BY CHRIS TIESSEN

‘I’ll grab an order of duck wings to go,’ I call out to our server as she refreshes our water glasses and begins clearing our dishes. So many dishes. ‘But you just ate a plate of them,’ Cai observes incredulously. ‘Plus everything else we just enjoyed. Aren’t you full yet?’ I am. And utterly satisfied, too. Yet I’m wanting them again already. These duck wings. With sweet maple soy glaze and chili crunch. From The Rich Uncle Tavern – in Kitchener’s downtown core.

It’s early afternoon on a sunny day in early April, and my TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis and I are sitting up near the front of this gorgeous establishment for lunch. Beside us, a group of young professionals enjoys pints and cocktails on luxurious brown leather armchairs situated directly below the place’s massive front windows that face King Street. Outside, smartly-dressed downtown workers meander past. More than a few pause and gaze into our cozy environ – looks of longing etched onto their faces. On our other side, a couple of tattooed gentlemen whom I seem to recognize from my younger years growing up in Kitchener sit at the massive bar. Before long, one of them saunters over and introduces himself to us: Kypp Saunders. Of course. From my (seeming endless) days at The Jane Bond Café so long ago. We talk about the old days, before Kypp informs Cai and me of a speakeasy he’s about to open. 

Here – in Kitchener’s downtown core. 

What a time it is to be alive in this region. To live. And laugh. Eat. And drink.

Our server returns with my boxed duck wings and our dessert – a maple and bourbon crème brulee. One dessert. Two spoons. Two espressos. And then there’s also the remainder of our beers – which we’ve been enjoying all meal long. A Red Circle Iron Horse Trail IPA for Cai. And a flight – ‘like some sort of tourist,’ Cai had quipped when I ordered it – for me. I’d gladly be a tourist if it would lead me here, I think to myself. And then take a sip from one of my samples – a rich coffee porter from Red Circle – and look around. 

This place is definitely a sight worth beholding. The soaring two-storey space with impressive winding wooden staircase. The penny-farthing, or high wheeler, on display near the top of the stairs. ‘From Clayton at Back Peddling in Guelph,’ Rich Uncle co-owner Ryan Lloyd-Craig noted months before when Cai and I had first stopped in. The portrait galleries hung eclectically throughout the space, evoking a sense of history. The dark wood floors – worn to perfection. The plethora of cigar boxes positioned here and there containing lunch and drink menus. ‘Because the place is named after Rich Uncle Cigars, which was located right here on King some hundred years ago,’ Ryan had quipped.* The upstairs library – replete with antique couches, bookshelves, a gorgeous bar, and live music certain nights of the week. And the open kitchen at the back of the main floor dining room featuring a live fire ‘pit’ with heavy metal racks raised and lowered with chains. ‘Just like back in the days when this space was The Berlin,’ I note to Cai as she cracks the perfectly-prepared crème brulee with her spoon. ‘I’m happy they kept it.’

Indeed, the live fire experience is what makes this place so special. So much of the menu is done on the fire. From the locally-sourced meats to seasonal fish to the beets that came on our Soiled Reputation salad – a wonderful mix of seasonal vegetables, smoked walnut, pear, Hewitt’s goat cheese, soft poached hen’s egg and wildflower honey dressing. Even the bread for our steak tartare – baked at The Rich Uncle’s sister restaurant, Graffiti Market – was toasted over flames.

Of course, some things remain safely out of the fire and in the pot, as folks are prone to say. (Except the other way round.) Like the wild boar ragu pappardelle (with San Marzano tomato, toasted breadcrumb and Grana Padano) that Cai and I shared, for instance. ‘One of the best pastas I’ve ever eaten,’ I’d told the crew beside us when asked. Or the lobster roll (on Red Circle brioche baked at Graffiti Market, radish and seaweed aioli) that we also enjoyed. And I mean really enjoyed. ‘It’s the single menu item I’d recommend to anyone coming in for a bite,’ restaurant co-owner Neil Huber remarked when I’d had the chance to chat with him about the place. I didn’t disagree with him then. And wouldn’t now, either, except for those wings. 

As Cai and I gather our things and get set to leave, I take a last walk through the dining room toward the kitchen. To take one more peek at the fire, and a few more shots of the culinary team in action. As I drift through the space, I recall what Ryan had said about the name of the restaurant – that it was named after a local business (Rich Uncle Cigars) situated at this address a century ago. I glance at the exposed stone walls, and look down at the fabulous worn floors. 

(Only my favourite floors ever.) And at the place’s gorgeous furniture. And the portrait galleries. And then across the pass at the live fire. Blazing bright – like out of some old time movie. I’m struck by the beauty of it all. And the history of this space. And thank the heavens above that folks like Ryan and Neil and others are animating spots like this – reaching back into the past and looking to the future. 

What a time it is to be alive in this region. To live. And laugh. Eat. And drink.

*Here’s something interesting: Ryan first read about Rich Uncle Cigars in the 1979 monograph, ‘Berlin, Canada: A Self-portrait of Kitchener, Ontario before World War One,’ published by my parents – local academics Paul Tiessen and Hildi Froese Tiessen. But that’s a whole other story.

The Rich Uncle Tavern
45 King St W, Kitchener
richuncletavern.ca

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