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A Hamilton renaissance? Mais oui

The French, King William’s newest restaurant, offers bistro-style dining with a side of urban renewal.

In many ways, The French — the brand-new bistro that just opened its doors on King William Street — encapsulates Hamilton’s renaissance.

Three years ago, the building, which formerly housed Reardon’s Meat Market, was teetering on the verge of becoming a methadone clinic.

Today, The French is the newest eatery in Hamilton’s “restaurant row” — a strip of businesses that didn’t exist two years ago.

The French, the brainchild of restaurateur and entrepreneur Jason Cassis, opened its doors in December. It sits across Hughson Street from The Mule, the successful taco-and-tequila restaurant, and the upscale pub-grub joints Hambrgr and Fsh and Chp. Berkeley North, which offers seafood and vegetarian cuisine, recently opened a few doors west on King William. A new brew pub, Rust City Brewery, is set to open in the coming weeks.

“If ever there was an example on a two-block stretch of momentum, it’s definitely on King William Street,” said Ward 2 Coun. Jason Farr.

It’s the type of streetscape Hamilton’s urban planners and councillors could only dream about three years ago, when the Reardon’s building — which dates back to 1867 — was about to become the second drug-treatment centre within a two-block radius.

The building’s fate changed in 2014, when developer Steve Kulakowsky of Core Urban Inc. purchased it for $1.5 million. (Cassis had put in a bid to buy it himself, but was priced out.) When Kulakowsky learned Cassis had also tried to buy the building, he approached Cassis about a ground-floor restaurant.

“He circled back and said, “I heard you were on the other side of the bid — if I paid for the infrastructure, would you be willing to open up?” said Cassis.

Cassis, whose past projects include The Aberdeen Tavern, Dundurn Market, and the Knollwood Golf Course, has a history of creating eateries that are both stylish and scrumptious — and he says diners should expect the same from his latest project.

The French, says Cassis, fills a gap in the downtown ever-expanding restaurant scene. The menu offers “a contemporary take on a bistro,” ranging from steak frites to ricotta gnocchi to roasted spaghetti squash. In many ways, The French exemplifies how Hamilton’s downtown foodie scene is growing up.

“The food trucks started it. And then the hipster joints started — the barbecue shacks, Rapscallion, the taco bars came,” he said. “The one genre that was missing was a larger format restaurant — a restaurant you could bring a group of girlfriends to and not fill the whole place when you bring 20 women.”

The French also offers something new to the downtown business community — or, as Cassis calls them, “suits.”

“The suits didn’t have a full-service restaurant downtown, necessarily,” he said. “There were a lot of new places that were opening, but they were very small and specific.”

The only problem? Finding enough Hamilton talent. With the explosion of local restaurants, the city’s pool of top-notch servers and kitchen staff simply isn’t big enough, Cassis said. As well as chef John Forcier and manager Cory Tower, both formerly of Canoe restaurant in Toronto, Cassis says he’s looked to experienced hospitality managers in Toronto to recruit and train Hamilton employees.

“That’s very expensive, but it’s also our secret weapon. We want to create a really strong hospitality and service standards,” he said. “Hospitality isn’t about whether your drink arrives on time. It has to be about whether the person cares about your experience.”

Farr says the momentum on King William is only getting started. While he says much of the growth on the downtown street has been organic, the city has also played a role with its investments in restoring the Lister Block, adding wider sidewalks and urban Braille, and investing in public art. (Technically, the city has designated the street as an “art walk,” a nod to the nearby galleries on James Street North).

Farr adds that there will likely be more money earmarked for the street in the upcoming budget process at City Hall. And with two major construction projects underway within spitting distance — a student housing building beside the Lister Block and a new condo on the footprint of the old Bingo Hall — there will be an influx of patrons to fill “restaurant row.”

“It’s only going to grow,” Farr said. “There are obviously great opportunities.”

Article courtesy of Emma Reilly, The Hamilton Spectator

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