Wooden Heads: Twenty Years Strong
This review was published March 14, 2014 in Kingston This Week
It’s just past lunch hour. Precisely 1:16 p.m. as I head through the doors at Wooden Heads. It’s Wednesday. Late winter. Still bitingly cold outside. The place is absolutely full. What’s going on here that in the middle of the week, at an hour when most workers have returned to their desks, Woodenheads should be still packed with diners?
There is something about this place. With its elegant European exterior and hip interior, it could be at home in any big city in the world. Instead, it’s tucked neatly in the restaurant row on Ontario Street. The long, brick interior wall, deep taupe paint, tile floors, bi-level layout, the unobtrusive serving staff clad in black, the general clatter of plates and music and voices, the smell of really good food, even the pale late winter sunlight streaming through the windows, all seem perfect.
A server finds me a table. She doesn’t introduce herself, a fact that endears her to me immediately. I ask for her name instead. Amanda. I like her already.
I’m here because I’ve heard that on March 15, 2014 – the Ides of March – Wooden Heads will be celebrating 20 years in business. It just so happens that Wooden Heads and I share a birthday. It was one of the first restaurants I visited when I moved to Kingston more than a decade ago and it’s remained on my most-wanted list over the years, even when they took my favourite pizza off the menu.
I order without looking at the menu. “A glass of bubbly and do you know the Monet pizza that used to be on the menu … ?
“I do,” says Amanda. “And it’s back on the menu.”
When Wooden Heads opened its doors for the first time in March 1994, chef Marc Halverson was at the helm in the kitchen. He’s still there today and still in charge of food at Wooden Heads. He works five or six days a week, turning out as many as 900 meals a day in the busiest summer months. That’s an awful lot of food. Yet people keep coming back over and over again. And while 20 years in one spot in the restaurant industry isn’t unheard of, it is slightly unusual.
The three co-owners — Wayne Goodwin, general manager at Wooden Heads, Nick Romeo and Jim Colden — have put their faith in Marc and in the importance of quality food. It’s paid off for everyone, including diners.
And it’s not just locals who love the place. “We get a lot of tourists and, interestingly, a lot of visitors from Quebec,” says Marc. Canadian women’s hockey goaltender Shannon Szabados, an Olympic gold medallist, recently ate at Wooden Heads, as did Kim Cattrall of Sex in the City fame. “But,” says Wayne Goodwin, “we almost pride ourselves on how we don’t make a fuss. We like to treat all our customers the same.”
It’s not just chef Marc who has stayed the course. One of the bartenders has been on the job for 18 years and there are cooks who have been around for 15 years.
Goodwin met fellow co-owner Romeo during his Queen’s University days. Wayne finished his degree in economics before going to work in the restaurant industry in Toronto, but within a year he took a phone call from Nick, who had an idea for a wood-oven pizza restaurant. They didn’t want a fine-dining establishment and they didn’t want a diner. They wanted an approachable menu. Over the years, they’ve renovated the back end of the restaurant to make the kitchen more efficient. And they’ve added a flipside to the menu consisting of tapas, salads and entrees. The menu steers clear of traditional meat and two sides, and instead presents an array of choices that have eclectic Italian, Southern U.S., Thai and barbecue influences.
Among their best-selling items are gourmet pizzas ($8.95 and up), coco shrimp ($13.50), poulet baton rouge – a blackened chicken breast and potato cake with shallot Dijon cream sauce ($20.45), and Caesar salad ($7.80).
I rarely order anything other than the Monet pizza (tomato sauce, chipotle salsa, mozzarella, feta, calabrese salami and fresh basil) because it’s so good that I can’t really get past it. Half a pizza is more than enough for lunch for one and Woodenheads is happy to pack your leftovers to go home. With its thin crust and the robust flavours of hot salami, smoky chipotle and feta, it is as good cold for dinner as it was hot for lunch. Along with a glass of Conca d’Oro Prosecco Superiore ($6), and a strong black coffee – this is one of my favourite meals in the city.
Wooden Heads is open every day of the year except Christmas Day. For hours, location and menu, and to stay tuned for upcoming anniversary celebrations, go online to www.woodenheads.ca.
The Portsmouth Tavern
This review was published on February 6, 2014 in Kingston This Week.
I arrive at The Ports, aka the Portsmouth Tavern, in the midst of a raging blizzard with near white-out conditions. Snow is swirling down the street. Visibility is minimal. The 401 has just been shut down in both directions between Kingston and Napanee.
Inside the tavern it is warm and quiet before the lunchtime rush. Looking back out through the windows, the scene outside appears almost quaint – like a snow globe – snow fluttering down on the harbour and dry-docked boats and the stately, impressive and newly empty Kingston Penitentiary.
Chuck Norris, who was born and raised on HoweIsland, started working at The Ports as a bartender before going on to become general manager. But this is no flash in the pan success story, Chuck, like The Ports, has been around a while. “I started here in 1975. I’ve been here for 39 years and four months,” he says. He begins his days around 7am and works until 6pm, five days a week and he opens on Saturday mornings. He’s seen a few things in his time but seems cheerful and unfazed. “I love the place,” he says, completely matter of factly. He’d better. He’s at work 55 to 56 hours a week.
The Ports, in its various guises, is thought to date back to 1863 – almost a hundred years after the founding of the village of Portsmouth in 1764. In its early days Portsmouth was a colourful, bustling village – replete with numerous breweries, shipyards, sawmills, tanneries, and a bit later, the penitentiary and asylum, now known as the KingstonPsychiatric Hospital. It was also home to the infamous “Portsmouth toughs” – gangs of boys who harassed women and others in the streets. According to Portsmouth Village, Kingston: An Illustrated History, by Jennifer McKendry – in 1873, Reverend Dobbs reported, shock and horror, “on a gambling den in a disreputable shanty.” Revd Dobbs also concerned himself with the stricter enforcement of Sunday closures of taverns. And a petition by Angus Shaw recommended, “A library and reading room to mitigate the evils of drunkenness.” Portsmouth was a lively little spot.
