Forget what you may have heard about Ottawa’s famed ByWard Market. True, this district is the city’s number one tourist attraction, but there’s much more to it than BeaverTails and street performers. The oldest neighbourhood in Ottawa boasts double-wide streets flanked by pubs, eateries and a popular farmer’s market. Here’s a look at the top vendors and restaurants worth searching out, even if you’re a local.
Breakfast of champions
It only serves brunch on weekends, but Benny’s Bistro is a hidden gem few tourists know about. Tucked in the back of The French Baker, it draws you in with its gourmet spread that includes poached eggs atop confit albacore tuna and savoury buckwheat crepes.
Open 24 hours, Zak’s Diner is well known for its all-day breakfasts. This 50s-style diner serves up stick-to-your-ribs plates that do their job if you had a night on the town. Prefer to skip breakfast and grab a java? Hit up Bridgehead, a local progressive coffee shop chain, where you can find gluten-free and vegan options in addition to traditional patisseries.
It’s unlikely that foodies will be able to make a dent when visiting the 1,100 farms that reside within Ottawa’s city limits. No matter! The ByWard Market’s outdoor vendors (all 260 of them) showcase their bounty 363 days a year. Year-round products include maple syrup and cut flowers, while fruits and vegetables are the top draw from April to October.
You’ll want to pay close attention to the colours of each vendor’s sign. Red denotes a reseller, green signifies the stand is farmer/producer and yellow means they lie somewhere in between. Worth sniffing out is Maple Country Sugarbush for its maple treats, including syrup tapped from its 22,000 trees near Ottawa.
Inside the red brick ByWard Market Square is just the spot to pick up a local souvenir. Retailer Canada in a Basket stocks everything from Newfoundland’s crowberry jam to Saskatchewan mustards, to a dizzying array of Ontario condiments.
Supplier to several embassies, the Prime Minister’s Office and the city’s top hotels, The House of Cheese carries 500 different varieties from around world. You know it stocks a schwack of cheese when 60 per cent of its offerings are domestic. What sets this cheesemonger apart is its incredible prices. (A one-kilogram wheel of Notre Dame Camembert for $12, anyone?). Pick up picnic accoutrements, such as pate and artisanal crackers, on your way out.
Wander into ByWard Fruit Market, a few doors down, where you’ll find so much more than fruit. This is where chefs come for speciality ingredients, such as sea asparagus, and an excellent selection of locally-foraged mushrooms including fresh truffles during the season.
La Bottega Nicastro is an upscale Italian deli, but it’s also one of the city’s best spots to grab a quick quality lunch. Try the Italian mix sandwich, comprised of deli meats, spicy eggplant spread and olives on house-made focaccia. Don’t leave without perusing the aisles. This fine foods shop has its own house brand of pasta sauces, the city’s largest selection of olive oil and stocks hard to find speciality items like Devonshire cream.
Inside the original ByWard Market building are two fast and fun lunch options. The chicken tikka wrap made by Shafali Bazaar is quickly approaching cult status. The tangy chicken tossed with crisp lettuce and smothered in a spiced mayo before being rolled inside freshly baked naan is certainly spice-inflected, but not necessarily hot. Then, there’s Corazon De Maiz. Hit up this Mexican joint for street-style tacos and mega burritos. Don’t ignore its homemade salsas and sauces, particularly the jalapeno garlic sauce.
Fancy a pint, or rather, a quart? Chateau Lafayette, AKA “The Laff”, is the city’s oldest tavern. Since it was established in 1849 (before Ottawa was even a city), beer by the quart (a little less than litre) has been grandfathered in. It’s an atmospheric spot, especially when Lucky Ron does his Saturday afternoon show.
Dinner and drinks
For mouth watering farm-to-table eats, look no further than Murray Street for comforting Canadian classics. Perhaps it’s not the best spot for vegetarians, but you’ll feel right at home if you lean towards the carnivorous side of things.
A mish-mash of Latin and Spanish flavours, Navarra is consistently rated as one of the top eateries in Ottawa. Sharing tapas plates is the name of the game at Rene Rodriguez’s restaurant. Name sound familiar? He was the Top Chef Canada season 4 winner. Go find out why.
The vibe at Ace Mercado is more lounge-y than sit-down, but it’s absolutely perfect if you're in the mood for drinks first, and food second. This is the spot to sip a well crafted tequila or mezcal cocktail before sharing authentic Mexican-inspired small plates.
Want to dive even deeper into the ByWard Market’s food scene? C'est Bon Cooking operates walking tours throughout the historic neighbourhood and other hotspots in the National Capital Region.