Neighbourhood Watch: Ottawa’s Hintonburg Tempts Us with Burgers, Donuts and Shopping

West-end neighbourhood looks to a frosted future without forgetting its blue-collar roots.

The west-end Ottawa neighbourhood of Hintonburg might look like a bit of a trek, but it would be worth making the trip for a single bite of one especially inviting hamburger.

Hintonburger (note the adorable name) serves up a masterpiece of the road stop style of burger, laying down a foundation of slightly blackened, crunchy-caramelized patty of local organic beef, then shellacking it with house-made barbecue sauce and throwing on some roof shingles made of thick, rippling bacon. As an experience, the Hintonburger burger is equal parts special and familiar.

Same goes for the neighbourhood as a whole, which has a feel that’s half Canadian small town, half tight-knit big-city neighbourhood. Everything can feel like home during a stroll through Hintonburg, especially for the young families who have flocked to the area and are slowly transforming it.

Everything’s a quick walk away from everything else in today’s Hintonburg, and its cosy and self-contained nature is precisely what makes it suitable for the visitor to Ottawa.

(Now is a good time to point out that the lines between Hintonburg and its sister neighbourhood Wellington Village is somewhat unclear to some, even residents. One common definition: Everything along Wellington Street West to the west of Holland Avenue is Wellington Village. Rather than get too pedantic about it, we’ve lumped in a couple of businesses from that side of the divide since it’s all just one stroll along Wellington anyway.)

You can spend a few hours or a whole day here and embark on a leisurely and cyclical agenda of shopping, eating, chilling out with a beverage; then repeat. You can take in some culture, too: The neighbourhood features a few private galleries and a trio of theatres.

The spire of the Saint-Francois d’Assise Church, a defining local landmark

If you’re feeling less refined, how about some impulse donuts and tacos? SuzyQ Doughnuts, which seems to be everyone’s first Hintonburg recommendation is a purveyor of inventively delicious fried dough treats in an array of flavours that includes blue vanilla Froot Loop and London fog (that’s a style of tea latte, a hint on the socioeconomic direction the neighbourhood is taking). Across the parking lot from SuzyQ is TacoLot, a Los Angeles-style taco dispensary that serves up tiny, tasty, traditional soft tacos and other Mexi-Cali treats, and offers a few outdoor tables and benches to sit at in the sunny months.

When it’s time to stroll off some of that taco and donut indulgence, go shopping. The Record Centre sells nothing but vinyl, vintage and new, and cleaned-up vintage electronics to play it on. Fab Gear 64 may be Canada’s only vintage clothing and tchotchke store dedicated to nostalgia for the 1960s British Invasion. Victoire does women’s fashion with a focus on wares that are designed and made in Canada (and/or “supercute”).

Bob Cabana, owner of Fabgear, which sells vintage clothing … and ice cream

For a sit-down bite, there’s Blackpepper Urban Pub, whose humble appearance hides the fact that the former cook at the Italian embassy is the chef and owner. Locals are also excited for a relatively new and upscale kid on the block, the Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern, which goes to certain lengths to reassure would-be diners: “we are not pretentious or uppity. We want you to be comfortable in our easygoing, rustic establishment.”

Your recaffeination options include the industrial and cavernously high-ceilinged Art Is In Bakery, which doubles as a café and hops with local life more than one would expect from an ordinary bakery – and it offers a wider and more exotic range of desserts than an ordinary bakery, too (especially on “pastry Wednesday”). The jalepeno bread is a spicy standout. Hurry, as the kitchen closes at 4 p.m. daily. If you miss out on that there’s The Ministry of Coffee (if you’re not a fan of the whole brevity thing, the sign calls it “The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs”). Here, the coffee takes a backseat to a menu of cocktails and tapas after 6.

If you’re staying in Ottawa long enough to be interested in groceries, Al Jazeerah sells not round-the-clock news but rather foods from the Middle East, including lamb, goat and homemade hummus, while Wellington Wholesale Seafood buzzes with locals lining up to buy shrimp by the bag. Marché Hintonburg Market is the local butcher and corner grocer, boasting an impressive arsenal of sausages.

If we could step back and look at Hintonburg (and Wellington Village) circa 15 years ago, all of this street-level vibrancy might have been surprising to witness.

To hear veterans of the neighbourhood tell it, the area was rough around the edges until around a decade ago, when first-time home buyers started to be pulled in by the welcoming real estate prices and entrepreneurs took note of the availability of cheap rent.

The Record Centre, a paradise of vinyl

“I moved to the neighbourhood about 10 years ago,” says Thomas Williams, co-owner of Hintonburger with his business partner and father, also named Thomas Williams. “There are lots of stories (from) that time about families buying up the old problem houses, the drug houses, and bulldozing them to build family homes.”

Looking for a place to set up a burger business on a small fry budget, Williams and a friend (who has since departed Hintonburger) set up in a small portable that the staff affectionately dubbed a “hut” or “shack” at the eastern end of the Wellington Street West strip. “I remember people telling me to stay away from this neighbourhood where Somerset turns into Wellington West, and that’s pretty much where the shack was where we opened up,” Williams says. “There were not a lot of food options at the time – not a lot of options, period. There were a lot of spaces for rent and things like that.”

As the neighbourhood flourished, so did Hintonburger. It scaled up to the site of a former KFC (if you look around carefully, you can still see the telltale signs of the former tenancy); SuzyQ Doughnuts is now the occupant of the shack.

Given all this colour within a few blocks, local entrepreneur Summer Baird regrets having left Hintonburg for a spell. She moved here, moved away, and then decided to move back, all during the past decade. “You can walk everywhere in this neighbourhood, and where I moved you couldn’t  – and that was a big mistake,” she says.

Nowadays Baird is busy as a local organizer. She owns the Hintonburg Public House, a bar that she intends to serve as a community hub, and was a co-founder of the Hintonburg Happening, an annual neighbourhood festival.

Efforts like this are only possible thanks to a spirit of solidarity and local loyalty, Baird says.

“Most of the people who live in the community, they work, they live and they shop in the community. They’re very supportive (of) small businesses.”

Gentrification can sometimes be cast as the villain in neighbourhood transformation stories, as people on the margins get pushed out. But Hintonburger’s Williams says there are signs the new, upper-middle-class residents of Hintonburg are meshing, not clashing, with those who were here before. At Bread by Us Artisan Bakery, a notice proudly declares the bakery a “living wage employer,” a sign of an attempt by one business, at least, to support the community that supports it by picking up loaves of sourdough and rye (made with unbleached organic local flour, naturally).

Hintonburger, meanwhile, is right across the street from a union hall for the International Electrical Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Hintonburg remains a blue-collar neighbourhood at heart, Williams says, “Which is sort of the group I identify with, and are some of the core support of the independent businesses.”

Neighbourhood Watch: Ottawa’s Hintonburg Tempts Us with Burgers, Donuts and Shopping
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