Ottawa: Bar Hop With the Bureaucrats
Where to watch Parliamentary playtime pints and fun Fridays for functionaries
There’s a good chance the man in the suit, sipping a whisky sour at noon on a Sparks Street patio, just made his way down from the Hill. Or he’s fresh off a flight from another part of the country he’s in town to represent. And that other guy, with a shaggy beard in jeans, casually sipping his beer – well, you never know, the NDP is bringing facial hair back to caucus.
But if basic appearance and drink orders aren’t the dead giveaway, it’s the hushed conversations whispered between groups, leaned in close so not to give the opposition or media any fodder. The CBC is just around the block, but discretion rules the day. “What goes on at D’Arcy’s stays at D’Arcy’s,” says Jeff O’Reilly, general manager of D’Arcy McGee’s pub, at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. He believes politicians and their staffs “work hard and they deserve some privacy.”
Thanks to its location, Ottawa’s Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall is an ideal habitat for thirsty bureaucrats, and D’Arcy McGee’s is located at the top of it. “We’re a block from Parliament Hill, so we’ve unofficially been called parliament’s playground since we opened up,” O’Reilly says.
Don’t let the name “mall” throw you off: What you’ll see on Sparks Street is a cobblestone pedestrian way lined with shops and bars. It doesn’t just draw a crowd from the Hill. Its proximity to the National Arts Centre, the National War Memorial and smattering of hotels also brings in a diverse crowd.
"They call it the Ottawa court for a reason.”
“[What’s] great about pubs is the friendly and warm environment that seems to welcome everybody. There’s no pretence,” O’Reilly says. “You could have guys who were the stonemasons on Parliament Hill in steel-toed boots, covered in dust, next to financial investors or advisors on Parliament Hill, next to students and tourists travelling North America. There’s a little bit of everything.”
Where to go
In some of the watering holes, like D’Arcy McGee’s – an 18-year mainstay of the strip – the political connection runs deep.
“The pub is named after a founding father of Confederation, who was assassinated just done the street in 1868,” O’Reilly explains.
At the late D’Arcy McGee’s namesake pub, partisan strife is strongly discouraged. “One of the catchphrases we use here is: We’re not partisan, we’re where the party’s on,” O’Reilly laughs.
What happens on the Hill isn’t lost in the pub, however. During budget announcements or heated political debates, O’Reilly says people from all stripes filter into the bar to watch the action.
Further west along the strip at Sparks and O’Connor streets is a newer player on the scene, Bier Markt. Like D’Arcy McGee’s the European-inspired brasserie, which opened up in November 2014, boasts a wraparound patio and quickly conquered a piece of the scene. (The Bier Markt chain is owned by Cara Operations, which also comprises the Canadian standbys Swiss Chalet and Harvey’s.)
“Right away, from the get-go we knew this was an area that was – no pun intended – thirsty for anything new, and we found that right off the bat we were embraced in the neighbourhood,” says general manager Peter Chase. “We get everyone from young professionals all the way up to some seasoned and experienced members of government and the financial sector. They call it the Ottawa court for a reason.”
Playing into the political ties and its best known feature – a lengthy and diverse beer list – the bar plays host to a semi-official “parliamentary beer caucus.” Chase says the idea was, “let’s have a party and get as many MPs out as possible.”
For the most part, Sparks Street is where politicians and staffers alike go to see their peers – and perhaps even more – be seen by them. While hushed conversations in dark corners offer a certain amount of privacy, and certainly dramatics, they can better stay incognito (yet still in proximity to the Hill) if they cross the bridge and head to the Earl of Sussex Pub, at a spot overlooking Major’s Hill Park.
“The guy who wants to just sit down and have a beer and have nobody know him or bother him, he’ll come here,” says Ryan O’Connor, owner of the pub on historic Sussex Drive. “It’s a little more off the beaten path but still close.”
Sussex Drive also happens to be the street where the Prime Minister’s residence is found, and it serves as a thoroughfare for heads of state when in town. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passes by the Earl’s doors regularly, as do visiting dignitaries and heads of state (wave hello to Barack and Michelle!).
Meanwhile the Earl isn’t about politicking and political ogling, it’s about relaxing – an attitude that has been maintained over its 35 years of business.
“The attraction of the Earl is that it’s a place to go when you maybe want to unwind and [be] less noticed,” O’Connor says. “When you finish work at the office, the last thing you want to do is go to a bar and have 10 people from the office there.”
When to go and what to expect
Is there a certain time of day when the pubs fill up with suits, ties, briefcases and their owners? The short answer is no. Especially when it comes to the politicians.
Knowing the parliamentary calendar will help. “Typically, they work Monday to Thursday, votes are every night, questions period is on Wednesday and they head out to their constituencies and work in their own ridings a lot,” says O’Reilly at D’Arcy’s. “It’s an unusual calendar.”
The Earl sees its heaviest crowd between about 4 and 10 p.m., O’Connor says that’s a broad mix of people coming from Parliament Hill, various embassies that line Sussex Drive, the National Gallery of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mint.
With its particularly prime setup for patios, when the weather is good Sparks is about as busy any major city street. And inside, the patrons run the gamut.
“Ottawa is evolving, literally monthly,” says Chase. “Ottawa is not just this government town anymore. It doesn’t have that mentality anymore … The younger MPs – or people on the Prime Minister’s staff or their communications staff – they’ll come in and do a quick meeting before running off.”
The fact is, the political climate that pours over Parliament Hill doesn’t stop at Wellington Street. It trickles down to the array of Sparks Street pubs and others in further off locations that harbour political players.
With the new Liberal government elected in 2015, the conversations around pub tables have largely changed along with the drink orders. But if you want to spend a day in a bureaucrat’s shoes, Sparks Street is still the place. And, like those shoes, it’s probably safe to say the choice of the bar is also dependent on the budget.
44 Sparks St., 613-230-4433
Bier Markt Ottawa
156 Sparks St., 613-780-7575
Earl of Sussex Pub
431 Sussex Dr., 613-562-5544