Indie restaurants fill vacancies in Old Strathcona

· The Pulse

Old Strathcona is seeing an influx of new independent restaurants, in part because of a higher-than-normal vacancy rate coming out of the pandemic.

"In 2023, we're seeing some real positive, consistent increase in more businesses opening and filling vacant places," said Cherie Klassen, executive director for Old Strathcona Business Association. "Seeing some new, independent businesses move in — we're seeing way more of that happening now than big franchises."

In the first quarter of this year, 39 new business licences were granted in Old Strathcona, for a total net opening of 16 new businesses, Klassen told Taproot. "Typically, that's when we see more businesses close. So the fact that we're seeing a net positive in the first quarter is really encouraging," she said.

Not all of those new businesses are restaurants, but many are. Klassen highlighted numerous examples that have set up shop recently in the area.

"Definitely Marlo, seeing The Next Act family expand and grow on that corner of 104 Street is really exciting and an indication that independent businesses can still thrive," she said.

Marlo, which opened in late May, is a new taco concept from the team behind The Next Act, MEAT, Pip, and Pals Sandwiches. It fills the space formerly occupied by Pip and offers tacos made with house-made corn tortillas that take around 24 hours to prepare.

"Mexican has been in our hearts for a long time," restaurant partner Saylish Haas told Taproot, recalling she first dreamed of entering the restaurant business on a trip to Mexico. "The biggest thing for us was (that) we enjoy being in Mexico and just grabbing a quick taco on the street or in a taco shop where it's a very limited menu. Knowing that the space was so small, we couldn't have a large menu and I mean… we just wanted tacos that taste great."

An opening Klassen is excited for is bibo Wine Bar in the Strathcona Hotel. From Brad Lazarenko and his team at Culina Family of Restaurants and Catering, it will be a new iteration of the bibo concept that once operated across from Route 99 Diner. The new bibo will offer wine, sake, beer, cocktails, dishes inspired by Japanese and Spanish cuisine, and offerings from Culina to Go. Lazarenko told Taproot that he aims to open bibo by late July.

"I normally wouldn't go to Whyte Ave., but I think Whyte Ave. is coming to fruition. Especially with the food scene these days," he said. "It's not just a bunch of kiddie bars, there's some really good restaurants there now."

A collage of three photos depicts three iced coffees overlooking the patio furniture in front of PACT Coffee; a muted-coloured bar inside Marlo; and an Asahi beer can next to a full pint glass on a patio table outside Dorinku Tokyo.]

PACT Coffee, Marlo, and Dorinku Tokyo all exemplify recent or upcoming changes to the Old Strathcona dining scene. (Facebook/Supplied/Instagram)

Both Lazarenko and Haas said available and attractive spaces helped them make the decision to launch new ventures. Klassen noted that because of tough times for businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, Old Strathcona has seen a higher rate of business vacancy than its usual 5% to 7%. This makes way for fresh blood.

"It's a little bit of a blessing and a curse," she said, noting no one is happy to see businesses shutter. But she did point to examples of indies filling in holes left by chains, such PACT Coffee, which took over a former Starbucks space at 10370 82 Avenue NW in 2022.

Beyond independent, locally founded restaurants, Klassen has noticed a few global trends manifesting in the dining offerings in Old Strathcona.

"What we do see is sort of first (locations) of new brands tend to open on Whyte Avenue for that brand exposure. I use Leopold's as a bit of an example and Pablo Cheese Tart, Fuwa Fuwa pancakes," she said. "We're seeing a lot of those Asian-type-fusion or Asian-inspired restaurants opening, which is really interesting… French bakeries, different types of sweet bakeries and shops, (and) ice cream are really popular right now."

By the same token, other types of food and drink establishments are becoming less common.

"We're seeing also a trend away from, you know, in the '90s and 2000s, nightclubs and bars like that. More brewpubs, more cocktail bars, wine bars — I'm just thrilled that bibo is coming back," she said.

Streetscape improvements

Two separate alleys with dining options bordering Whyte Avenue are receiving upgrades. Phase 1 of the Strathcona Back Street project, a part of the Strathcona Neighbourhood Renewal project, is already complete. It's the north alley spanning Gateway Boulevard to 104 Street, where bibo will be one of the alley-facing tenants.

"What that included was resurfacing of the alley… picnic tables, flowers, benches, lighting. And then every year we enhance it with more flowers, and we'll be installing some permanent benches, and there's some bike racks we just installed there as well," Klassen said.

Next on the docket is Spur Line Alley, the home of Rainbow Road, which will receive a "refresh," according to Klassen. She expects this to take place in late June. "Made by Marcus is along there, Malt & Mortar, Glam Slam… then on the side, there will be an entrance into the alley for a new café called Leo's Café."

Finally, Beljan Development's Station Park remains under construction, but it recently shared that it will be home to the second location of EPIC, formerly known as JustCook Kitchens. In an email to Taproot, Station Park conductor Akeem Brown said that while a grand opening is still contingent on tenants' build-out times, he expects most ground-floor businesses to be open "in late summer/early fall."

More restaurant news in Old Strathcona

  • Dorinku Tokyo is expanding its space by 30 seats in a newly designed addition inspired by "Tokyo Vice" aesthetics. The team will also refresh its bar program at both Dorinkus, with all changes expected to debut in mid-to-late July.
  • Vons Steakhouse & Oyster Bar shuttered its longtime 81 Avenue location at the start of June and will be opening in a new space downtown at some point this summer.
  • Tiki Tiki on Whyte will be the second tiki bar to open in Edmonton in the past year, the other being Honi Honi Tiki Lounge. While the Polynesian-inspired establishment has been previewing its offerings with some soft-launch service hours, a grand opening date has yet to be revealed.
  • The team that ran the Whyte Avenue location of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria is rebooting its space as a new, independent restaurant called The Arbour. It's set to feature chef-inspired plates and pizzas, with an opening date to be announced.