STRATFORD: WHERE EVERYTHING’S WITHIN REACH
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
I open my eyes just wide enough to peer through the pitch blackness. There’s barely a hint of light emanating through my hotel room window – covered by the curtain I’d swept across it before hopping into bed. I strain to scan the room. Slowly. With focused intention. Then I spot it, on what I take to be the bedside table. The vague outline of a tin foil package subtly illumined by a glint of light.
I smile in the darkness and fumble around until my hands hold fast to this silver treasure. I pull the package toward me and roll back the edges of foil. Zesty aromas of rich marinara sauce, handmade spaghetti noodles, and almost fist-sized meatballs hit my nostrils – and I’m in heaven. For the next quarter hour, using only my fingers as utensils and guide, I devour this take-out magnificence. From AO Pasta in downtown Stratford.
Wholly satisfied, I make my way in the dark to the sink. Wash my hands. Throw out the tinfoil container. And curl up to sleep – dreaming of the awesome day that Cai, my TOQUE mate, and I have just enjoyed touring around Festival City.
* * *
‘Where should we stop first?,’ Cai queries as we pass through Stratford’s city limits, barreling toward downtown. It’s mid-morning on a Wednesday in early October, and the two of us are driving from Guelph for a planned overnight in the city. We’re both pumped for this. I peer down at my phone to check out the loose itinerary Cai messaged me late yesterday night. Lots to see, lots to do, I think to myself. I lift the take-out coffee I’d grabbed at Planet Bean back in Guelph earlier this morning. It’s empty. ‘Balzac’s,’ I reply. ‘I’d love an americano.’
The Balzac’s location in downtown Stratford, at 149 Ontario Street, is such a gorgeous spot – and the first location Diana Olsen,that wildly successful entrepreneur (and, I’m proud to say, friend and supporter), opened back in the mid-nineties. The intricate tiled floor. Long granite counter. Perfect glass display cases. High ceilings finished in tin – painted gleaming white, like so much of the place. I order an americano (decaf) while Cai grabs a couple of the place’s in-house canned nitro brews. All fuelled up, we hop into Cai’s TOQUE-mobile and head for Junction 56 – a craft distillery located in a former (century- old) lumber yard at the junction of two of Stratford’s original railway lines.
Junction 56 owner and head distiller Mike Heisz cheerfully tours me around the back of house while Cai checks out the bottle shop. By the time Mike and I re-emerge, Cai’s placing several bottles at check-out for purchase, including mickeys of black raspberry and rhubard gin and a two-six of ‘mint smoothie’ liqueur – a collaborative effort between the distillery and Stratford’s Rhéo Thompson Candies. ‘Can’t wait to try this one,’ Cai remarks with a grin. I don’t disagree.
Cai drives us back toward Ontario Street, to our boutique hotel – Edison’s Inn. Parking in a designated hotel spot, we enter through the back entrance and make our way up an inviting set of stairs toward Cai’s room. There’s no front desk – just codes we were given when we booked, for the back door and our rooms. We take a breather in Cai’s room before proceeding to mine. ‘This is awesome,’ I exclaim as I survey the quirky décor of Cai’s room, noting the barnboard wall, comfy leather couches, bright red bar fridge – and a massive floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Avon River.
When we check out my room, we are more than a bit wowed to find a painted sign above the door declaring that, way back in 1863, Thomas Edison lived here while working in Stratford as a telegrapher. Crazy. Edison. Lived here. I imagine my night’s stay – sleeping in the same room where the inventor of the phonograph, motion picture camera, and lightbulb once hung his hat. A shiver courses through my body as childhood beliefs in spirits and ghosts make their way into my thoughts. ‘Let’s go back to your room,’ I suggest to Cai. I’m keen to fortify myself with some of that mint smoothie while I anticipate the night ahead. Cai smirks, reading my thoughts. ‘We can trade rooms, if you’d like,’ she suggests. I laugh – happy that her offer’s at least on the table.
After a taste of that delectable mint smoothie, we’re back out on Ontario Street – traveling on foot to Mercer Hall for lunch. We’ve been here before and know what to expect. Great craft beer on tap. Hearty food. Hip vibe. And a long harvest table just inside the front door that’s perfect for people watching – and positioned underneath a killer chandelier. Cai settles on the Buttermilk Fried Chicken (with biscuit, fries, and honey mustard) while I order the Tempura Fish & Chips (with fries and coleslaw). We can’t resist splitting a post-Thanksgiving turkey dinner poutine – stuffing included. And to drink: pints of Omnipollo’s ‘Zodiac’ IPA for me and, for Cai, Duschutes’ ‘Fresh Squeezed’ IPA.
