If you’re skeptical that “building back better” is more than just a slogan, the delicious daiquiris served at Ulises Sanchez’s Relic Lobby Bar are palpable evidence it is possible.
There have always been plenty of daiquiris of the frozen variety to be found around the cultural destination of Stratford, but these classic ones (fine rum and fresh lime juice) served in delicate little coupes are a sign of a local cocktail culture that’s coming back stronger rather than weaker in the pandemic.
Sanchez, a familiar face from bars and restaurants in the region, was originally from Havana. He moved to Stratford after marrying a Canadian from the area and opened this drinking establishment, inspired by his Cuban background, on June 11; it’s a long-held dream come true at a time that’s mostly been reported as a nightmare for his sector. “I was missing for a long time that kind of connection with my culture here,” he says.
The Relic Lobby bar is one of at least 25 businesses related to tourism that have opened in Stratford during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to industry organization Destination Stratford; only 10 businesses in that sector closed during the pandemic.
It was certainly surprising to this critic to return to the home of the Stratford Festival after a 2020 season, in which the theatres were completely shuttered, to find not just favourite pre- and post-theatre haunts still up and running, but a new crop of businesses adding a greater diversity of tastes and flavours to the downtown.
Next to Relic, for instance, is El Cactus. Owner Alondra Galvez, originally from northeastern Mexico, has been offering up a mix of authentic and modern tacos as well as snacks like her Tia Mary’s famous (in her family) jalapeño dip for the last couple of months.
There definitely seems to have been pent-up demand for a top-notch pork carnitas taco in Stratford, which is, after all, home of the Ontario Pork Congress. Indeed, Galvez quickly had to change her hours of operation to allow for more prep time, as before summertime she would regularly run out of food.
Both these new establishments sit in the same beautiful heritage building right at the curve in Ontario Street that takes you over the Avon River. It is owned by Bruce Whitaker, a local entrepreneur who opened up the new Perth County Inn, a five-room boutique hotel, there this spring.
Whitaker believes that the demand for the commercial spaces in the building, which he bought and renovated as a pandemic project, is due to an optimism that Stratford is bouncing back even as the local theatres are still at least nine months away from returning to full-capacity performances.
He says he had 20 different people want to take over one space at the back of his inn, which will soon be occupied by Japanese quick-serve run by a local originally from Tokyo. (Seven of those he rejected are opening up businesses elsewhere.)
Whitaker, a Stratford booster who moved from Toronto 12 years ago and also owns Edison’s Inn up the street, says increasing diversity in business ownership in Stratford is important to him personally as a white gay man who has two adopted mixed-race children with his partner – but also from a business point of view. The city has a labour shortage and he’d like to it be more attractive to immigrants.
“We want Stratford to be a safe, comfortable, inclusive place for everyone to come to,” Whitaker says, noting as other signs of further movement in that direction the imminent openings of a halal restaurant and Indian supermarket in town.
Boutique hotels, cocktail bars and tacos are also part of another shift in Stratford – one towards hospitality businesses that appeal to younger generations of visitors and locals alike.
This predates the pandemic but has seemingly sped up due to it, with the addition of, for example, a new beer garden, food trucks and an incredible pizza joint called Pretty Good Pizza, Not Bad Wine run by one of the city’s top chefs. (Jamie Crosby, formerly of The Prune and, before that, part of the opening team at Toronto it-spot Grey Gardens.)
Stratford’s original culinary reputation dates to the 1970s – when the Festival started selling half a million tickets a year. In that decade, a few world-class fine-linen high-end dining spots set up shop to capitalize on that critical mass of visitors (and also established a culinary school to keep chefs busy in the off-season).
But, in more recent years, foodies have been drawn to more relaxed, relatively affordable, cooler spots like The Red Rabbit, an owner-run restaurant in Stratford, that was one of the leaders in “hipster” dining here when it opened 2015.
The Rabbit now is at the centre of a mini-empire that includes a bar called Bunny, a brunch spot called Old Man and Sons and a chicken-sandwich place called Pollo Morta, that opened right before the pandemic and easily pivoted to takeout. (It also includes a temporary “ghost kitchen” called Burger Queen.)
Jessie Votary, the straight-talking “fearless leader” of the Rabbit and umbrella organization Ramshackle Industries who is originally from the area, says the reason the new wave of restaurants have survived here is due to local support, plus pretty good rents and not bad property prices absent from larger cities.
But she also cautions not to underestimate the difficulties her sector has been through. The Rabbit usually pulled in $1-million in sales in a year – but, last year, that was down to $300,000.
The eatery’s year-round operations have historically been subsidized by the Stratford Festival season boom – and with the theatre company only open at a fraction of its normal size this summer, the trickle-down effect is just a trickle. Votary is planning to close for the winter for the first time. “It’s not sustainable long term, you know, if the theatre doesn’t come back,” she says.
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