has always been, a place for people to gather, drink, eat and have some fun. It’s nothing fancy and you might be overcome by the feeling that you are in someone’s rec room. It was retro before retro was cool. It doesn’t pretend to be something that it isn’t. It’s a dive bar and that isn’t a bad thing. Love it or leave it.
The Carleton is a fixture in this changing neighbourhood. It reminds me of the way Simon says it used to be, the neighbourhood as one big family. The Carleton’s annual Christmas dinner for the less fortunate conveys this feeling well. For the last 10 years, in conjunction with the local community association, the Carleton has provided Christmas Day meals for those who are “homeless, home alone or people who need to be with somebody on Christmas Day,” says Simon.
A sure sign of the times is the Carleton’s presence on social media. Their Facebook page has 587 Likes and reports 2270 people having been there. They are also featured favourably on the food and drink sites Yelp and Foursquare. This is the Carleton’s way of growing with the changing times and getting their name out there. As Simon says, “advertising isn’t in a phone book or a newspaper anymore.”
In terms of the future, Simon has no plans of retiring any time soon but concedes that he isn’t the only deciding voice in the tavern. They have been approached by developers, but are too busy making a living to consider that option. “Who knows what will happen as time goes on,” says Simon wistfully. With a laugh, he concludes “it’s better not to know.”
At the end of our conversation, Simon mentioned that he had passed me on the street a few times towards the end of my stint at Statistics Canada and that I didn’t seem to be my normal self. He was so right: I was miserable at my job. We agreed that my old self was back and he was happy to see that. Much like the Carleton, I’m the same as I ever was. It’s amazing how simple words can make a person feel good—and I always feel good when I’m at the Carleton.