Sunday, January 6, 2013

Down time in The Hammer

I'd like to apologize for my lack of posts of late! We haven't stopped exploring Hamilton, but our quest has taken a bit of a backseat ever since our little one, the newest Hamiltonian, arrived in the fall (and it got cold out!)

As he gets older and as the weather warms up, we'll be out again, trying out the exciting restaurants, events and festivals that this city has to offer! Stay tuned...

Happy New Year!

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Sarcoa experience

As I've said before, I'm no restaurant reviewer. But I do think our recent trip to one of the city's newest and most coveted restaurants (Sarcoa of course) deserves a few words!

Let me backtrack a bit....the first time we visited the Discovery Centre down at Pier 4 was last summer, for a charity auction event. The space was obviously fairly new, bright and airy - but there was nothing permanently in place there. How strange? we thought. This beautiful new building on the waterfront with nothing going on. A readymade patio outside, facing the lake, with no chance for Hamiltonians to enjoy it. It turns out that the centre has quite a history, first as a Parks Canada museum and educational centre, before being shut down in 2010.

Soon after we attended that charity event back in the summer of 2011, we began to hear rumblings that the plan was to move restaurants into the centre - a concept which we were obviously very excited about, given the site's potential.

Fast forward to this summer and the arrival of the first such restaurant, Sarcoa, which opened its doors in July.

I'll admit that I clearly underestimated the popularity (and hunger for) this type of restaurant in this location. We called them up one Friday soon after opening and asked about reservations for that weekend. They had nothing available. The same thing happened the following weekend. Eventually, we smartened up and made reservations a week ahead.

Finally, Sarcoa day came. We headed out to the bay and were instantly impressed by what they've done with the space. The patio outside is incredible - a large space with palm trees, a great view of the lake, an impressive bar in the middle and little 'cabanas' (cushiony covered outdoor spaces) for larger get-togethers. Inside was pretty chic as well - large, light and airy with a huge modern bar on one side, and loads of booths and tables and local art on the walls. We immediately thought that this place would be an impressive venue for either a large event or a smaller birthday party. Obviously, the patio likely doubles the amount of seating at the restaurant, so I imagine it will probably be pretty crowded in the winter after they shut the patio down.

In spite of all of these positive developments, our first five minutes at Sarcoa proved to be the only negative part of our night. There was a bit of a lineup at the front to get seated. As we waited, an older couple in front of us was quarreling with several of the 'hosts' over their online reservation (the restaurant didn't seem to have a record of it). The hostess told the couple that they were fully booked up that night and the following night and if the couple wanted to make a reservation for later in the week, she could do that. They stormed out.

We didn't really give it a second thought until we were seated and ordering. We noticed that while the restaurant was busy, there were a number of tables around us that were empty - and stayed empty - for the entire 1.5-2 hours that we were there. Now I'm no restaurant manager, but I'm pretty sure that the couple could have eaten and been out before any late 'reservations' showed up....

This event led to an extended conversation between hubby and I about good business sense, and the fact that those customers will likely never return to Sarcoa. They've lost that couple for life, whereas if they'd just been a bit flexible and let them have a table for two for an hour, all that could have been averted. I don't want to bring up the "T" word, but when we were in Toronto, I did notice that in even the busiest restaurants downtown, they usually tried to accommodate walk-ins, even if it meant a lengthy wait at the bar. Rarely was anyone ever sent away.

But I digress...

The food itself was pretty good - Margherita pizza for me and burger and fries for hubby - as well as dessert (peach cobbler and brownies...mmm...) A great place for date night!

Unlike the couple who we encountered at the beginning of our Sarcoa visit, we would definitely make a return visit (possibly with out-of-towners) as its still such a gem on the waterfront. We also can't wait to try the other restaurant that is slated to open up next to Sarcoa soon!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The search for a Dundas cactus...

We're coming to the end of our second summer in Hamilton, yet somehow last year we missed out on the Dundas Cactus Festival.

I have a feeling it had something to do with it being on at the same time as the chili cook-off on Augusta Street, but somehow this year, even with me being in my third trimester, we managed to cram both festivals in! (We had family in town that weekend, which always means more activities than usual!)

Anyway - the Cactus Festival....

Truth be told, we didn't even know it was on...or what it was. We decided to take my mother-in-law to Dundas to have a look around and low and behold, there was something afoot (food trucks, vendors, etc. were busy setting up.)

The first thing all three of us said was "Cactus festival? Here? I don't see any cacti..."

We decided to go into a local establishment to ask about the origins of this Cactus festival - a question to which no one really knew the answer, but a woman did seem shocked that we were asking. "You've never BEEN to the CACTUS FESTIVAL before?" she asked....

Ummm, unfortunately not, my hubby replied - we're still fairly recent Toronto transplants.

She proceeded to tell us about how it is the biggest festival of the year (according to the website, the festival attracts 100,000 people), and there would be live music, vendors, FOOD, etc. Obviously, we decided to stick around.

