Life

EATING NIAGARA: Meet Midtown, St. Catharines’ next dining destination

By Tiffany Mayer, special to Postmedia News

Karl Vanderkuip is the proud owner of a Russell Avenue building he wants to renovate to include apartments and a restaurant —all he needs now is a tenant. (Tiffany Mayer/Special to Postmedia News)

Karl Vanderkuip is the proud owner of a Russell Avenue building he wants to renovate to include apartments and a restaurant —all he needs now is a tenant. (Tiffany Mayer/Special to Postmedia News)

Karl Vanderkuip has noticed something’s missing along Russell Avenue in St. Catharines.

The street that carves a swath through the city’s midtown is home to a community centre, apartments for seniors, a convenience store, and even an appliance shop.

But what the long residential street set between Welland Avenue and the QEW doesn’t have is a neighbourhood spot to go for a bite with family and friends, or to grab a coffee to unwind.

Vanderkuip wants to change that as the new owner of a mixed-use building carved into apartments on the corner of Russell and Wolseley avenues.

He has visions of renovating the tired, white-sided two storey, keeping apartments up top and turning a former main-floor computer repair shop into a 144-square-metre, 30-seat restaurant. An 81-square-metre joint with room to add a street-level apartment is also an option.

Vanderkuip envisions a space like The Butcher’s Daughter, the highly Instragram-able New York and Los Angeles cafes with exposed brick and high ceilings. Something with the neighbourhood feel of bakery where first names are exchanged with regulars stopping in for loaves and sweets.

“Something (residents) can walk to, to be part of the lifestyle. It would be really great for the neighbourhood,” said Vanderkuip, a local real estate agent. “For me, a restaurant at that location would be a great meeting point within that community and I think that neighbourhood is looking for it from a walkability point.”

As he points to architect’s drawings that show an updated, sided facade with large windows that could open to create a patio feel, he admits he needs a tenant to make it happen.

He’s seeking chefs and food entrepreneurs with dreams of opening a place of their own; caterers who want to add takeout to their business plan.

Vanderkuip hopes to get remodelling underway for such a spot by late winter or early spring.

The idea of a restaurant in this established residential corner of St. Catharines isn’t a stretch. He’s simply riding the wave that’s currently cresting in midtown’s favour.

Steps away from Vanderkuip’s building, 16 townhouses are under construction. Old bank buildings and fire halls nearby have been converted to website agencies and architectural firms. There’s a new school a few blocks west, and the old Memorial School that’s been converted to a Montessori school.

Midtown is also becoming a dining destination with other new restaurants setting the table here. Among them are the raved-about Ma Chinese Cuisine in the old Heritage Restaurant building on Geneva Street, Lang Vietnamese Hot Pot in a former Church Street flower shop, and Mirepoix, a cosy brunch spot that opened this fall on Court Street near the Midtown Plaza.

“Development is happening in that area and we’re seeing it as another growth opportunity for, I’ll call it, downtown,” said Brian York, the city’s director of economic development.

Midtown is the area north of the city centre, stretching up from Welland Avenue to Carlton Street, west to Ontario Street and east to Niagara Street.

It’s filled with older, affordable homes being bought up by young professionals who want to live within walking distance of downtown, “yet it’s still a neighbourhood,” York noted.

Developments like the new restaurants already here, and what Vanderkuip is proposing are “building blocks” to creating neighbourhoods like those in Toronto with their distinct cultures.

“You wouldn’t see a night club opening there but having a coffee house or gathering place is a great thing for the neighbourhood,” York said.

Especially one on the periphery, explained Maddy Warden, owner of Mirepoix. For years, Warden slung plates of eggs and pork belly at The Bleu Turtle on the edge of downtown in Western Hill.

Although she grew up and bought her first home in Midtown, being on the boundary of the city centre was a strategic business move.

“I enjoy that aspect of the hidden gem. It’s not quite on the beaten path but close by,” Warden said.

That it’s in Midtown is even better.

“We’re closer to a neighbourhood like Gardiner (Place) and Wolesley — all these fun areas that are already established,” Warden said. “There’s also a lot of development (happening). Younger families are moving in who are looking for this sort of spot.”

And, Vanderkuip hopes, Niagara’s newest restaurateur is among them.

“I really want to have the conversation with someone who wants to start a hip new restaurant,” he said. “It bodes well for the neighbourhood. I can’t think of a more exciting location than the one we have to continue with that trend.”

— Tiffany Mayer is the author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty. She blogs about food and farming at timeforgrub.com. Follow her on Twitter @eatingniagara.