Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Vegetarian's Guide to Centretown Brunch

In which a.m.k. raids the neighbourhood for the fourth-most-important meal.

I'm in my mid-twenties, so I like brunch. I'm not sure what it is about brunch that has hipsters my age so excited -- maybe it's because all the best foods can be eaten for breakfast/lunch. Or it's that brunch works for every occasion. You can meet mom for brunch, or perhaps an old friend.

That girl/guy you brought home from the bar last night, the one that kept your roommates up until four with the bizarre sounds they made? What better way to break the ice after an awkward good morning than brunch. Breaking up with the long-term partner? Brunch. First date? Brunch. Business proposal? Brunch. Post-wake family gathering? Brunch.

As you can see, there are many times in your life when brunch is the perfect, civilized means to spend time with other people. Or just to read. We're busy people, but probably not that productive at 11am on the weekend, and hell everywhere has wi-fi so you can even bring your laptop and get work done while settling down for some delicious french toast and coffee (two teaspoons of raw sugar).

I moved to the area when I was about 20 and just entering my hipster brunch years. I haven’t been to every brunch spot in Centretown, but I have been to many of them, and many of them multiple times. Here’s my scouting report on as much of the Centretown brunch scene as I can recall well enough to have an opinion on. Feel free to set me straight or add your recommendations in the comments section.

Click for our scatter-plot of brunch restaurants.
Keep in mind that this analysis from a vegetarian perspective, since I am...well, vegetarian. I also have an egg allergy, and I prefer not to drink milk, though I still eat stuff with milk and egg ingredients in it. Just no plain eggs. I have a very strange diet, but I also take into consideration atmosphere, busyness, service, timeliness and convenience as well as the food itself.

Ada's Diner. Probably a favourite yet lesser-known spot is this nook on Bank and Arlington, in the south end of Centretown. It's open until about 2 and it doesn't take too long until Ada recognizes you, or at least me. I do have to occasionally remind her that I don't eat meat, but she's very sweet, and I wouldn't remember the diet of all my customers either. The prices are pretty average but there are a fair amount of options for most people. Of course me being me, I end up getting french toast, pancakes or waffles exclusively, sometimes with fruit on top. Can get busy at peak times and you might have to wait, but the longest I’ve ever had to wait about ten minutes, and that was on a holiday on an absolutely gorgeous day in spring. Or maybe it was Family Day. I would definitely recommend Ada’s – it’s typical diner food, but it's all made well.

Atomic Rooster. A hipster hangover favourite, the Rooster is located centrally on Bank and Somerset, right in hipster central. Nice, casual service, and they have somewhat unique options in their bagels and crepes. There are some cheap egg options you can get to make it a reasonably-priced meal, and the artwork hanging up is extremely characteristic.

Lieutenant's Pump. This basement pub on Elgin near Gladstone is widely recognized as one of the best brunch places in Ottawa. From about 11 to 1 there will be a line extending outside the door, so be prepared for that. The menu isn't huge, and I liked it better when there were two good veggie options for me, but the french toast is still good and they give you a lot of fruit. The portions are quite good for all the brunch menu options. I miss the banana walnut pancakes, though.

The Manx. Right across the street from the Pump, the Manx has more original veggie options (i.e. I can get stuff with tofu in it) that seem pretty healthy, but I get more of a lunch vibe than a breakfast vibe from it. A tiny bit more expensive than average, the Manx is another favourite of mine as far as atmosphere goes – they’ve got excellent books (many poetry, no doubt thanks to David O'Meara) and a sweet corner booth next to a bar window so the bartender can take your order from behind the bar. (The veggie dinner options here are excellent -- tofu tacos are one of the best meals I've ever had.)

Maxwell's. I've only been here for brunch once and it was a while ago, but I'm not entirely sure why I haven't gone back. I remember getting waffles with honey and nuts on them and it was extremely good. I think I just avoid Maxwell's because it's not really a place I would go to for anything other than brunch, and the atmosphere is a bit boring. Located conveniently on Elgin near Gilmour.

Bridgehead. Out of the coffee shops I mention here, this one is my favourite for brunch, mainly because it almost has a brunch atmosphere naturally. If you want a cheap, small option, the oatmeal is quite good for $2.50, and it comes with fruit, syrup or both. The coffee/lattes are the best of the Ottawa chains as far as I'm concerned as well. Finding a spot to sit is pretty much like roulette, though. Of their multiple Centretown locations, I recommend Elgin/MacLaren and Bank/Gilmour.

Mayflower. I used to go here quite a bit when I first moved to the area, but as I've found other options, I haven't been back to the Mayflower much. Nothing about it is inherently bad, it just doesn't have much going for it either. I've always felt it was bit more expensive than the food and atmosphere should allow, since it largely resembles a diner and the service is very hit-and-miss. The bar in the back is pretty neat, though. Located on Elgin and Cooper (a block north of Somerset).

Dunn's. Another place I haven't been to in a while, you can get a very cheap eggs brunch at Dunn's, but you pretty much get what you pay for. I've been with two different people who have gotten it and both have felt sick after. The french toast is not very good and overpriced. Huge diner and the atmosphere reflects it, but the service wasn't bad. Located across the street from the Mayflower.