(After doing some basic research, I learned that the festival is an unofficial 'homecoming' event and bears its name as a result of Dundas' recognition as a producer of greenhouse cacti.)

Given that we were there right when the festival kicked off at 6pm on a Friday night (although we did miss the Cactus Festival parade!), it wasn't in full swing - but the place was packed.

What we found at the Cactus Festival was your usual mix of jewellery, clothes and service vendors (many of the King St. storefronts had little booths outside), as well as LOTS of food options (including our favourite food trucks!). This time around, we opted for a festival-appropriate dinner choice, the aptly-named Thirsty Cactus.

As we wandered up and down King St. that evening, we realized that this was not only a popular festival about which Dundas residents seemed extremely excited and proud, but also a great free event (akin to so many other summer festivals in Hamilton) that importantly allow the community to get out, interact and see the best that certain towns and neighbourhoods have to offer - but we never did spy a cactus!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Food trucks, glorious food trucks

So there's this show on the Food Network that always makes me hungry. Its called Eat St. and essentially, they go around the U.S. and Canada visiting amazing food trucks and profiling their delicacies - everything from Mexican to gourmet chicken wings to vegetarian cuisine, all at a street corner near you.

The food on there always looks so gourmet, so fresh, so different from the ordinary (these 'food truck chefs' seem to always come up with their own sauces, their unique spin on dishes and like to use fresh ingredients.)

All this to say that, aside from ice cream/fry trucks, I don't think I'd ever seen one of the new generation of food trucks - until I moved to Hamilton.

Our first interaction with Hamilton's burgeoning food truck scene was last summer at the Festival of Friends in Ancaster. The newest and most popular kid on the block, Gorilla Cheese, was there (the name of this truck is fantastic). Hubby, of course, had to partake (sadly, I don't eat cheese so I probably won't ever get to taste the delicacy that is Gorilla Cheese, unless they can throw together some lactose-free variety!) Needless to say, he agreed with all of the praise other people had heaped on Gorilla's version of these classic sandwiches.

We then started to notice more and more 'food trucks' around Hamilton - such a noticeable change from Toronto, where I don't think I had even seen one (apart from the aforementioned fry/hotdog/ice cream vans). In Hamilton, we even noticed bakery food trucks parked outside of the mall - I mean, who doesn't want a cupcake when they're shopping on a Saturday morning?!

I know its not exclusively a Hamilton thing, but this city does seem to have more than its share of these delicacies on wheels (as evidenced by the Sew Hungry event that pops up every so often on Ottawa Street - we keep missing out on this one, but apparently, we didn't have to wait for this event to experience a whole crew of food trucks in one spot!)

Essentially, hubby found out via Twitter last week that several food trucks were gathering in a certain spot on the mountain and we got in the car and headed out there. Yes, recently, we went to our first gathering of food trucks and had dinner. A good number of trucks showed up to the event, including one serving Schnitzel, another offering Greek food, a couple of BBQ/Southern trucks and of course, Gorilla Cheese.

We opted to try out one of the newer food trucks - Dirty South. I chose the chicken tacos, while hubby had a pulled pork sandwich - they do have an awesome looking chicken sandwich made with WAFFLES - but neither of us felt we could handle it that day! Anyway, the food was great, the place was packed and it was great to see so many Hamiltonians gathering to try out the tasty local food truck fare for dinner. Other than the cupcake truck (which is so yum!) Dirty South might be my new fave restaurant on wheels.

A few days later, we ran into more food trucks at the Dundas Cactus Festival (which I'll talk about in another post), but if you have a fave local food truck, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

Monday, July 16, 2012

A new perspective

First of all, let me apologize for having been MIA from this blog for a couple of months. Its not that we've given up on exploring Hamilton - far from it! Rest assured, we're still busy eating in all of our favourite restaurants (plus some new ones!) and taking in the best activities Hamilton has to offer - like Art Crawl, the Art Gallery, the trails (which the dog LOVES!) etc...

But while this blog originally started as a means to document a young couple's exploration of our new home and all it has to offer (and also a dog's eye view of the city!) we'll now also be looking for baby and kid-friendly Hamilton events, activities and pastimes. Yes, we're expecting a new little Hamiltonian soon!

True, the little one won't be able to fully appreciate all of Hamilton's uniqueness and excitement for awhile, but its never too early to start researching, right?

From the get-go, I'm really not sure what Hamilton has to offer when it comes to kids activities. I mean, there are the obvious playgrounds, festivals and mommy/baby groups/yoga/swimming (things I'm sure we could find if we lived in Hamilton, Toronto, Waterloo, wherever...) but what about child-friendly pastimes that are unique to the Hamilton area?

Based on some initial quick research, here is what I've found:

1) The Art Gallery of Hamilton seems to have kid-friendly activities for different age groups (summer camps and family fun days). Never too early to start them on a path towards culture and art appreciation, I think!

