Living well

HOTELS NOT FOR DINING

Having spent probably half my working life travelling, I have eaten in enough hotel dining rooms to last another lifetime. But now that I have settled in the bucolic country town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, I may have to change my habits.

Model of the Prince of Wales at Little Canada

NOTL has more than its fair share of hotels crammed into its smallish core. The best and oldest on the main street is the Prince of Wales, appropriately located at the corner of King and Queen Streets. It’s named for the Duke of York, Prince of Wales, who was a guest on a royal visit in 1901, when the hotel was already 37 years old. The late and much loved Queen Elizabeth II stayed there in 1973. It’s been through many iterations since.

When my friends Nick Pearce and David Barrett ran it back in the 70s, they invited me to stay for my first honeymoon. Nick had been my host at the then Four Seasons when it was merely a motel on Jarvis Street in Toronto and had been very kind to me when I first arrived in the country. His partner David had been at The Inn on the Park. Both hotels have long since been demolished. Both gentlemen were accomplished innkeepers and restaurateurs and after their NOTL sojourn, went on to open Fenton’s in Toronto and thence to Nova Scotia for a well-earned retirement. In the 70s the PoW hotel was still quite modest, but since then has been bought by Vintage Hotels and remodelled. I hope no one is offended if I say that their interpretation of Victorian splendour is a bit over the top. Nevertheless, afternoon tea in The Drawing Room rivals that offered by The Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC.

Queen’s Landing

Since my 70s visit, I’ve been back many times to run corporate events and had my fair share of hotel dining. To be fair on the chef, it’s not the same when he (or indeed she) is feeding a couple of hundred convention guests, so I’ll not judge their current offerings. Suffice to say there’s bar food and good beverages in The Churchill Lounge and fine dining in the Noble Room.

Toronto’s Little Canada has a charming model of the hotel, with an iconic horse and carriage circling endlessly, in the first space you come to in the exhibition, whimsically named Little Niagara, where the spectacular animated model of the Niagara Falls dominates the room.

Down towards the NOTL harbour lies Queen’s Landing, a faux Georgian mansion custom built in the early 90s to host the corporate market. In fact, a significant branding launch I was running was the first event to be held in the hotel, and of course not everything ran smoothly. We had to chase the painters out of the grand suite reserved for the company’s chairman and his wife, who were fortunately not due to grace us with their presence until the following day. Running fans and opening all the windows managed to remove the smell of fresh paint just in time for the corporate king and queen’s landing.

Pillar and Post

The grand ballroom was unfinished too, but my staging company managed to rustle up black drapes and decorate the walls with thousands of twinkle lights to create a magical scene for the big black-tie dinner. It was all running smoothly until the intercoms failed. Rushing across the room to cue the video team to play a special tribute, the nice company PR lady stood up in my path to find out what was wrong. Too late to stop, I managed to knock her flat on her butt. Worse, rushing back to my post, just as she was picking herself up and dusting herself off, I managed to plough into her and demolish her again. An expensive bottle of champagne to her room the next morning and an abject apology managed to mollify her, but she was always a bit frosty afterwards.

Many other corporate events followed there and I was always careful to ensure that we had ample prep time. However, I have not dined there privately since and hesitate to offer an opinion. The dining area overlooks the rushing Niagara River and is worth the view and I’ve enjoyed many an early breakfast before the hustle of the day began. In winter, icebergs from the Falls can be seen bashing their way to Lake Ontario. This large property has recently undergone extensive refurbishments and is also owned by Vintage Inns.

The Gardens at Pillar and Post

In fact, the chain at one time owned half the main street and most of the hotels in town, but some of the properties are now under separate ownership. Some sort of family spat, I understand. The third Vintage Inns property that is worth mentioning is the historic Pillar and Post.The name refers to the manner in which this former canning factory was constructed, evidence of which can still be seen in the Cannery Restaurant, reputed to serve the best steak in NOTL.

A recent innovation at this property was the establishment of a spectacular garden across the road on what I seem to recall was once overflow parking. Designed for the bridal photography business, it is nevertheless an enchanting space to take a calming stroll. A lovely reflecting pool has a Japanese style bridge, weeping willows and lily pads, a tribute to Monet’s Giverny perhaps?

124 on Queen Hotel and Spa

I’ve organized many events at this hotel and though most of them ran smoothly, it’s the screw ups that one remembers. In the smallish upstairs meeting room, the company’s top executives had gathered to hear the lady chair-apparent deliver her vision for the future. She opened her mouth to speak and at that exact moment the mic and all the lights failed and plunged the room into darkness. I knew the hotel’s wiring was ancient, but we had not anticipated that we would blow a fuse with hot air. Fortunately, my crew chief was able to quickly run a cable to an outlet in the nearby kitchens, which had an upgraded system.

I headed to the lobby to see if I could trouble-shoot the cause and found that a helpful executive had decided to plug in the coffee urn for the forthcoming break at the same moment an assistant was running off reams of paper on the copier. With both on the same circuit, the extra juice demand was too much for the overloaded system. Another lesson learned early in my career and not repeated. I do remember getting very silly at the bar later in the evening, when all the attendees had been tucked into their beds, and having to be helped to my room by the client’s head of security. Well, what happens in NOTL, stays in NOTL.

All those stories are many years in the past, though the hotels seem to have survived my visits. There are other good hotels in town, but I haven’t experienced them personally. With my recent arrival to live in NOTL, it was time to check out what’s new.

A friend invited me to join him for a martini to celebrate our arrival at the new 124 on Q. There hasn’t been a modern, upscale hotel in town for a while, so I was quite keen to check it out.

The Gate House Bistro

The owners of this newly revamped and rebranded 70-room hotel bought a whole block on Queen Street, including an old 17-room inn. They kept or bought out all the businesses at street level, added a Starbucks off the lobby and hotel rooms on the second and third floors, joining several buildings together. They now have, according to the blurb “stylishly appointed condo-style rooms and a huge subterranean spa.” The hotel’s red-brick façade is original to the building and blends appropriately with the streetscape, which has thankfully survived, but once inside the deceptively modest entrance, we’re clearly in an interesting boutique hotel. Down a long corridor to the back of the property, we discover the bar, a delightfully modern space with a talented bar tender. Mitch made us fabulous martinis. Enough said. On our way to the watering hole, we passed several spaces which looked as though they might one day be dining spaces.

For now, guests breakfast across the courtyard at my absolutely fave resto in town, Treadwell Cuisine, which is part of the property. I’ve not met Chef-Founder Stephen Treadwell but his son James is the knowledgeable sommelier. When I had guests recently from the UK, who had never tasted Ontario wine, he introduced them to a super very local wine, Drea’s Sauvignon Blanc VQA Niagara Peninsula 2019. The story of Andrea Kaiser and her winery is for another day.

Across a parking lot and beside the local grocer in another historic building is The Gate House Bistro, which “showcases fresh, seasonal cuisine in a relaxed and tranquil atmosphere.” More hotel accommodations are located in this and other buildings not connected to the main block and reception. It’s an interesting concept. I hope they provide umbrellas.

Now, living in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I have no need of local hotels or their dining rooms, but at least there’s finally an establishment clever enough to avoid the curse of the hotel dining room.

Featured image: Treadwell Cuisine patio

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This is Nigel’s 358th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories, or check under CATEGORIES.

Nigel’s fourth cookbook, Simplifood: Amazing food, simply prepared, a compendium of more than 250 recipes presented in his simple-to-follow style, simply organized and nicely illustrated, is now available as an eBook, well priced at 9.99 in any currency. Dare one mention that it would make an excellent Christmas gift?

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