Inaccessible restaurant to become inaccessible brew pub

Two weeks ago the Citizen ran a story about the plans to turn the site of the Thompson-Perkins Mill — better known as the old Mill Restaurant — into a brew pub. The NCC owns the building and has come to an arrangement with Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery to operate the facility.

It’s hard to see how this food-and-beverage concept could be anything but an improvement to what was on offer in the cavernous dining hall of the old Mill. It was the sort of restaurant that tour buses and office Christmas parties flocked to, but for regular diners its over-cooked and over-priced “roast beef and boiled carrots” menu had long gone out of fashion. You might have taken your great-aunt there for her birthday, but you never took a date.

And because it wasn’t really on our radar as a viable spot for a enjoyable night out,  we never paid much attention to another major shortcoming of the Mill — its location. The pink rectangle in the screen capture above shows what *should* be a prime spot – on the bank of the Ottawa just past the end of Wellington street, a few meters away from where tens of thousands of us cross back and forth between Ontario and Quebec everyday.

But if course, like so many of the riverbank amenities in our city, despite its proximity to us, it might as well be miles away for those of us who are on foot. A multi-lane cordon sanitaire protects the facility from contamination by pedestrian traffic from either the south or the east. And when we think of where we like to dine in Ottawa, we think of the Market, Elgin Street, Wellington Street West; places where pedestrians are clearly welcome to explore and mingle.

Can a pub cut off from the life of the city around it survive as a drive-to location? Certainly there are successful road-house style bars in the suburbs, but I suspect that when customers get this close to the core they want something more; they are drawn by the idea that they might pop in somewhere else for dessert and coffee, or just stroll the busy sidewalks with hundreds of others, letting their senses absorb the sights and sounds. It is just this sort of variety that makes the urban experience so attractive.

Of course I wish the operators of the new pub at the Thompson-Perkins site all the best luck. But as long as their landlords insist on routing what is essentially an expressway just a few meters from their front door, I suspect that the Mill will continue to occupy the same place in our mental landscape — well off the beaten track.

14 comments

  1. I generally agree with this article, but don’t think the new Mill Brew Pub will be in danger of closing for a single simple reason: the month of July. As a destination pub alone, this location does unfortunately lend itself to being easily forgotten. However, it will be an unbelievably popular attraction for the tens of thousands of Bluesfest attendees looking for a nice pub before & after a show. Likewise other festivals held at Lebreton, as well as Canada Day, should mean that the establishment turns a profit on the strength of this one month alone.

  2. There are pathways that go right by it. From the East side of Wellington there are stairs that lead down to the pathways, and if you go left or right they will take you under Wellington/Portage straight to the Mill. The latter connects up with the pathways coming up from Bronson/Commissioner and the Garden of the Provinces and Territories to the south.

  3. This article surprised me. The author makes it sound like it is impossible to walk to the site. There are, however, paths that can take a pedestrian under the “cordon sanitaire” making arrival at the brew pub a unique experience. It’s true, the paths that take you there are complicated and may require a little knowledge or research before hand but I look forward to walking or biking through the “Garden of the Provinces” (as labeled on Google Maps) to get to the pub. A trip to the mill will mean fresh air and beautiful scenery and will be welcomed variety to the bustling sidewalks in the market.

    I wish the author of this piece had focused more on helping people navigate the best way to arrive at the mill as a pedestrian rather than informing everyone that the car is the only option.

  4. Indeed, this location has excellent pedestrian access, what is the author talking about? There’s underpasses for all the roads and a very active bike trail going right in front of it.

  5. The author is entirely correct. The area is a ridiculously over-engineered intersection that only a planner or a traffic engineer could love. The “excellent pedestrian access” doesn’t change the fact that any sensible pedestrian, seeing the dreary emptiness of the area from Lyon (and in winter, multiply that dreariness by 10), would turn back long before getting to the obscure tunnels, which in themselves hardly make up for the banal freeway intersection above. Another auto-centric planning triumph from the NCC, set in a typically vacant green space that just screams “we have no good ideas”.

