Kitchener. Not so sexy, you say? I beg to disagree. It took me about 25 years of living in Toronto to finally make the one-hour drive to this Southern Ontario city. Perhaps not a classically obvious choice for a weekend getaway, but my curiosity to dine at acclaimed chef Jonathan Gushue’s The Berlin restaurant was the impetus. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Arriving on a Friday afternoon we checked in at the stylish Walper Hotel around the corner from the restaurant. This iconic 1893 building recently reopened after months of renovations. Now its 92 rooms, each slightly different, have a sleek modern feel to them, and some whimsy: in our “pocket room,” the wallpaper on one accent wall is of open books flying through a cloudy sky, with a ladder leading upwards.
Before dinner, we head down to the second-floor cocktail lounge (open 4:00 to 8:00 p.m.) where resident mixologist Stacey Anderson serves up some fun cocktails in a brightly lit lounge with comfy sofas and a baby grand piano. Like Gushue, she is formerly from Langdon Hall, and also worked with him at The Berlin before joining The Walper. Anderson makes her own syrups for her cocktails: her apple shrub syrup in a Jonny Collins Sea Shanty (an interesting take on a Tom Collins) was tart and refreshing. But my favourite was her Passion Fruit Mule, in which she combines passion fruit and Earl Grey juice with vodka and ginger beer for a spicy and not too sweet drink. Perfect.
We then step outside, round the corner, and arrive at The Berlin, Gushue’s self-described “live-fire restaurant,” where you can expect high-end cuisine, but without the stuffiness of white table cloth dining, nor the price that often accompanies it.
We’re seated at a table directly overlooking the open kitchen. It’s Friday night and the 110-seat restaurant is at capacity, with a team of seven kitchen staff working at full tilt. Gushue moves in and out, at times leaning over to offer instruction, or moving in to work side-by-side. I watch as he expertly plates a parsnip ravioli in cipollini and cider broth before they call “service” and a wait staff immediately whisks in to deliver it to a table.
At the Berlin, the menu constantly changes – as often as every two or three days, and sometimes even mid-service, so you won’t find it on their site. But customers—about half of whom hail from the Kitchener-Waterloo region, and another half from surrounding cities—like Toronto, London and Oakville—come knowing they can expect consistently world-class food, using local ingredients, and they can bring their kids along too if they want.
I’ve followed Gushue’s career closely, since eating at the prestigious Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario where he worked as the executive chef before starting The Berlin. Although his Kitchener restaurant may seem to some like a come down from the refined dining experience there, Gushue says he likes the potential for experimentation and innovation that he gets from cooking over an open fire. And we liked our four-course dining experience ($62) with wine pairings ($30). Our feast began with marinated bay scallops, followed by coal-roasted oyster mushrooms and chanterelles, then grilled goose breast with mustard root puree, slow braised purple kale and a black pepper jus. We ended our meal with a delicious dark chocolate wafer and mousse with lime semifeddo.
Before heading back to Toronto, we stopped at the St. Jacob’s Mennonite market a mere 15- to 20-minute drive away. Ah. Our first discovery—delicious apple fritters—still warm from the oven—as well as an excellent selection of hormone-free meats, olive oils and baked goods, which we bought to bring back with us to Toronto.
Maybe not your classically sexy getaway destination. But if you’re a foodie looking for an unpretentious scene, a comfy bed, and a small town escape with a nearby market, you should take the drive.