After a long budget day in March, 2013, Jim Flaherty was drinking at the bar, surrounded by journalists, when he spoke his mind without an ounce of hesitation: He’d had enough of the “boys in short pants” in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The words carried significance coming from the then-finance minister, at a time when Stephen Harper’s PMO was tightening its grip on the federal cabinet.
The late Mr. Flaherty was confident his comments were safe within the walls of Hy’s Steakhouse and Cocktail Bar, a popular watering hole for politicians, staffers, lobbyists and journalists steps from Parliament Hill.
After three decades serving the political elite, the restaurant shuts down Saturday. In the end, it was not politics that brought down Hy’s, but a disagreement on lease-renewal terms.
However, former CBC journalist Don Newman said the tightening of expenses with the passing of Mr. Harper’s Federal Accountability Act in 2006 probably didn’t help Hy’s cause.
“Quite a few restaurants closed and it’s mainly because the Accountability Act and everybody having to report [their expenses],” Mr. Newman said.
Mr. Flaherty was a regular at the Ottawa institution right up until his unexpected death in 2014. Many Hy’s memories centred around his appearances on budget night, as he mingled with media and Hill colleagues from both sides of the aisle.
“Flaherty was a professional Irishman,” said CTV political commentator Craig Oliver. “My best memories are him singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling and the whole place would just join in.”
Budget night – one of the busiest of the year for Hy’s – also saw its share of confrontation. After the March, 2012, federal budget, CTV’s Power Play host Don Martin and Dimitri Soudas, former executive director of the Conservative Party and then-director of communications at the Canadian Olympic Committee, reportedly got into a heated verbal altercation. While the details of what were actually said are foggy, Mr. Martin was absent from his show the next day.
“In the bar, there’s always confrontations,” Conservative strategist and Summa Strategies vice-chairman Tim Powers said. “Even though it was Hy’s, it wasn’t immune from people pounding on their chests and waving their fists or pointing their fingers from time to time.”
Other memories were made outside of budget night, too.
Mr. Newman remembers having dinner with former prime minister Paul Martin, a Liberal MP at the time, when he got a call from someone he didn’t want Mr. Martin to know he was speaking to: then-prime minister Brian Mulroney. Seeing then-Prince Edward Island premier Joe Ghiz out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Newman suggested he and Mr. Martin go talk to Mr. Ghiz. He left the politicians alone for a few minutes, and escaped to take the phone call.
It wasn’t unusual to see cabinet ministers and prime ministers at Hy’s. Some headed for the lounge, while others, such as former prime minister Jean Chrétien, always asked for the same booth in the dining room. For Mr. Newman, the restaurant played an important role, not only for Parliament Hill, but democracy as a whole.
“There was a kind of intermingling, which I think greases the wheels of democracy,” Mr. Newman said. “I think it’s important for people to get to know each other and know the measure of people, and not just see them as opponents. Maybe even find they actually like them.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s first exposure to Hy’s coincided with her introduction to Parliament Hill. Ms. Rempel was an Alberta businesswoman in March of 2011, making her first run at political office when she visited Ottawa to get “pumped up” for a coming by-election in her Calgary riding. As it happened, she picked a historic few days to visit: The opposition parties declared the governing Conservatives were in contempt of Parliament and the minority government fell.
Parliament buzzed with excitement, and Ms. Rempel was swept up in the wave of politicians, staffers, lobbyists and journalists headed for drinks at Hy’s that night.
“It was the gathering place, the watering hole, where everyone went of all political stripes and ties,” Ms. Rempel said.
Despite its reputation among the political class, Hy’s attracted patrons of all backgrounds.
Sipping on a generous glass of red wine in the Hy’s lounge last week, Unifor national president Jerry Dias said the closing of Hy’s will leave a hole in downtown Ottawa.
“Hy’s closing is a loss in the entire community,” the union boss said. “As you walk through the door, you’re going to see people that you’ve been arguing with, you philosophically disagree, but you’re having a glass of wine and you’re talking. Everything is checked at the door.”
Mr. Dias’s relationship with Hy’s goes beyond that of a customer and restaurant; Unifor also represents the staff. When the restaurant owners said employees would get only minimum employment standards for severance, Mr. Dias spoke out and backed the bartenders, waiters, cooks and managers who served him for so many years. After the union and employer failed to reach a deal, Mr. Dias called the owner to advise him of the union’s plans.
“We had planned to demonstrate here in front of the Ottawa facilities but we were also going to expand that to the other Hy’s facilities across the country,” Mr. Dias said.
The owner came around and asked for a modified position. A deal, which included a lump-sum payment for years of service, was sealed the next morning, Mr. Dias told The Globe and Mail. The union never held any demonstrations.
General manager Mercedes Gordon has worked at the location for the past 13 years and says the closing is “bittersweet.” She’s grateful for the opportunity to have worked at one of Ottawa’s finest restaurants, where she has served every living prime minister, except for Mr. Harper, and even some out-of-town celebrities.
“One of my favourites was Michael Keaton. He was filming a movie in Ottawa,” Ms. Gordon said. “We tucked him in a corner and I’m like, ‘There’s Batman. I’m serving Batman!’”
The restaurant has also hosted Paul Anka, Jerry Seinfeld and Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein.
Given the clientele, Hy’s was naturally an Ottawa gossip hub. There was even a Heard @ Hy’s blog, run by founder Pierre Bourque for the past decade. He collected “tips and sightings” through e-mail.
“People with the best info are closest to the action,” Mr. Bourque said, adding that he never revealed his sources. “I think deals got cut here.”
Outsiders may never know the details of the deal made, backs stabbed and secrets shared at the dimly-lit bar, in the velvet-lined booths or behind the doors of the elaborate private dining room at Hy’s. The staff have always kept those details secret and vow to take them to the grave.Report Typo/Error