    But best of luck to the Pub.

  6. Thank you GDH for getting the gist. Of course there are underpasses and tediously indirect/windswept recreational pathways in the area, but that’s scarcely the same thing as being connected to the natural street plan in any meaningful way.

    I would argue that it takes a real sense of purpose to arrive at many of the NCC riverside amenities on foot, even from an adjacent neighbourhood. Yes, on a warm Sunday with time to kill we like to go exploring, but for the rest of the week we don’t integrate the river pathways into our daily routine, and I’m not sure walkers will stake a whole evening on a location they cannot easily see other businesses from.

    We’ll know soon enough!

  7. “Yes, on a warm Sunday with time to kill we like to go exploring, but for the rest of the week we don’t integrate the river pathways into our daily routine”
    except for the thousands who use the pathways for their daily commute.  Yes the area is quite hostile from street level, but this is still a weak effort in one-sided argument.

  8. Perhaps the folks at Mill St. are banking on the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats and the subsequent localized population growth to support its growth. I suspect its location is likely to become more accessible as public infrastructure is improved as development proceeds.

  9. On the awfulness of this location and the poor planning decisions that led to it becoming an orphaned heritage building in a sea of concrete, you are dead right Evan.

    But on the prognosis for the success of this business, I think you’re wrong, and here’s why: 1) the power of the Mill Street brand / intelligence of the marketers behind this effort, 2) the eventual growth of LeBreton Flats as a population centre (if terribly designed), and 3) because the NCC has killed most other opportunities in Ottawa for a decent beer by the water, I think there will be demand. I think this restaurant will become a local landmark in spite of the obvious drawbacks.  

  10. I think Evan’s right. The only thing they have that makes it possible to foresee commercial success is their name recognition (and tasty suds). Otherwise, even with Lebreton 1-2-3 and other new nearby condos (Pinnacle, Gardens 1-2, Cathedral Hill, etc), going there is pretty much a commitment to go just there, since there’s nothing else around. On a great warm summer weekend I can see it being a start point for people going to Hull later at night, but not everyone will do that. For dowtowners it’ll be a bike-to destination.

  11. @Alain: There’s nothing else around that’s commercial, but there are some nice walks around Lebreton Flats, either to and around the War Museum, the Garden of the Provinces, or even to the old abandoned parts where you can still see evidence of railway tracks, etc. Not to mention the various spillways around Chaudiere falls.

  12. Okay, let me amend that: I really HOPE it becomes a major success, so that we can finally start talking about creative public / private spacing options for the waterfront there including Booth Street and the Chaudiere and Victoria islands. That area should be THE tourist destination in Ottawa again, as it was in the 19th century. 

  13. I’ve just been in Toronto where one of my stops was the Mill Street brewpub in the heart of the Distillery District.  When it started, the area was underdeveloped, hostile to transit users, bordered by the train lines (think GO Trains, etc.) which don’t stop at this location, limited parking and so on.  A lot of folks thought they were crazy, but now this is a destination spot – pretty much packed from opening to closing.  I chatted briefly about the Ottawa expansion with the pub manager, who was somewhat in the loop, and his thoughts were that it is exactly the same formula that they used in Toronto – find a spot that either begs or is on the cusp of rejuvenation and develop an audience, and Lebreton Flats gets points on both.  One thing that will get me going there for sure is that they have some beautiful beers that are not available at the Beer Store or LCBO that you can purchase and take home.  Can’t wait, and I’ll negotiate the pathways.  🙂

  14. Dennis and Donna make excellent points – the Mill Street brand should help draw customers to the otherwise inaccessible location. Might help introduce people to other public spaces in the area and *hopefully* encourage other businesses to move there as the LeBreton project gets built out.

    However, the business incubator model (provide lower rents and/or affordable live-work spaces to start-up arts businesses, for example) that makes places like the Distillery District so successful is non-existent in Ottawa. Perhaps the city should look into a pilot project?

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