A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY: COMING HOME TO ARABELLA PARK
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘This is my happy place,’ I whisper to no one in particular as Stephen Cleary pops the top off an obscure Belgian lambic-style beer and pours it evenly into the five wine glasses he’s placed on the white-washed wood slab bar in front of our intimate group. ‘I’m so happy right now,’ I exhale – quietly but exuberantly – into the beautifully-minimalist space that surrounds us. As though the grin plastered to my face isn’t proof enough.
It’s a Sunday evening in June. The sun’s just gone down. I’m perched comfortably on a bar stool at Arabella Park Beer Bar, located along the Belmont Village strip in the affluent Old Westmount neighbourhood of Kitchener. And everything about this place, this time, feels perfect.
The beer bar’s three large garage door-style window bays are rolled up, beckoning the outside in. Evening air cools the space. The faint hum of traffic and hints of acoustic guitar and laughter from a patio down the block mix with Arabella’s seeming-constant soundtrack of classic hip hop. Gang Starr. Mos Def. Killah Priest. Tribe. The good stuff. And I’m surrounded by great people. Awesome food. And exceptional beer.
As a Kitchener kid raised just down the street (before leaving for Guelph via Montreal and Toronto), I feel I’m uniquely qualified to revel in what Arabella co-owners Natalie and Bob Schnurr have accomplished here. This is not the Belmont Village of my youth, I think to myself as I take a sip of the Belgian brew. The sourness of the lambic – resulting from the style’s signature wild yeast, bacteria, and lengthy barrel-aging process – puckers my lips. This is a whole new era. Gone are the drab convenience stores where my friends and I would grab afterschool snacks on our trek home from KCI. Gone, too, is Vincenzo’s – the venerated Italian grocer that put Belmont Village on the map before relocating Uptown. And gone, especially, is the feeling of desolation that enveloped the strip every evening after the sun went down.
Instead, today’s Belmont Village is teeming with terriffic (and discernibly eclectic) culinary establishments. There’s Casa Rugantino. And Janet Lynn’s Bistro. The Belmont Bistro. The Culinary Studio. The Berlin Bicycle Café. Raja Fine Indian Cuisine. And, of course, the storied Big John’s Subs, where my dad concluded a long, nervous June evening in the late ‘70s, right after his youngest – me – was born just down the way, at St. Mary’s Hospital.
But I digress. It’s Sunday night. At Arabella. And the place is almost empty. Which is how I like it. No, it’s how I love it. Wednesdays through Saturdays are a different story, as the stylish beer bar teems with young and not-so-young professionals either on their way home from any number of Kitchener-Waterloo’s tech companies and start-ups, or on their way out. Sundays, on the other hand, are intimate a airs when Stephen – Arabella’s distinguished Cellarman who cut his teeth at the legendary Stillwell Beer Bar in Halifax – can hold court.
At the bar, I’m joined by Jordan of Willibald Farm Distillery (see TOQUE Issue 1), a couple of Jordan’s friends, and Arabella chef Byron, who’s taken it upon himself to stuff our bellies with delicious charcuterie. I gaze past pretty potted plants to the massive Arabella logo painted on the far wall – ‘an homage to Munich’s Mae West sculpture that abuts the Bavarian city’s Arabellapark district,’ Natalie remarked the first time we’d met. The reference to Munich – the capital of Oktoberfest – is clear. And significant, of course, since Kitchener is home to the world’s largest Oktoberfest outside Germany.
I ask Stephen why he’s chosen to bless us with a lambic – as opposed to, say, something brewed much closer to home. I gesture to the white crayon list featuring almost two dozen Ontario craft beers and ciders hand-scrawled on the gleaming bright blue wall behind the bar. On it, I see my all-time favourite – the super juicy Jutsu Pale Ale from Belwoods in Toronto – as well as choice brews from outfits like Burdock, Indie Ale House, Sawdust City and Half Hours On Earth.
Stephen pulls me out of my reverie. ‘Without sounding hyperbolic,’ he says, ‘we’re striving to be one of the top beer bars in Canada, where, over the last few years, breweries have become better beer stations than bars.’ He pauses. ‘We carry imports mainly to show what’s possible in the brewing industry. While our focus remains the best and most innovative beers and ciders from Ontario, it’s important to be aware of global beer trends too. We want to curate what’s best around the province – and the world.’
So far so good, I’d say. I finish the lambic. Jordan orders pints of Jutsu for the five of us. Chef Byron brings out some more charcuterie. It’s well past midnight. And I’m utterly content.