2) We've driven past the Hamilton Children's Museum many, many times, but I haven't stopped to think about what it might offer, until now. Looks like good times - they've got 'fun day Fridays', some kids' gardening events and the Wiggle Wagon (love it!)

3) Puddicombe Estate Farms (& Winery!): A farm, a little train - 'nuff said, I think.

4) And for when the wee one is a bit older - this place looks like fun, as does this one!

As we look forward to expanding our Hamilton experience from mostly restaurants and events to family fun, I'd be interested in hearing about any great baby or kid-friendly activities that you've found here in The Hammer! Please feel free to mention these in the comments below.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

First impressions, continued...

Now that we've been here for more than a year and are immersed in Hamilton on a daily basis , I sometimes forget that initial feeling of shock and surprise that some people (from Toronto, mainly) have when they come to the Hammer (usually for the first time) and discover how nice some of the neighbourhoods are.

Seeing that moment where people file away their preconceived notions of what they thought Hamilton was all about and replace them with visions of how nice the houses are and how great some of the amenities we have here are is pretty gratifying for those of us who chose to move here, enjoy the city and work hard to show people how nice it really is.

Since Christmas, we have had a steady stream of visitors from various parts of Canada, including the Big Smoke, stop by to see our new place, and we always take the opportunity to show off our new city. And we try to show it all - everything from a walk down Locke Street to a drive to the waterfront, up James Street and across Barton Street.

The overwhelming consensus is that no one knew that places like Locke Street and James Street North existed here (in fact, one recent visitor who grew up in Brantford said that he wasn't aware that Hamilton had neighbourhoods like Durand and Kirkendall).

I've discussed, at length, our great Hamilton discoveries over the last few months, but in no particular order, the things that seem to most often seem to turn other people's opinions/prejudices of Hamilton on their heads are:

- how historic the homes are (and how reasonably priced), the gorgeous architecture and the community feel in many of the city's neighbourhoods.

- the calibre of Hamilton's food scene always floors people. We always make a point of taking visitors out to one of the city's unique restaurants (think Bread Bar or Wass or even Rolly Rockets), with one visitor saying she had the best sandwich she had ever had IN HER LIFE at one of these establishments. We know that they are up there with the best that other large cities have to offer.

- Hamilton's cultural scene. Yes, we have an Art Gallery and there are loads of festivals and cultural events in the Hammer all year long. You don't need to drive into Toronto to experience art, concerts, culture and festivals.

More friends from far-off places are sure to be stopping by this summer and I'm sure we will hear many more positive 'first impressions' of our city (and, of course, I'm sure we will continue to find new Hamilton gems and favourite spots ourselves!)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Puppy party in the park

Despite the less-than-stellar weather on recent weekends, we seem to have spent a lot of our time visiting the city’s various dog parks.

Dog parks are an interesting, and very welcome concept for me. Growing up ‘x’ number of years ago, there was no such place to take our family dog (that I remember).

Back in the lawless old days, dogs could be let off-leash in the local park or conservation area, much to the chagrin of non-dog lovers also enjoying the space (and the risk of the dog doing a runner!) Of course, leash-free activity in public spaces is no longer allowed, but we, luckily, now have these dog-exclusive spaces to take our pooches to.

For the residents of urban environments like downtown Hamilton, these free-run areas are invaluable. With postage-stamp backyards or even no yards, the dogs clearly relish a place to run, sniff and play with reckless abandon.

The ‘pet-iquette’ of the dog park is interesting to watch. Owners usually stand around the perimeter, coffee in hand, watching their pets enjoying themselves. Dogs must be well-behaved and friendly. Poop MUST be picked up. You must keep an eye on your pooch at all times and be ready to put a stop any ‘unsavoury’ behaviour.

The first Hamilton dog park we visited was “Cinema Park” in Ancaster, on a foggy day not long after the holidays. While this park is located in the heart of ‘big box’ store land, I have to admit that, because of the weather that day, we may as well have been in the middle of nowhere. Being our first dog park experience (and as our girl was still quite little), we kept her on-leash, but let her socialize with the passing dogs. This park is massive and a repeat trip is definitely in the cards.

Hill Street dog park is one of my pup’s faves, because of the amount of fraternizing she can do there (it’s a very popular puppy park!), and the mess she can get into. When the snow melts and after the rain, this park is a mud pit (although the city does make an effort by putting some straw down). At the same time, the sheer joy on her face as she runs with her newly formed pack makes the post-park cleanup time worth it.

Most recently, we checked out the city’s newest dog park in the north end of Hamilton. To say the weather was ‘foul’ the day we visited this park would be an understatement. The high winds were compounded by the fact that Birch Avenue dog park is on the top of a hill. Saying that – no mud! And, someone had the good sense to put in bus shelters in the dog park, so pup owners could shield themselves from the elements, while the dogs do their thing.

I hear there’s a dog-only beach somewhere out past Stoney Creek. My girl’s a water fiend. We’ll definitely be checking this out when the temps rise.