Worry about the future of the ByWard Market is behind one of the most welcome additions to Major’s Hill Park in a long time: André Schad’s hot-dog bistro, a month old and growing fast.
Tavern on the Hill has about 25 workers now and is growing about as quickly as Schad and his wife and partner Chantal Biro-Schad can hire. He figures they’ll need 10 more people to cover opening hours that span 12 hours or more a day, seven days a week.
“It’s been crazy. Crazy busy,” Schad says.
The anchor building at the north end of the park, called Header House, was once a workshop for National Capital Commission gardeners, part of a long-ago greenhouse complex. For about 10 years it was Blink Gallery, a tiny art venue that closed last fall.
The Schads have been clothiers in and around the Market for years, particularly at their eponymous Schad Boutique. They opened the Moscow Tea Room on Sussex Drive a few years ago, trying to diversify, and Tavern on the Hill comes from the same impulse.
“I’m a tenant of the NCC there. The Market’s been in decline and with Lansdowne fast approaching — I sit on the board of the BIA and I see what’s been happening,” he says.
Schad says he’d pitched the NCC on some ideas years before that went nowhere, but that history meant that when the commission was looking for a new tenant for Header House, it came to him. At first, he contemplated a fuller year-round restaurant but the logistics were too daunting. Then he worked on burgers, but they need complex preparation and fitting the heritage building with ventilation and fire-suppression equipment for the cooking would be tricky.
So with time running out, it was on to a concept borrowed from Bubbledogs, a resto in London that does hot dogs, sides and sparkling wine. Simple to prepare, just funky enough. Bubbledogs is an indoor restaurant and the Tavern on the Hill isn’t that, so the Schads stripped the menu down to just the dogs and drinks — plus an ice-cream counter.
“That’s how the concept was born,” Schad says.
Young workers hustle around in the tiny kitchen inside Header House. You get your hot dogs at the counter, beer or wine or something at one of the bars, help yourself to some water, grab a seat. Somebody will bus your table when your glass or your paper hot-dog tray is empty. No reservations taken. Alcohol stays on the patio but you can take hot dogs to go, even just to a nearby tree.
A basic dog is $2.50, a fancy-topped one is up to $7.99, and you can get a veggie dog or a gluten-free bun for $1 extra. Slightly pricy, considering you’re not getting any fries or salad or anything, but they’re good, and the beer and wine are pretty competitive. More importantly, the views are unique: The Supreme Court on its promontory off to the west, Parliament rising over the Ottawa River and the locks nearby, the Alexandra Bridge and Nepean Point to the north.
“When the worst part of your view is the National Gallery in your backyard, that’s pretty good,” Schad says.
The deal with the NCC is for five years. Schad won’t disclose the rent he’s paying but he says the amount is “very fair” for the location.
Major’s Hill Park used to be a major venue for things like Tulip Festival concerts, he says, but it’s faded a bit. Tavern on the Hill is a summer operation for now but Schad’s hopeful the park will become more of a destination in winter, too, maybe with lit trees and even a skating track.
Once he was travelling in the former East Germany, Schad says, and checked out an old castle. On one of the upper floors, you could get a bratwurst and a beer. The Europeans get that being able to buy a meal and relax in a historic place can enhance it, rather than detracting from it. Now the National Capital Commission does, too.
“You think about the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal — we have all this waterfront and it’s so great but you can’t get a coffee or a bottle of water or something to eat on it,” he says. “It’s great that we have all these bike paths — I’m a biker and I love it — but there’s just nothing to do.”
I think of Square St-Louis just off St-Denis Street in Montreal, one of the finest little urban oases in North America, all shade trees, benches and a big fountain — and a crèmerie, too.
Success isn’t assured. Consider what’s happened at 8 Locks’ Flat, the summer bistro that opened by the Rideau Canal near the Corktown footbridge five years ago. It seemed to do well at first but didn’t last. Now it’s reopened as Terrace on the Canal, a bar that’s supplemented sometimes by food trucks. It’s also a nice spot but unlike Tavern on the Hill it’s not smack in the middle of tourist Ottawa. If the weather’s bad, business is, too. Still, at least it’s an attempt.
Schad glows in the memory of a night when a “business group” from Toronto ate and drank at one table, some local hipsters shared prosecco at the next and beyond them a couple of Spanish tourists relaxed on a couch with their child curled up asleep.
Schad praises the NCC for its newfound enthusiasm for breathing life into the capital’s shorelines. “We have this amazing asset and it’s all about activating it,” he says.