LONDON, ONT. - I’m having lunch at the hip Root Cellar in the trendy Old East Village Area of London. I’m munching on a tasty water buffalo burger provided by Amish farmers in southwest Ontario.
Across the street is a shop selling tea and Japanese crepes. Next to that is the Mystic Bookshop, and two doors down from there is the London Skateboard Co-operative. This isn’t the staid, southern Ontario city you might think you know. Instead, you’ll find a growing number of independent, fresh-thinking entrepreneurs who are giving a wide strip of town the sort of gussied-up treatment visitors have seen in areas like Leslieville in Toronto or Commercial Drive in Vancouver. One of the best places to see the changes first-hand is The London Food Incubator on Dundas Street; a former industrial/commercial building (they used to make O-Pee-Chee hockey cards here) fashioned of creamy yellow brick. There’s a local Fire Roasted Coffee shop and a grocery store in front and space in back that small businesses rent out at low prices to keep help keep costs down in a neighbourhood that has a fair share of low-income earners.
Among those working at the incubator on the morning I visit is David Glen, owner of Glen Farms. He makes old-style marmalades as well as jams, jellies, maple barbecue sauce and other treats.
“The incubator’s a wonderful place,“ he tells me as he stirs a pot of vegetable antipasto. “This place gives us the space and the traffic we need. And this whole strip on Dundas is really turning into something special.” Across the aisle is Urban Oven, where Kim Banman sells gluten-free dough that folks take home and bake themselves. It’s a business she began after finding out both her son and husband were gluten intolerant. “A lot of what I made at first were basically bricks,” she said with a laugh. Ultimately she mixed and matched various types of flour and came up with a winning formula.
“London folks can be a conservative bunch but I think we’re seeing a strong movement and a real awareness about using local, organic products.”
That’s definitely the case at The Root Cellar, an organic restaurant across the street that features a map showing diners where the food comes from. One of the wait staff, Mariam Waliji, says customers with a little extra cash in their jeans are encouraged to put money in a community jar. “If someone comes in and they want a coffee or a salad or something we can get the money from the jar and pay for it that way,” she explains. The restaurant features everything from the aforementioned water buffalo burger to organic salads and poutine. They also have an event space upstairs that’s used for special dinners where local farmers are invited to talk about their food, as well as for flower-arranging workshops or other events. “Part of our mandate is sustainability and buying local,” says Root Cellar co-owner Ellie Cook. “In season, 80% of our food comes from within a 45-minute radius of the restaurant.” The same “buy local” treatment goes for London Brewing Co., which used to operate in the back of The Root Cellar but recently opened a new facility in an industrial area a little east of the restaurant. They make a variety of malt-forward, organic beers, including one called Local 117; so named because all the ingredients come from within 117 km. They use local hops, as well as barley that comes from an organic farm in New Hamburg, just west of Kitchener.
“We get a real mix,” says Jeff Pastorius of London Brewing. “People come in in a Mercedes or riding their bikes. It’s a real mix of folks you don’t often see together in this city.”
Part of the brewery building is given over to On The Move Organics, which delivers local, organic food in the area. They even built a giant bike out of old pieces of metal and use it for an eco-friendly delivery vehicle that holds more than a dozen baskets of food.
A few blocks away is Illbury + Goose, a super-cool spot that feels like a miniature Hudson’s Bay shop curated by a millennial who’s perfected the pour-over coffee. You’ll find sleek cotton t-shirts, handmade bracelets, lumberjack shirts, toques carrying the name of London neighbourhoods and other fun merchandise.
“I grew up near here and it was kind of the wrong side of the tracks,” said Illbury + Goose co-owner Dan Phillips. “But now I walk to work every day. People have a real sense of pride around here.”
It’s also a growing area, with new condos sprouting up and lots of new businesses up and down Dundas, including a new distillery that's on the way.
Ben Hoover just recently moved into London from nearby Lucan, Ontario and opened Room Service Vintage across the street from The Root Cellar, with everything from a massive sign from a former motel on the New Jersey shore to stunning metallic bowls from Australia. He lives in an apartment above the store, marking the first time he’s lived in the city since 1985.
“I love it here. It’s eclectic and it’s lots of fun.”
JUST THE FACTS
SLEEPING The Idlewyld Inn and Spa is a lovingly restored 1878 building with 21 suites, an on-site spa and a fine dining restaurant.
EATING The Hungary Butcher on Dundas St. makes dozens of varieties of sausages. They also sell organic eggs and smoked bacon. Next door is All ‘Bout Cheese, where you can everything from mango and ginger stilton to locally produced Gunn’s Hill cheese. Dundas St. has a huge variety of restaurants, everything from Ethiopian to Thai. True Taco serves up a great mix of Mexican and Salvadorean food at very reasonable prices.
DOING Aeolian Hall has some of the best acoustics in Canada. When I was there I saw a great show from a duo called the Mayhemingways, along with Joel Plaskett and his father Bill.