Skip To Content
Capital History - Bowles Lunch. (Original photo from Library & Archives Canada - colourized by Ashley Newall)

Capital History: Bowles Lunch, 1917 to 1957

By Ashley Newall on May 18, 2021


Ashley Newall’s “Capital History Ottawa” (#colourized) has been chronicling outstanding scenes in the city through his newly colourized photos and accompanying factoids. The project’s home is on Twitter, but once a month, a more in-depth piece delving into the stories behind these pics will be published here on Apartment613. 

Bowles Lunch on the right, Rideau looking east across Sussex, 1937. (Original photo from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Who doesn’t love a good diner? Bowles Lunch’s two Ottawa locations were long-time prime meeting places for rich and poor to congregate and chew the fat.

Only a decade ago the legendary Leisa Bell was still slinging plates at Ottawa’s Mellos (the former neon-signed Dalhousie St. landmark), charmingly calling all the customers “honey,” “dear,” and “sweetie.” Can’t beat that for a soft landing on a hungover Sunday morning. Informal dining gives way to informalities and speaking freely, hallmarks of Bowles Lunch, the erstwhile Ottawa institution that enjoyed an illustrious 40-year run.

Bowles Lunch, 50 Rideau St. (1921). (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Bowles’ Sparks St. branch was the first to open in Ottawa in 1917, followed by a Rideau St. outlet in 1921. The multi-city chain—which included diners in Toronto, Hamilton and London, ON—was started by American Henry Leland Bowles in Springfield, Mass. in 1897.

Bowles Lunch, 134 Sparks St. (1917). (Original image from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

The Ottawa Press Club (now called the National Press Club) was founded by two newsmen within the confines of the Sparks St. location in 1928, and just before WWII the curiously named Ottawa Knockers Club was also founded there, a momentous enough event to warrant a plaque being affixed above the exact spot of the founding.

Now before you get carried away wondering what exactly the Ottawa Knockers Club could be all about (as the name clearly doesn’t stand the test of time), allow me to explain.

Bowles Lunch, 50 Rideau St. (1921). (Original image from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Former Ottawa Mayor Stanley Lewis was a founding member (Lewis was Ottawa’s longest-serving mayor until current Mayor Jim Watson just surpassed him in March of this year). Ottawa not having a city hall at the time, he was forced to get creative with locations in which to set up shop:

“He conducts part of the city’s business each day in Bowles Lunch, which specializes in one-armed chairs, and has never been known to refuse an appointment with either citizen or visitor who thinks he has a legitimate complaint about the way things are being run.

“Mayor Lewis is a founder and director of Ottawa’s Knockers’ Club whose principal function in life is to moan, groan and lament over the way anything and everything is shaping up. Any reasonably tranquil or contented citizen among the Knockers would face immediate expulsion as a saboteur.

“The club goes into a huddle daily, in Bowles, and anybody from president to busboy can take part in its jam or bull sessions” (Macleans – March 15, 1945).

Mayor Lewis and the Ottawa Knockers at Bowles. Photo from Macleans, 1945.

Alright, so the offending/naughty word in their title did come into (recorded) use as an objectifying anatomical reference in the 1940s, and so—with the club having been formed in 1938—one must presume the double entendre was likely intentional. And it was a boys’ club, as you might imagine. In fact, Bowles Lunch itself was patronized almost exclusively by men (which was also true of their Toronto outlets). “Women were not barred,” the Ottawa Citizen explained. “It was just not a place women wished to go. The atmosphere was masculine, loud, and often bawdy. Asking a woman to enter Bowles was an insult. Acceptance would cause serious damage to her reputation.” (Ottawa Citizen – Dec. 26, 1981). Then there was the décor, described by one curmudgeon as “Early Men’s Bathroom.”

As for the Ottawa Knockers Club, they were later sometimes “knocked” themselves (for their occasional events featuring strippers in particular), but at the time they were lauded for their charity work for children’s causes and the destitute, and for entertaining the troops during WWII.

Bowles itself stepped up to the plate in WWI, their Ottawa bakery whipping up 1000 loaves of bread in five hours to send to Halifax in the wake of the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

The difference between Bowles by day and by night was stark. While the city and nation’s elite would patronize by day, “some of the Capital’s most notorious drunks” would inhabit Bowles Lunch by night, a 5-cent coffee covering their admission. “If any of them broke the house rules, particularly the one about becoming noisy while drunk, a couple of small wiry men would come bounding over to belabour the transgressor about the head and shoulders.” Relatively, “it was considered bad manners on the part of anyone else to notice these brief and businesslike chastisements” (Ottawa Citizen – Feb. 28, 1972).

Bowles Lunch, Rideau location (1921). (Original photo from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Bowles was open 24/7/365, and as such had no locks on their doors. Other than VE and VJ days following WWII, they reportedly closed on only two other occasions: one Christmas, and for the funeral of their founder. They were famous for their “beans with” (toast), and “Adam and Eve on a raft” (poached eggs on toast), both of which they evidently sold by the ton. The manager of the two Ottawa restaurants from 1917-1947 estimated they’d served 75 million meals on his watch, a number which he may have over-inflated. Further, “Bowles chocolate cake was out of this world, and its vanilla ice cream has never been equaled” (Ottawa Citizen – Dec. 29, 1965).

In 1957 the Toronto and Ottawa Bowles outlets were sold and renamed “Scott’s Restaurants.” In 1960, Scott’s bought the rights to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken in Canada, and the former Sparks St. Bowles became a “Scott’s Chicken Villa.” What became of the Rideau St. location in 1960 is unclear, but that building would have been demolished at the same time as the neighbouring flatiron National Building (aka the Corry Building) in 1967, making way for the present-day ramp connecting Mackenzie Ave. and Colonel By Dr. The Sparks St. building, on the other hand, still stands (and houses a Greco Fitness).

I don’t know about you, but I miss late-morning greasy spoon rap sessions with pals or just sitting alone flipping through the newspaper. Once the COVID coast is clear, I’ll be going straight back to my friendly neighbourhood breakfast spot, Fontenelle. Ottawa is definitely a late-night-noshing and weekend-brunching kind of town, also perpetually with a designated gossip joint du jour for journalists and political-types alike, and such has evidently long been the case.

Bowles Lunch on the left, 1938. (Original photo from Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Visit and follow @CapHisOttawa on Twitter for more Capital History stories.