The Surprisingly Cool City Hiding in the Middle of Canadian Wine Country
As industrial St. Catharines is rejuvenated with a modern edge, you’ve got another reason to visit this part of Ontario.
Condé Nast Traveller –January 24, 2020
The signs of life show early Saturday morning on an icy St. Catharines Street, in Ontario’s Niagara region. A couple of college students from nearby Brock University, still in sweats, are snapping selfies in front of the plain white sign of Beechwood Donuts—a reliable indication of its cachet. Further down the sidewalk, another: a line nearly 20 deep that has accumulated before the doors have even been unlocked. When they do, the mass dutifully shuffles in out of the cold to claim their birthday cake and maple-dipped donuts.
The Instagrammable bakery, sold out by lunchtime, is a fixture of neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Echo Park in Los Angeles. But it’s also a fixture in downtown St. Catharines, where Beechwood (a vegan bakery, by the way) is but one visible piece of a burgeoning downtown scene packed tightly into less than 10 blocks. With every turn of your head it seems like there’s something happening: the 1970s police station–turned–tech accelerator; the oddity of several bike shops all within a quarter mile from one another; the Craft Market, which looks like your favorite Etsy shops come to life (and makes a hell of a flat white). If you can list the hallmarks of a city on the rise in 2020, it’s here somewhere.
St. Catharines, the largest city in the Niagara region of Ontario, though only the 16th largest city in the province, occupies an unusual space—literally, its geography is a bit odd. It cleaves the wine country of the Niagara Peninsula in two, separating the lake region of the east with the steeper slopes of the bench region of the west. It’s a longtime industrial city, home to a General Motors propulsion plant, that’s been plopped down in the middle of thousands of bucolic acres of grapevines and century-old farmhouses that have been refurbished into tasting rooms.
For travelers, those wineries and tasting rooms have long been the big draw to the area, bringing in millions of visitors every year. But rarely is an area like this a monolith. Despite being founded in 1845, St. Catharines feels like a gritty upstart and counterpoint to the many charming small towns in the area, like Niagara-on-the-Lake and Jordan. On the main drag of St. Paul Street there are some empty storefronts, pawnshops and payday loaners, vape stores and an old shoe repair shop. But there is also an energy bubbling to the surface in a place that seems to be in the middle of jolting into a renaissance, the kind that has already come to other industrial cities like Pittsburgh or Detroit.
Take the old Lincoln Theater. The Deco theater house opened on St. Paul Street in 1939, showing movies and eventually live shows. But in 1987 it closed up shop, sitting vacant for years. If you open up a Google Street View map, you can still see an outdated image of the empty theater next to Wally Wemnant’s Carpet Market (also shuttered).
But in the spring of 2019 a new Lincoln opened up, one that kept its old shell, though that’s about all that remains. Now it sports a dark, almost brooding cladding, and a complete transformation inside into a mixed-use space that’s filling with an eclectic set: money managers, drone photographers, an immigration lawyer and, most notably, Dispatch, the first permanent restaurant by Australian-born Adam Hynam-Smith. Though barely a year old, it was chosen by Air Canada as one of the country’s ten best new restaurants—a notable achievement since the list, for almost two decades, has been dominated by openings in provincial capitals, major cities, and tourist hot spots.
As the Lincoln was getting rejuvenated, Hynam-Smith and his wife and co-owner Tamara Jensen were approached with an opportunity to become the anchor tenant at the redeveloped space, and after years looking for the right place to put their first restaurant they realized this was it, embracing what even they would cop to as the “wrong” end of the street at the time they opened. “We wanted to help be part of the push for the other end of St. Paul,” Hynam-Smith says. “Like any city rebuilding it takes time, but it also takes people—people to take a risk and lead by example.” Diners frequently comment to the staff that they are genuinely surprised by the change in the city and feel like they’re in a newly hip part of Toronto, which is part of the goal. Hynam-Smith and Jensen say they want to see St. Catharines become a destination for people looking for food, art, and culture.
Dispatch’s food offers a sunny warmth, whether it’s 17 or 70 degrees outside, and brings in flavors that take a broad sweep of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, from Spain to Syria and every country in between. Sitting at the four-seat chef’s counter in the back, Hynam-Smith himself will be happy to take you through the finer points of zhoug (a spicy cilantro dip from Yemen) or manti (turkish dumplings), and anything else that comes out of his kitchen. His food is atypical for this part of the world, but even if you aren’t familiar with the flavors, he has a way of nudging you until you are.
Walk down the alley that runs alongside Dispatch and you’ll hit the Warehouse, which opened in 2017. The tiny concert venue doesn’t look like much from the outside—the boxy gray exterior could be a lamp store or unisex salon. But inside, the hall, which holds less than 200 people standing shoulder to shoulder, gives devotees of indie rockers like Juno Award winners (Canada’s national music awards) Said the Whale and The Sadies, as well local acts still on the cusp of breaking through, a chance to see an intimate performance. Walk the other direction for 90 seconds and you’re at the First Ontario Performing Arts Center,, which happens to be on the other end of the music and culture spectrum. Here, the modern concert hall, rimmed in blond wood, can pack in almost 800 for orchestral performances, chamber music, jazz, and modern dance almost every night of the week.
For a slightly quieter though no less moving experience, the reinvigorated Niagara Artist Center is right in the middle of all this. It has added studio and gallery space for more than a dozen local artists where you can see and buy their work, joined forces with the First Ontario Center to program a film series, and brought in exhibitions from all over the country, including from artists featured at Canada’s National Gallery.
Then there’s the rest of the food scene. Dispatch is not the first transformative restaurant to spring up in downtown St. Catharines. That distinction could belong to OddBird, which opened its doors in 2017. In a single sitting you can devour seared foie gras or roasted bone marrow, a build-your-own Philly cheesesteak, or hot chicken that would raise even a Nashvillian’s eyebrows. It’s a freewheeling, casual space where the menu fills a wall-sized chalkboard, and if you focus your eyes just right you can see what’s been erased—what you unfortunately missed the night before. Mismatched wood is hammered into the other walls, the music is loud, the kitchen is open. There’s a feeling of improvisation to it all that restaurants can’t always sustain, but this one has locked in.
A block over is the OddBird team’s new venture, OddBar, which strips the dining experience down to its most important basics: good pizza and good beer. Right next door to that you’ll find Pharmacii, a barely lit Korean snack bar open late, where octopus and potato chips are an unlikely but excellent pair.
There’s a move to increase train service from Toronto (a 90-minute ride), making it an easy day trip from the capital. The wine route road itself now runs straight through downtown, and Brock University will host the Canada Games in 2021. Wine country in Niagara is lovely—it’s peaceful, and an easy afternoon. St. Catharines isn’t exactly that; it’s got a modern edge to it. And if you’re up here to do a tasting, you’ll want to clear some time to swing through and see what’s next, because the transformation isn’t slowing down.