Ottawa has a reputation for being sleepy, and a reputation for lacking in good restaurants and bars. Ask someone not from Ottawa where to eat and drink in Ottawa and, no matter how often they’ve been there, they’ll likely name some place in Montreal instead. Fact is, Ottawa has plenty of excellent places to grab a bite or have a drink; you just need to know where to look. It’s not hit or miss, it’s miss and miss and miss and hit.
Now, to be clear, the places listed below aren’t necessarily the trendiest or the best, they’re just my favorite places to eat and drink in Ottawa. I’m no food critic, but I am originally from Ottawa and lived in the Byward Market for a combined six years (hence the over-representation of Market-area spots on the list), so, yeah, I got to know my favorite spots.
Here they are:
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to point this place out to people actively seeking it out. It’s easy to miss, a little tucked away, and advertised with a rather nondescript sign.
Inside, the place is nearly always packed. People sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, crowd around tables crammed into every available space, and stand around, chatting and laughing. That’s the thing with Chez Lucien: I’ve never seen anyone there without a smile. No matter how crowded or busy it might get, the place never gets unpleasant. It just seems to attract a more reasonable, friendly crowd. Or, at least that’s been my experience.
Though primarily a bar, Chez Lucien serves excellent burgers—try The Frida and Diego Burger and/or the Grilled Chicken Sandwich—and the kitchen is open late. It’s also a great place to try some of Ottawa’s surprisingly good micro-brews.
One thing to note: some complain of the service, not that it’s unfriendly but that it can be a tad slow. This is not entirely without merit, but, hell, relax a little and, if you get bored, go pick a song to play on the free jukebox.
Just a couple blocks from Chez Lucien, Murray Street features a trendy yet unpretentious ambiance, local and seasonal ingredients, and an ever-changing yet always attractive menu. Murray Street is an awesome blend of old school and modern cuisine.
Its menu will only include a few dishes and it’s heavy on meat (especially pork, as its logo should make abundantly clear), but it always includes a fish dish and a vegetarian option and, honestly, I’ve taken vegetarians there on multiple occasions and have never heard a single complaint.
Dishes are served on cheese planks or in single serving-sized crockery, and servings often look deceptively small, but I guarantee you’ll leave satisfied though never stuffed.
Do not skip dessert.
For me, this place is the perfect mix of casual dining and subtly classy. It’s housed in a century-old building, a former carriage maker’s workshop, and retains much of its Old World charm, but it never tries too hard. They serve a good mix of dishes, but the menu is largely centered on gourmet pizzas.
The place is divided into three main rooms. If you’re eating during the day and want bright and airy, ask to be seated in the back (or on the terrace during summer months); if you want a lively, chatty vibe, sit at or near the bar; and if you want cozy and intimate, request to be seated in the Nook.
Awright, not to be mean, but I wouldn’t necessarily call the food at Ahora top notch Mexican. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine, but you don’t go there for high-end cuisine. Ahora is a fun, unpretentious place with a lively decor, friendly service and a laid back vibe.
Also worth noting: it has a liquor license and features a fantastic salsa bar. Great for a quick burrito lunch and a bottle of Sol.
From the outside this coffee shop looks like . . . I don’t know, a really small abandoned bus station? On the inside, the place is obviously a former diner, complete with booths and a table-top version of some ancient arcade game (I wanna say Ms Pac-Man but don’t hold me to that).
I Deal Coffee is the epitome of no frills and I love it for that. Oh, also it serves excellent coffee. Their roasts have fantastical-sounding names like Prince of Darkness and Around the World and, if you buy a pack of their whole grain, you’ll get a free small coffee to hold you till you get home.
And if you ever visit in the summer, order an iced coffee and specify that you want coffee cubes to keep it cold without diluting it; they’ve always got a tray ready to go.
A few other great options
The French Baker: I used to live above this place and, when the wind blew just right, I might wake up to the smell of fresh croissants. Excellent pastries and fine coffee. There’s also a small eating area in the back, behind a curtain, but check for times ’cause it’s not always open. 119 Murray.
Avant-Garde Bar: I barely even know how to describe this bar. It features kitchy Russian propaganda on its walls and mean cocktails on its menu. It also occasionally hosts some of the absolute best and absolute worst local musicians and poets you’ve never heard of. 135 ½ Besserer.
La Bottega Nicastro: As the name would suggest, this is actually a European-style grocery store, but head to the back and you can order some of the best sandwiches the National Capital has to offer. Make sure your sandwich includes spicy marinated eggplant. 64 George.
You may not love all the places on this list, but I’m reasonably certain at least one of the restos or bars mentioned above will manage to satisfy any tastes.
If you have your own favorites or discover a new Ottawa bar or eatery, please do let me know in the comments or send me an email!