Big Day Downtown

Big Day Downtown

As a part of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission’s “Big Day Downtown” marketing strategy, we were given a $100 gift card to run around downtown Halifax and explore the offerings of various local businesses. So on a sunny Saturday morning, Kristina and I decided to meet down in the Granville Mall and see where the day would take us.

Kristina’s thoughts are in italics, while mine are plain old standard text.

SAM’S MACCHIATO

My big day downtown started with a ferry ride across the harbour. Melissa had recently posted on a local message board that she thought the best coffee on the Halifax side of the harbour was at Sam’s Macchiato in the Granville Mall. I’d never been, so suggested to her that it sounded like a good place to start.

I arrived a bit early and sat outside in the sunshine admiring this very European-appearing part of Nova Scotia. Despite a  store fronts that were either papered over or blocked by scaffolding it’s still a lovely part of the city. A number of restaurants and galleries make it a very inviting public space. NSCAD overlooks and sure enough, there was a cool public art piece in the square for me to sit and contemplate.

My day started with a walk through downtown, since I live in the neighbourhood. Even though it was easily 10 in the morning, the streets were almost silent, with very few other pedestrians and most storefronts appearing shuttered. Barrington Street had rubbed the sleep out of its eyes, though, and quietly buzzed with a little bit of activity. A server at the new Starbucks stood on the street shilling product—free samples of pumpkin scone—like an old timey newspaper boy.

Melissa arrived right on time and we headed into Sam’s for our coffee, which, as promised, was great. In particular, as Melissa pointed out to me, the foam on their cappuccino is rich and creamy. It’s very much a part of the drink and not something that sits on top like an accessory. I would have liked mine a tad hotter—but that’s a thing with me, and next time I’d ask for it extra hot, which I forgot to do here.

Our only hiccup at Sam’s was that they didn’t accept VISA, which was our Big Day Downtown method of payment. We handed over a tiny stack of toonies and loonies to pay for our coffees, and wrote it off as our first off-book expense of the day.

After we finished our coffees, we decided to take a walk into the Barrington Place shops, where there used to be a store that sold nothing but hot sauce, but where neither of has bothered to venture into for as long as we can remember. Daring to dream, we thought that maybe the mythical hot sauce store was still in there peddling their spicy wares. It wasn’t. Wandering through that mall, it seemed like you were more likely to find a store that sold nothing but sadness. Barren and empty, our footfalls practically echoed as we walked through the various floors of sleepy storefronts, like mouths emptily yawning into a void. We found our way back out onto the Barrington Street and never looked back.

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: Admittedly I don’t go out for coffee a lot, but love the foam on their cappuccinos and would totally go again. I’l be honest, though, and confess that I’m more likely to stick to my neighbourhood and I’d probably go to the Trident first.
KP: Yes, but only if I was down that way. I’ll stick with my regular faves that are near to home and work.

THE HALIFAX FARMERS’ MARKETS

Seeing as it was a Saturday, our first real goal was to hit both of the farmers’ markets. Other life commitments had kept both of us from yet making the trip to either the old Brewery Market (now the Historic Market) or the Seaport Market since the big split happened.

Both Melissa and I spend a lot of time in downtown Halifax, but mostly around Barrington, so we plotted our walk to take us through downtown sections we don’t see everyday.  We spent a lot of our walk—and a lot of our whole day, really—talking about our thoughts on downtown as two people who have lived here for quite some time. We talked about what has changed, where things are good and where Halifax doesn’t hit the mark, but also about the nature of blogging and whether the Business Commission funded outing we were currently on was somehow compromising our ethics as non-partisan bloggers or if it was, instead, an interesting and forward-thinking way of marketing local businesses. (Obviously we decided it fell more to the latter, or else we wouldn’t have been up so early on a Saturday morning.)

historic market

Despite being a regular market goer in the past, this was my first visit to the new Seaport Market. As with any new venture, I was expecting there would be kinks, and I think currently both markets are experiencing them. The Historic Market was uncomfortably quiet compared to my memories. The vendors were very spread out and there were empty areas where once there was bustle, but overall there were a promising number of tables and some new faces.  The Seaport Market was the polar opposite: very busy and very tightly packed—lots of people and seemingly little room for new vendors. We knew when we arrived at after 11am that it would be busy, but I don’t think we were fully prepared for just how busy it was. We stayed only a short time; there were vendors we couldn’t even reach and the aisles were so packed with people we just made a bee-line for the door. However, despite the hiccups at both locations, I’m willing to give it a bit of time to sort itself out.  I’m a strong supporter of buying locally, both for quality reasons and economic ones, and that’s more than enough to keep me coming back. My only real criticism is that I was disappointed that neither market made mention of the fact that the other was operating down the street. This is probably a result of the competition between the two, but I don’t think it serves anyone—vendors or market goers, and I hope that that will change.