We decide to walk off our food by meandering down Ontario Street. There are so many great shops along this strip. We poke our heads into Got It Made (a cute local artisanal market), The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop (where we each buy a handful of dried sausages), Small-Mart (a quirky general mercantile where I buy matching swiss army knives for two seven-year-olds in my life), and, lastly, Bradshaws (a kitchen and lifestyle mecca).
‘Oh my word,’ I exclaim to Cai as we make our way to the back of Bradshaws – a fixture of the city for well over a century, ‘I’ve never seen so many Le Creuset pieces in one place.’ Cast iron dutch ovens finished in bright red. Frying pans in mint green. Tea kettles in a sort of baby sage. Ever since watching Johnny ‘Drama’, Vince Chase’s older half-brother on HBO’s ‘Entourage’, make a big deal when someone dared to use his cherished Le Creuset pots without permission, I’ve been partial to the stuff.
I pick out a tea pot, kettle, and two ceramic mugs in a sage hue, and a couple of pie birds in burnt orange, and head for the cashier. Along the way, I can’t keep my eyes off the gorgeous chef knives, fantastic coffee paraphernalia, exquisite barware, unique clocks and colourful socks and wooden horses and home décor items beautifully presented throughout the place. I pause in front of a series of sturdy metal lemon presses – available in a plethora of bright colours. I’ll never need a lemon press as muscular and expensive as any of these. And yet I find myself almost grabbing one. ‘They’re just too lovely,’ I find myself saying to Cai as I pause in front of them. ‘You’re right,’ she replies, and pushes me along to the cash. Note to self: I’m coming back for one of these.
The remainder of the day is a bit of a whirl: dropping our purchases back at the hotel, walking along the Avon, checking out the almost-completed Tom Patterson Theatre (such an awe-inspiring venue anticipating future seasons of the Stratford Festival’s world class productions), grabbing a flight at Black Swan Brewing, and meeting the owner of Edison’s Inn, Bruce Whitaker, for coffees at the cute Edison’s Café, located in the same building as the hotel. We don’t stay seated for long before Bruce whisks us down Ontario Street toward his newest project – the Perth County Inn.
To be completed by end of year, the boutique inn, located in an historic building on Stratford’s oldest business block, will display the same whimsy and playfulness that characterizes Edison’s. The four themed rooms (including the ‘Green Room’, a plant- filled ode to the theatre’s green rooms), hotel lobby bar, ping pong, and music venue ensure that Cai and I will be back when it opens.
For dinner, Cai and I take a short walk along Ontario Street to Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria. Seated in the restaurant’s elegant main dining room, we ordera couple negronis – sweet, bitter, magnificent – and split the place’s glorious Burrata appetizer (with slow roasted garlic and fried rosemary) and two pizzas: the Bianco (cream sauce, prosciutto, mushroom, caramelized onion, fresh jalapeno) and Italian Stallion (prosciutto, Italian sausage, bacon, roasted garlic, fresh herbs).
Refreshed and relaxed, we roll back onto the street, and are about to head back to Edison’s to call it a night when I make a last request. ‘Can we hit up AO Pasta?,’ I ask Cai. ‘But aren’t you full?,’ she queries. ‘Ya,’ I answer, ‘but I’d love some take-out. For later. After all, no trip to Stratford is complete without at least one AO dish.’ Cai doesn’t disagree. We’re both huge fans of the place. The homemade food made to order from scratch. The fast service. Simple tables. Long bar with white subway-tiled backsplash. Neon sign reading: ‘Everything You See I Owe To Spaghetti.’ A foodie’s paradise, to be sure. Cai and I wait at the bar for our take-out. Spaghetti with meatballs for me. (AO is the only place I’d ever order this simple, underrated dish.) And campanelle with kale almond pesto, broccoli, and pecorino for Cai.
Our heavy take-out containers in hand, we make the short trip by foot back to Edison’s, where, later, I find myself peering through the pitch blackness – searching for that pasta. I recognize the irony in it. Fumbling around in the darkness in a room where the inventor of the lightbulb once laid his head. I can almost sense his frustration from the great beyond: wanting to tell me to just flick the switch beside my bed. And yet I fight the urge. I’m content to feel about. For the treasure – spaghetti and meatballs – is certainly worth the effort.
The next morning Cai and I make one final stop on our way out of town – at The Planet Diner for a late breakfast, of sorts. I order the veggie burger and add Perth pork bacon, while Cai orders a cobb salad with plant-based ‘chick’un’. I add a chocolate cherry mylk shake. We’re quiet for most of the meal. ‘That was one helluva trip,’ I say to Cai, finally, picking a stray piece of bacon off my wax paper setting and popping it into my mouth. ‘This is one helluva city,’ Cai responds. We continue eating in silence. Imagining our next trip back.