Capital Idea! An Edible Guide to Ottawa

Capital Idea

Parliament Hill

Although I am technically from Ottawa, I haven’t actually lived here in eight years. When I graduated high school I thought I might never live here again–it was too small, too conservative. But it’s actually quite pleasant to be back for now, if only to get away from Moscow’s hellish commutes. I can’t wait to rediscover Ottawa, and I’ve been busy making some leisure-time plans: first, some serious bike buying; second, learning to drive some, ahem, ten years after I got my learner’s permit. As for the winter, I will attempt to skate on the Rideau Canal for the first time in, you guessed it, over eight years.


Ottawa’s kind of a cool city. As the capital of Canada, it occupies a distinct place, both geographically and politically; while it’s technically in Ontario, the “national capital region” encompasses Gatineau, Quebec on the east side of the river. With Gatineau Ottawa has a population of just over a million, making it the fourth largest city in Canada (after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver). It’s about five hours north-east of Toronto and about the same latitude as Montreal. But things are different in Quebec: all the signs are in French, and the drinking age is eighteen. Quelle horreur.

On the one hand, Ottawa had very traditional, very English beginnings. It was founded in 1826 as Bytown, after Colonel John By. (This is also why the downtown core is called the Byward market, and why my old high school is called Colonel By.) But on the other hand, there was plenty of French influence, most notably through Étienne Brûlé and Samuel de Champlain. In my view, Ottawa’s a nice mix between French and English, both in spirit and in food.

Some of the places below are old favourites, and some are new finds courtesy of my sister, friends, and Urbanspoon. I’ve tried to keep it fairly Ottawa-specific. You probably don’t need me to tell you to go to Tim Hortons.

BeaverTails: This is as real an Ottawa thang as it gets. These pastries are awesome, and I definitely just penciled in “eat BeaverTail” to my FiloFax for tomorrow. Yay! Essentially, a long strip of fried dough (the “beaver” “tail” in question) is covered in the topping of your choice. The classic Killaloe Sunrise is cinnamon sugar and lemon juice, but you can also get nutella, maple butter or garlic butter on yours. Apparently they now even have a license to sell in Saudi Arabia.


Bridgehead: An independent, Ottawa-based coffee shop with healthy snacks, a bazillion brews and fourteen branches. What can I say? They do it better than Starbucks, and infinitely better than Second Cup.

Chateau Laurier: I’m a sucker for a good afternoon tea, and this one was lovely. OK, it’s been five years, but I still remember that the cutlery was super fancy. I mean, it’s a chateau! Things here probably haven’t changed much–my friend had lunch here last week, and the cheese plate was apparently delicious.  An interesting bit of history: founded in 1912, Chateau Laurier opened with rather little ceremony, as the commissioner (and president of Grand Trunk Railway) Charles Melville Hays, died aboard the Titanic.

The castle itself

The castle itself

Chip Wagons: Ottawa’s 10 minutes from Quebec, so it’s totally acceptable to get some traditional poutine in the nation’s capital. Poutine, for the uninitiated, is the deadly combo of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. Sure, you could stop by New York Fries in the mall, but to that I say NO! Go to one of the chip wagons, and you will not be sorry. Sasha’s Chip Wagon in the Byward market is a classic, but there are many more ideas here and here. Oh lordy, there’s even a whole Tumblr devoted to the search for good poutine!

La Cabane a Sucre: Did you know that Quebec produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup? I definitely did, because I am addicted to the stuff. The “maple sugar shack” was a spring tradition when I was young, where we’d eat bacon and cracklin pork and pancakes and tarte au sucre! I’ve been to the cabane as late as June, but it’s more of a March/April thing, so you get to the trees before they’re tapped out (hah). There are plenty of locations, so this list here is a good start.

Lois ‘n’ Frima’s: Some top-notch homemade ice cream right next to the Beavertails joint in the Byward Market. Convenient, non? I just remembered that they have a fabulous chocolate-peanut butter.

Ottawa Farmers’ Market: I was all, “like the one in the Byward market?” but no, not the market downtown, but the one at Brewer park. It happens on Sundays from 8AM – 3PM until mid-November. It’s really big, with about every kind of food-y thing imaginable: vegan ice cream sandwiches! Homemade apple butter! Pattypan squash! Piles of kale!

Heirloom tomatoes. But of course.

Heirloom tomatoes. And hah, that tree looks like kale

The Scone Witch: My mum, who lived in London for four years, swears that these scones are better than any she had over in England. They are pretty damn good; just the right size, with the perfect amount of flakiness. I like oatmeal and lemon poppy-seed the best.

Town: I went here just this past weekend to celebrate my upcoming birthday with some friends. Apparently Elgin Street is a thing, and I couldn’t be happier about it. And I love creative desserts like the sweet-salty popcorn ice cream served here.

Top photo from Tripadvisor, canal photo from Canada’s Capital, Chateau Laurier photo from WikiCommons. All others my own.


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