In 1864, Edward Beaupre Junior, a grocer and tavern owner, and the son of a ship carpenter, bought the land and building at the corner of the Yonge and Grange Streets for $600. By sometime in the late 1860s, a two-story frame building was erected on the site. Originally known as The Farmer’s Inn, it later became the Portsmouth Public House and stayed in the Beaupre family until 1974.
Over the years The Ports has been a watering hole for workers, sailors, and students. “People are lot better behaved now than they once were,” says Chuck. “You can’t get drunk in a bar anymore – there are rules and we could be shut down.”
These days the clientele come from all walks of life adding to the loyal group of regulars. People come because the place has a sense of history and community. During Advent a large group gathers weekly to sing traditional Christmas carols. On Friday nights there’s Karaoke and on Saturday evenings there’s live music. They also come for the beer and the reasonably priced pub fare. And while the Ports might not be a foodie’s fantasy, it does serve honest pub food. What it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with authenticity, atmosphere, and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness. The burgers and wraps are made on site. The KP Burger (named for the penitentiary) is a firm favourite. The hand-cut French fries are arguably the best in town. The club sandwich is made with roast chicken breast rather than processed meat. And the Greek salad, loaded with tomatoes and feta and topped with a red wine vinaigrette, served with or without Cajun chicken, might just be one of the most attractive and tastiest Greek salads around. Service is prompt but there’s no one rushing you to leave. Summer or winter, you’d be hard pressed to find a more comfortable spot in Kingston than a table at the window of the old Portsmouth Tavern looking out at the boats and water.
The Ports is open seven days a week and serves lunch, dinner, and munchies daily. On Saturday and Sunday it serves the regular menu plus an all-day breakfast. There’s plenty of free parking across the road.
For more information including address, hours, and a calendar of events, see http://theportsmouthtavern.ca/.
Sir John’s Public House
This review was published on August 22, 2013 in Kingston This Week
Staff pose with “Sir John A” in front of Sir John’s Public House – 343 King Street East, Kingston, Ontario
A monument to a legendary drinker
Sir John’s Public House on King Street is a Scottish-style pub. I won’t call it authentic because pub aficionados would be sure to find fault. But authenticity may be over-rated and Sir John’s gets most things right without the thick coal smoke and outdoor lavatories with ancient pull-chain toilets that a truly authentic Scottish pub might offer.
Sir John’s occupies the original premises of Sir John A Macdonald’s law practice. Macdonald made his living there from 1849 to 1860 before going on to become the first Prime Minister of Canada from 1878 to 1891. In most countries, the homes and business sites of first leaders are made into museums and national historic landmarks. Perhaps it’s fitting though, that the business office of our Scottish born first leader, Sir John A, a legendary drinker, is now a pub.
Pub owner, Paul Fortier, knows a bit about history. Prior to his foray into the restaurant business, Fortier spent 20 years working for the Federal Government as a historian and archivist. Concerned he was en route to becoming a “career bureaucrat,” Fortier followed his heart, and combined his love of history and food to create Jessup Foods – now a thriving corporation that includes the Renaissance event venue, the Fort Henry restaurants and new Battery Bistro, and Sir John A’s.
“The restaurant business can be a tough slog. There’s fierce competition, long daily hours – seven days a week, and a lot of staff and supplies to deal with, and hopefully after all that, customers,” says Fortier. It appears the tough slog is paying off. Fortier’s restaurants are all thriving concerns.
Sir John’s Public House is cozy, intimate and welcoming; it’s easy to feel at home here. The pub seats 70 at full capacity and that’s including the patio which accounts for nearly half the seating. There’s an interesting collection of Sir John A memorabilia including a bust of Sir John created three years before his death. There’s also a cut-out figure of the first Prime Minister on the patio that’s proving to be a popular spot for residents and tourists to have their photograph taken. Despite this, the pub manages to avoid falling into the realm of overly kitschy.
August 2013 will see Sir John’s second anniversary of operation. A recently expanded kitchen space is making cooking and food preparation more manageable and efficient. Fortier has also bought adjacent space and plans to expand the pub in time for the 200th anniversary of Sir John’s birth date, 11 January 1815.
The menu consists of a selection of expected pub fare without a lot of trickery. It includes salads (try the beet root and rocket salad for $12), homemade soups and sandwiches, burgers, fish and chips, bangers and mash, and a few funkier items such as haggis fritters and vegetarian haggis. The dinner selection includes lamb shanks ($17), First of Forth fish and chips ($14) and an all-day breakfast ($10). The fish and chips are well worth returning for. There are vegetarian and vegan appetizers and main courses on the menu.
An excellent value $8 lunch menu from Monday to Friday lists several options including a salmon and rocket salad that is healthy, attractively served, and delicious.
Reviews on TripAdvisor.ca caution against ordering a few of the menu items including the chicken curry, nachos, and Scotch eggs. Staff, including affable manager, Andrew McCord, have made excellent recommendations for both food and drinks. There is a good wine list, a sensibly chosen select beer list and an apparently excellent selection of single malt and Scotch whiskies.
If you go for nothing else, drop by Sir John A’s Public House between 4-6pm for “Sir John’s Daily Customer Appreciation,” known to most of us by the now illegal term, happy hour. Selected drinks are $4. Go and commune with an important slice of Canadian history.
If you go:
SIR JOHN’S PUBLIC HOUSE
343 King Street, East Near Market Square, Kingston
Open Daily from 11:30 to close (Sundays 10:30 a.m.) – Lunch – Dinner – Late Night