The restaurants that matter to politicians

From the Maclean’s Power Issue: The booths and tables where the deals get done

Blair Gable

In spite of its über-Canadian location at the corner of Rideau and Sussex, Métropolitain Brasserie’s management went for a belle époque brasserie brand, its tag line: “You’re closer to Paris than you think.” But the Met became a go-to place from the get-go for Hill dwellers and their hangers-on. A giant room seating 250 inside and a number more out, open every day till late, this brasserie has been at their service since 2006. In its first year, former prime minister Paul Martin brought his sons here for some post-election succour. But since the Conservatives secured their majority, this bit of Paris on Sussex has become their play fort. John Baird and Peter MacKay lunch here regularly. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been sighted at the Met a number of times, including at CTV Ottawa’s 50th-anniversary party last year. But the main criterion during “Hill hour”—when the Malpeques go for a buck a shuck—seems to be age before affiliation. Rookie MPs and staffers decompress at the zinc-topped counters, jostle for space at the raw bar or settle in to one of the red banquettes.

If you want to pol-watch in slightly more formal surroundings, Rick Mercer has a suggestion. “If I was attempting to take over the world, I know where I’d go. Today’s movers, shakers and foodies,” says Mercer, “follow one guy—Steve Beckta.” Mercer’s talking about the owner of the decade-old Beckta Dining & Wine. From day one it commanded attention, setting a new standard for fine dining in the capital. Along with the quality of its food and wine list, Beckta, an Ottawa native, is a consummate host. And he hires better than anyone else in the city. For political stargazing, there may be no finer place. Says one Hill veteran: “At Beckta’s place, you’ll be seeing the ‘big spenders,’ like Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and other people who can afford it.” Beckta’s private rooms are for strategy sessions. It’s believed that Martin and his advisors made the decision to call for the Gomery inquiry in Beckta’s backroom. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is a semi-regular. So is Jim Flaherty. The current PM, one Conservative staffer reports, had a birthday dinner here. For other evidence of the high-profile clientele, just read the signatures on the “wall of wine” behind the bar. On a bottle of châteauneuf-du-pape is the late Jack Layton’s John Hancock. “It’s the finest bottle on the wall,” our server tells us. The best gastronomic strategy at Beckta Dining & Wine is to head straight for chef Katie Brown’s tasting menu. And give in to sommelier Beckta’s wine pairings.

Beckta is also the mastermind behind Play Food & Wine, which occupies two storeys of a heritage building in the ByWard Market, near the U.S. Embassy. The tapas-esque format suits the agenda of Hill-ites as they try to hit multiple functions in one night. Pleasurable small plates also makes Play a go-to for press gallery dinner parties. When one of the Prime Minister’s senior staff, Patrick Muttart, made his farewell, he did it at Play. Cabinet minister Ted Menzies was thrown a surprise 60th here. They’d have eaten well: on executive chef Michael Moffatt’s rotating menu, about the only constant is the tamari-darkened hanger steak with its grilled mushroom mates and perfect frites. Plates are paired with a wine match in three-ounce and five-ounce pours. There is admirable charcuterie at Play, an all-Québécois cheese list and desserts worthy of serious attention.

A short walk from the offices of the PMO is Le Café, the National Arts Centre dining room. “You can’t swing a dead cat on the patio without hitting a lobbyist, staffer or senior public servant,” says one insider. Michael Blackie, who took over as executive chef of the NAC nearly four years ago—and recently left—had some patrons scratching their heads over his outré food. (“Can I get fries with the ‘beef tartare on a tempura shiso jasmine rice bomb with ume plum paint?’ ”)

The fittingly named Social Restaurant + Lounge, cool, stylish and with solid bones, tends to draw younger politicos. When it opened in the Chrétien days, it was a magnet for Liberal “power diners.” For ex-politico Belinda Stronach, it was a quick dash across the street from her snappy Sussex Street condo. Today, the power still comes to Social, it’s just not very Liberal. Social’s handsome assets include its century-old stone walls, tall front windows with fine views, clever lighting and a bustling courtyard patio scene. Many head for the $28 burger (with a foie gras toupée).

Memories are strong at Hy’s Steakhouse. Says one prolific Hill blogger, “Except for budget nights and other big occasions, Hy’s has become a bit of a museum of power brokers past.” Nowadays it’s morphed into a haunt of hockey players and elder statesmen looking for a no-frills protein fix and the attention of servers who have been working its plush room for 30 years. Shortly after the Harperites secured their majority, retired senator Gerry St. Germain, in his trademark stetson, was holding court at the table by the glassed-in grill. Two tables away, less in the spotlight, Liberals Ralph Goodale and Dominic LeBlanc were seen sharing a meal and some quiet conversation, interrupted every few minutes by a visitor extending an admiring hand or a word of encouragement. And at the cocktail bar, one source reports, the bartender is well acquainted with Baird’s favourite white wine.

Incidentally, Ottawa isn’t all meat-and-potatoes: when Rona Ambrose has had enough of rubber chicken, she heads to ZenKitchen for chef Caroline Ishii’s award-winning vegan cuisine. Elizabeth May turns to the city’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, the Green Door, for its live-forever buffet.

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