I enjoyed both market experiences in certain ways. While the empty rooms at the Historic Market felt hollow and ghostly, there were still enough wonderful vendors on site to make it worth a visit. The unfamiliar openness and ease with which we navigated the area was pretty darn nice. The Seaport Market, while impressively big, bright and sunny with beautiful harbour views and bustling with a lot of wonderful vendors, was almost screaming with activity and was overwhelming for me. Ultimately I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Seaport Market

And while we didn’t really find anything to buy on our Big Day Downtown dime since many vendors don’t take VISA, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any shopping. In the newly quiet Historic Market, we discovered an incredible cheese vendor right next to the excellent Hutten Family Farm table. The mild, ashy chevre from New Brunswick’s Fromagerie au Fond des Bois was absolutely irresistible, so Kristina went off the books again and picked some up. At the Seaport Market, I only saw some craft vendors that took cards—though I admittedly didn’t look too hard, since being around such an immense, unyielding crowd made me twitchy. We did, however, stop by the Ratinaud Cuisine Française booth where Kristina picked up some duck rillette. Again, without the VISA.

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: I like both markets, and will continue to shop at both. There are great vendors in both locations, and while the Seaport Market currently feels a bit like shopping at the mall in Dawn of the Dead, it won’t stop me from going back.
KP: I could see me sticking to the Historic Market for my Saturday market shopping; the Seaport with its current level of shoppers is too much for me.  I’ll be interested to take in the Seaport Market’s expanded hours and give Saturday there another try in a few months. Although I’m almost out of duck rillette already… so maybe I’ll try heading down a bit earlier in the morning this week.

GARRISON BREWING

Upon leaving the madness of the market, the thing that seemed to make the most sense was a drink—so we crossed the street to Garrison Brewery.  I can’t help but feel like the bustle of the market must be amazing for them—and certainly at just around noon, they were serving a number of happy post-market customers.  Fridges were full of great-looking bottled products, but we decided a rest was in order and pulled up a spot outside.  The option for in-house consumption were small glasses of the beers that were on tap for $2 each. We decided on one of each of the five on offer—a quick beer flight—and settled ourselves in.

This is where our Big Day officially begun, I guess, since this was our first big VISA transaction. Our five tiny glasses of beer were a golden rainbow of raspberry wheat, tall ship amber, hop yard pale, Irish red and nut brown. Relaxed in the sunshine, watching the hordes of market-goers milling about to the jazzy soundtrack of a nearby a saxophone-playing busker, we sipped at the cold beer. We each had our favourites out of the bunch (I liked the raspberry wheat, Kristina liked the tall ship amber), but it was great to try them all in tiny portions.

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: I would totally do this again. This, to me, was the one thing that felt like a new experience and perspective on things to do in downtown Halifax. I loved those tiny beers.
KP: Yes. I really enjoyed this. The atmosphere was relaxed and enjoyable. And it was fun to watch the bustle of the market from the outside.  The novelty of having a bunch of tiny beers was also great, and they were tasty too.

MORRIS EAST

Slightly tipsy and giddy with our new discovery, we then wandered up to Morris Street, through the constant traffic going to and from the market. Our destination: Morris East.

Morris East is a downtown restaurant that I count among my favourites, but don’t seem to get to quite often enough. They have been doing a brunch menu for several months now, and today’s outing seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a try. I went with the idea that I wouldn’t get one of the wood oven pizzas that they’ve made their name with—I’ve enjoyed many of these since the restaurant opened, and I wanted to try something new. However, when I arrived and saw the menu, I couldn’t help but get excited by a pizza I’d not only never seen on their menu, but one which I had never seen anywhere. “The Fried Egg” is maybe the perfect breakfast idea; it’s a pizza with house made bacon, roasted red peppers, mozzarella and greens and in the very centre there is a fried egg.

Morris East

As much as I delight in a good pizza, my head was quickly turned by the house-smoked salmon on the wood-fired bagel. Served with a pile of fresh greens, it was a perfect Saturday brunch. I love the citrusy freshness of orange juice with buttery, smoky salmon as much as I love any excuse to drink sparkling wine in the morning, so I had a mimosa. Jennie, the owner of Morris East, was also kind enough to send over one of their new cocktails—the Pamplemousse, a beautiful concoction of lemon and grapefruit juices, elderflower cordial and gin. We also found out that this fall Morris East will be launching their own line of products, including cocktail mixes (including their Kiss 75, a black cherry and thyme drink that almost caused me to openly weep when it left the menu), tomato sauce and a simple syrup.