Bank Street Diner. A small diner on Bank and Lisgar, I really feel for the family who operates it. Business has never seemed good since it opened, and it is a tad overpriced, but the food is probably better than the other diners on the list, and the family is very nice. They have beer included in some brunch specials and offer other non-brunch foods with brunch, perhaps in an attempt to give people something that isn't normally offered. Reminds me a bit of Mellos in the market, but hasn't caught on. If you like diners, I'd recommend trying it.

Elgin Street Diner. The third and final diner on the list, this one is located next to the Manx on Elgin and Gladstone. It's a bit overpriced considering it's a diner, and the food isn't bad, but nothing excellent. It's much better than Dunn's, though, so if you're looking for a popular diner in the area, I would suggest here. The benefit of these diners is that they serve breakfast all day and aren't only open until 2 like the other brunch places.

The Daily Grind. I've only been here once and don't remember the food enough to comment on it, but they seem to have some good veggie options and they offer almond milk. The time I went, the owner/manager got in a fight with a guy (who looked homeless) who’d been drinking a beer on the front sidewalk – it was a little uncomfortable. I mean the guy shouldn't have been drinking in front of the place (and it was the middle of the day), but the owner shouldn't have pushed a big drunk guy into the street.... Admittedly I was paying more attention to the guy who came back, banging violently on the window with a broken bottle in his hand, than I was to the food itself.

Second Cup. The oatmeal isn't bad, but not nearly as good as the Bridgehead oatmeal, and you pay more for it. The best location I've ever been to is Somerset and Bank, mainly because of the interior design and the interesting people who are there. They really do have the most interesting collection of patrons for a coffee shop I've ever been to (even more than Timothy's on Laurier, which would come in at number two if I had to rank them). Not a bad place to have a chat with a friend or do some work.

Starbucks. Terrible, overpriced food.

The Scone Witch. 
I had been meaning to go here for a while, and when I finally did, I was pretty disappointed. There isn't much seating available, and the way the ordering is set up is a bit strange. The food is a bit more lunch than breakfast I'd say, and although it was interesting to have a change from what I normally get, the scone sandwich contraption they made me was only okay. I think I would rather just get a box of scones to go, because if you like scones, they are good. Very old school coffee station. On the Transitway on Albert and Bay.

Jak's Kitchen. Toward the rougher end of Centretown, this little spot is located on Bronson in Gladstone, amidst all the construction. I have mixed feelings about this place, as I've had quite a good experience about 50% of the times I've gone. The brunch food there I really liked was similar to the waffles at Maxwell's. Has a nice little patio in the summer.

Grounded. Small portions, and I don't like the location, but the food is pretty good and it's an interesting set-up. Would recommend for more of a business-type brunch. Located right in the government/corporate district on Gloucester and O'Connor.

Bramasole. I heard good things about this place and have tried it three times now. It's an old-school diner type place -- which I like -- pretty similar to Mellos in the market the way the cooking station is set up. The service was awful each of the times I went, and the waitress seemed like she wanted us out of there. The food wasn't very good, and the prices seemed average. Located on Bank near Gladstone.

Berryman Pub. This is a sort of weird sports bar on Bank near Flora. The atmosphere is very bar-like, and I remember the brunch options being *good enough that I had to order nachos.

*Note: "good" is the opposite of what it was. I am being sarcastic. Brendan wanted me to clarify.

Eggspectation. On Bank on Laurier, this is an interesting spot that could work for mom or for business. Not a lot of options for me since it's all about eggs, but the espresso is good and I splurge and get ice cream sometimes, which is very good, and there are crepes I can eat with lots of chocolate. Not the healthiest place since I just end up eating dessert brunch, but it's nice if you're in the mood for that. Try to get a seat on the second floor near the window, the windows are wall-sized and the view is nice.

McDonald's. Brendan's favourite. Can get hot cakes with a potato thing for under five bucks. It works if you're in a rush. The Elgin/Somerset one is my preferred one in the downtown area, for whatever reason. Maybe it's because the outside of the building looks like it has character.

Pressed. I've included this place last because it's not technically in Centretown, but it's only a block out of district, on Gladstone and Arthur/Cambridge (west of Bronson). The brunch here is excellent, and the place in general seems to be slowly catching on. I lived near it when it first opened so I am indebted to them for all the boxes they gave me to help me move to the nicer side of Centretown. They include ice cream and the like with a lot of the brunch options, and they get huge points for having almond milk available for lattes. If you are in the area or want to make a trek out there, it's a very cool spot, and has pretty good artwork too.

So there you have some brief descriptions of brunch places in the Centretown area. I’m sure there are more I haven't been to or that I've forgotten about. My favourites are Ada’s, Pressed, the Pump, the Rooster, and I guess Bridgehead. Honourable mention to the Manx.

a.m.k. is a hipster brunch-eater living in Centretown. If you don't believe that, check out the tight pants he tries to sell as "work appropriate".

[Brunch image at the top is from the Do512 Austin blog. Pressed photo is from the Pressed Facebook page. All other photos are from Google Plus and Google Street View.]

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a bruncher, but I'll speak up for a few things:

    - Dunn's has a special on weekdays which is much better value than Elgin Street Diner. You actually see, like, old guys in there reading the paper, which is a very good sign.

    - Favourite food in Centretown is the cranberry muffins at Boushey's, on Elgin at Waverley. If pancakes are a breakfast then muffins are a breakfast.

    - Sundays I always wander outside Centretown and eat at the Fontanelle, across the Cummings Bridge into Vanier. Value, food, and people are all well above Centretown standards :D.