Niagara Falls, Ont., is undergoing a rebirth, with a little inspiration from the booming Las Vegas destination-dining scene. Most recently, top chef Jamie Kennedy, wine guru Tony Aspler and Niagara devotee chef Ross Midgely have joined the renaissance. It doesn’t hurt that Kennedy and Aspler are renowned in their specialties and are both Order of Canada recipients, but it does translate to another reason to visit The Falls.
According to Ontario Tourism, as many as 86 per cent of visitors make the drive to see the iconic waterfall, so it’s clear the city has inspired visits for more than just the scenery. Many make the trip to entertain family at an indoor water park, shop or hit the casino. But, dining as entertainment is moving up on the list, especially in the summer. The Niagara dining scene used to be largely comprised of a long stretch of tour-group-friendly chain eateries and buffet bars on Lundy’s Lane. Today, visitors and locals alike can savour the local culinary abundance at the entertainment complex at Falls Avenue Resort.
Doug Birrell, president of Canadian Niagara Hotels Inc., envisions the town’s culinary rejuvenation as part of a bigger picture within the hotel revitalization. “We want Falls Avenue Resort to be a playground-mix of products, because we host guests from all over the world. To give our guests the ultimate Canadian and Niagara experience, we need to create options. To achieve this, we are working with a floor plan that looks as appealing to families [as] couples [without kids],” he says with enthusiasm. That means creating interactive celebrity-chef installations, culinary classes and wine-tasting packages that link to the restaurant experience at the Falls Avenue Resort.
Birrell’s first celebrity-chef “instalment” came when Massimo Capra of Canada’s Restaurant Make-over TV series re-opened the revamped 180-seat Rainbow Room at the Fallsview Crowne Plaza in 2011, churning out local food with an international flair. And, this year, the original Fallsview Restaurant was divided to create Windows by Jamie Kennedy, the fine-dining area that’s open in the evenings. “With Jamie Kennedy’s Windows, we’re into the second part of the trifecta we’re aiming for,” Birrell says, alluding to the February opening of the intimate 85-seat restaurant at The Sheraton On The Falls Hotel Conference Centre.
Kennedy’s brand of farm-to-table dining makes his restaurant an obvious choice for the Niagara region. “We have been practising the farm-to-table philosophy in the Toronto area for many years now, so I see coming to Niagara Falls as an opportunity to bridge this fantastic, internationally known attraction with what is going on in both the wine world and the food world … Whatever is in season in Niagara is going to be found on our menu,” says Kennedy, who collaborates with Midgely, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine and Aspler, a wine consultant who founded The Ontario Wine Awards.
Two-thirds of the wines at Windows are from Canada, with the majority of wines-by-the-glass from Ontario. “I did intense staff training sessions; one on the wine list and one on the food and wine matches,” says Aspler. “Windows is showcasing Kennedy’s culinary brand, while my focus is showcasing different grape varietals at differing price points to complement Jamie and Ross’s culinary creations. It’s a dynamic list that will change frequently.”
In the kitchen, Midgely’s 14 years of experience on the Niagara Peninsula restaurant scene is an asset. “Being a chef in the Niagara region, it makes sense to connect the arena of fine dining in the Niagara Falls Hotels to the rest of the Peninsula, which includes Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara wine country,” he says. It makes business sense, too. “While the weekend business is rising at Windows, throughout the week, the restaurant is driven by the conferences and other event happenings,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the third restaurant in Birrell’s trifecta is in development and may evolve as the Niagara Falls Resort Group acquires and transforms new properties. No information has been released on the next restaurant, but the evolution of the Niagara Falls experience will continue as the city morphs from a gambling and shopping mecca to an edible entertainment destination.