Unlike Kristina, I have been to Morris East for brunch a few times. I am always astonished that there isn’t a bigger crowd. I like Jane’s on the Common and Coastal Coffee as much as the next egghead, but I can’t deal with twiddling my thumbs for a half an hour or more while waiting for a table. This brunch is just as good, and just as worth a wait. I guess I shouldn’t complain, though. Stay and Jane’s and Coastal, everybody! Leave me to my easily gotten tables in the South end!

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: Yes for brunch and yes for dinner. Morris East is a bonafide winner.
KP: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

BISHOP’S CELLAR

When we left Morris East, we wandered back down Barrington Street and down to the waterfront, where we found people wandering around eating beavertails, playing with dogs, lining up for various harbour cruises, and generally enjoying the day. We wandered back down to Bishop’s Landing where we sat in the sunshine for a little while the urban fountain popped and sprayed in the middle of the court. After a brief respite, we headed into Bishop’s Cellar to try some Stutz Cider at a tasting they were having.

Stutz Cider

Sweetly tart and absolutely refreshing, it made for a really lovely shopping experience. We didn’t end up getting any wine as a part of our Big Day, but I will admit that wine was purchased for another day, be it big or small, in Downtown or Dartmouth.

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: Is there really any question? Of course.
KP: Yes.

RISTORANTE A MANO

Afterwards we decided to sit down at Ristorante a Mano for our second cappuccino of the day. The patio is delightful, shady and bright with blue and white gingham tablecloths. By this time it was mid-afternoon, and it was relatively quiet and bright with afternoon sunshine along this part of the waterfront.

Our cappuccinos were just ok. The foam was a real letdown after our morning coffees at Sam’s; it was a bubble bath fizz compared to shaving cream foam. We quickly finished our coffees and walked back down the pier to the square by the museum, sitting in the sun-speckled shade.

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: This definitely won’t be a coffee destination for me, but I do like their pizza.
KP: Hmmm…probably not.

RYAN DUFFY’S

At 4:30 we headed to Ryan Duffy’ for their cocktail hour, meeting up with our pal Ron. The sign outside advertised happy hour starting at 4:30pm—and certainly at $4 a drink the prices were happy, but the drinks were not.

Ryan Duffy's

Ron ordered the Cabernet Sauvignon-Terra Andina “odegas Centenarias,” the red wine offered on the menu. He gave it a cursory thumbs up as an afternoon sipper, but the Dragonfly cocktail—which both Kristina and I ordered—was godawful. Watery and bland, they were exactly what I didn’t expect from a restaurant with a reputation as good as Ryan Duffy’s. So unhappy were we, that even the mindbogglingly decadent window full of cured meats couldn’t convince us to just hunker down and order what was probably a great charcuterie plate. Instead we hit the road.

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: As much as Chef Velden’s commitment to sustainable seafood impresses me, the cocktail hour did not. I likely won’t ever be back for that.
KP: The cocktail menu looked like something I imagine the original Crockett and Tubbs might have been handed on a night out in Miami. Sorry, I won’t be back for cocktail hour until the selection enters the 21st century, but I am still interested in dinner for the sustainable seafood.

BLUENOSE II RESTAURANT

We decided on redemption through a diner dessert.

I hadn’t gone to the Bluenose II for years and years, and while some things have changed—a modernized diner interior and a younger, sleeker staff that has erased the charm of the Greek grandmotherly types who used to wander the aisles making sure you were happy with your meals—I still like the joint. The rice pudding is great and the cherry pie would have made the Log Lady proud. I do remember that they had the worst French fries in the free world. I wonder if that’s still true?

Would we go back with our own money?
MB: I actually really like this place, and the rice pudding was good, but I honestly don’t know if it will stay on my radar outside of this experiment. Only time will tell!
KP: Yeah, I’d go back—for a piece of pie or a bite of lunch. The downtown diner is something that we don’t have enough of anymore.

Big Day Downtown Bill

At the end of our Big Day, this was our tally: $93.55 spent. It turns out that after a confusing credit card slip that had no field to write in a tip was delivered, that scrawling one onto the bill didn’t work out, so we didn’t hit as close to $100 as we thought. It turns out that there’s still enough left over to have a very tiny day downtown.

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