Café. Bistro. Pizza Place. Wine Bar. Bakery.
Whatever you call it, Hintonburg’s Back Lane Café is here. I stopped by during their soft-opening week and peered through the tinted glass. Mysteriously, there’s no sign, just the day’s menu taped to the window. I stepped inside near the end of the lunch service, not sure what to expect.
While studying the menu — an eclectic Mediterranean-ish mix of items with an emphasis on creative wood fired pizzas — I struggled to make sense of the pretty decor. Instead of the sleek modern glass-and-leather ambiance that has become de rigueur (I call it “Homesense chic”), here it’s something quite unexpected: an upscale vintage country feel that conjures up images of a grandma’s farmhouse kitchen or a Main Street tea room in a quaint little town. A bit of exposed brick, a huge painted wood beam, and a series of window pane details combine to create what the owner and long-time restaurateur George Monsour describes as Paris apartment meets Norman Rockwell.
“The Back Lane represents the old structure and villages when there were Main Streets,” says Monsour, “but the back lane is where people really meet.” After a 16-year hiatus from the restaurant business, including six years working for a software company in Paris, Monsour began imagining a new kind of restaurant for Ottawa — a place that rediscovers the origins of cooking and creates an atmosphere in which people can escape the proverbial Main Street.
He hired two of his artist friends from Rusty Nail Design in Merrickville and challenged them to come up with decor that would carry customers away to a different place and time. There are old-fashioned floral curtains, ornate carved wooden chairs, and big round tables that would be perfect for spreading out the newspaper or a pulling out a deck of cards. And don’t confuse this vintage feel with the urban-ironic aesthetic that calls for mismatched teacups and lovingly restored Value Village finds. The food’s not shabby-chic, either. Forget butter tarts and fancy egg salad sandwiches, this is a serious menu: A salad of grilled tiger shrimp and radicchio with chickpeas, Fisherman’s Stew that has simmered away in the wood fire, and, for dessert, fresh yeast doughnuts glazed in warm honey with vanilla ice cream.
Part of what makes this restaurant so intriguing happens to be invisible to the customer: the enormous kitchen. Unlike the front-of-house, the kitchen, which backs onto the back lane, is flooded with natural light and outfitted with not one but two Le Panyol wood-fired ovens from France, both surrounded with gorgeous tiny white tiles. One is used for the pizzas and the other is for cooking everything else: meats, vegetables, seafood etc. on a “Tuscan grill,” a huge heavy cast iron pan topped with a grill grate. The chefs also bake their own breads every morning using the residual heat in the oven from the night before.
Oh, I get it. Only by hanging out in the back lane can you see what Back Lane Café is really all about.
Back Lane Café, 1087 Wellington St. W., 613-695-2999.
Our “Opening” series explores newly opened restaurants, bars and shops. This is not a review. Ottawa Magazine’s starred reviews can be found in the Restaurant section at the back of every issue of the magazine.