Formerly a downtown street in deep decline, Halifax’s historic main drag is lively again
Tracing the Halifax shoreline from the North End almost as far south as Point Pleasant Park, Barrington Street has been the focal point of Halifax’s religious life, its civic centre and its financial and commercial core. Architectural highlights line the street in testament to its historic importance, including the beautiful Halifax City Hall, a National Historic Site of Canada.
Barrington has also, more recently, been a street in decline. Deep decline.
It remained a genuine destination until the mid-20th century, with public transit providing ease of access and numerous shops and departments stores offering reasons for traversing its sidewalks. The gradual erosion of Barrington’s “main street” status arguably began in 1963, when the Eaton’s department store decamped west to the Halifax Shopping Centre. Other retail outlets soon followed, not just to the indoor malls, but also to the increasingly popular Spring Garden Road.
Add in a couple of recessions and the Canadian fisheries crisis and, by 1998, Barrington had declined enough to make a rejuvenation strategy an urgent concern. Finally, in 2009, a modified approach to the street’s revitalization was passed by the Halifax regional council.
The plan has worked. Buoyed, no doubt, by the development of the new World Trade and Convention Centre a block away, Barrington is showing signs of life the likes of which have not been witnessed for decades.
As has been the case in many North American cities, one of the early anchors of Barrington’s return to life was beer-related, in this instance the landmark Halifax beer bar, Stillwell. Sleek, sharp and yet still inviting and comfortable, Stillwell early on offered Haligonians and visitors alike a true Maritime beer bar like no other that had come before, with a heavy emphasis on local and regional breweries, but never at the expense of great beer from across Canada and around the world.
Stilwell Beer Bar
Perhaps most importantly, at least for the neighbourhood, Stillwell gave people a reason to spurn the bars of Spring Garden in favour of Barrington, something which across-the-street neighbour Ceilidh Sutherland of the Highwayman restaurant says made it easier for her and her partners to open where they did.
Long and narrow with a bar running along one side of the front and an adjacent kitchen in the back, the Highwayman offers Spanish-inspired fare in both small plate form – the jamón Ibérico is not to be missed – and main course-sized, with a raw bar offering a more brasserie-esque seafood tower as a complement – a bargain for two at $75. Interestingly, and indicative of the direction Barrington is headed, the owners have intentionally styled the restaurant as more a convivial neighbourhood spot than a destination restaurant focused on drawing suburbanites and visitors.
One development that’s impossible to overlook is The Roy, a 107-unit condominium building currently under construction and scheduled for occupancy in fall 2017. It will rise 22 storeys above Barrington near the corner of Sackville and add considerable pedestrian traffic to the neighbourhood, in addition to that contributed by the other business and residential developments completed or near completion closer to the waterfront.
Those new residents will have plenty of local businesses to patronize, from the funky made-in-Canada clothing store Canook to the pristine, non-fussy Health Nutz health food store and the fun and eccentric candy haven called Freak Lunchbox.
Where the more well-heeled among them will choose to spend their time and money? Almost assuredly The Barrington. Which is not to say that the steakhouse a few doors north of Stillwell is absolutely a deep-pockets-only sort of restaurant. For while diners can order from the full menu at the more casual, street level bar, they can also go simpler and more casual with a burger or beef tartare. Not feeling the beef? Go with scallops and sesame crusted tuna, and draft beer from the PEI Brewing Company to complement.
The Barrington / Courtesy Reilly Mooring
Still, it is upstairs at The Barrington where the magic happens. Service is spot-on in an environment that manages to be both formal in a classic steakhouse fashion and comfortable in a more roadhouse-y manner, with steaks that are simply superlative, from the bourbon dry-aged rib eye to the porterhouse for two.
It’s fortuitous as well that the front of the second-floor dining room offers a panoramic view of the new heart of Barrington Street – a heart we suspect is destined to grow and develop for some time to come.