The first time I walked into the Carleton Tavern was on a Friday night just a few years ago. The long room was jammed from wall to wall with people from ages 20 to 80, and all walks of life. Some were seated at the rows and rows of small wooden tables littered with quart bottles and pitchers of beer, and some filled the makeshift dance floor immediately in front of the band that was churning out some classic rock. The white washed walls with darkly painted beams displayed a collection of posters, neon signs, daily special boards, TV’s, and various memorabilia.
The bar area was a central hub of draught taps, sinks, and stacks of glasses surrounded by old beer fridges that were constantly being opened and slammed shut by the busy staff that seemed to manoeuvre around each other with ease. I noticed a whole other side through a doorway from the adjoining wall, which was also filled with patrons enjoying their refreshments singly or in groups at long rows of tables along the outer walls. I was hit with a wall of sound made up of the buzz of conversation, clinking glasses, and those chanting along with the music. It sounded, looked, and smelled like a tavern, and I loved it immediately.
Not much has changed since the Carleton Tavern opened its doors at the corner of Armstrong and Parkdale 80 years ago, other than the termination of the segregated male/female sides sometime during the mid-70‘s, and the addition of a kitchen in 2005. Even the orders are still written down by hand and sales later tabulated manually at the end of the night. It’s a system based on honour and trust that has always worked.
Established in 1935, it has changed hands three times, and is now owned by the Saikaley family, who took it over in 1989. Before that, they owned and operated The Carleton Steak House right next door, which had provided food service to the tavern since the early 70’s. When the tavern went up for sale, the Saikaley’s were automatically given the first opportunity to purchase it. Sam Saikaley continued to run the restaurant until it closed in 2005, when the decision was made to build a kitchen inside the tavern itself. Sam retired last year, leaving his brothers, Simon, Billy, and Rob to run the business.
General Manager, Simon Saikaley shared with me how they survived some of the tough times the business has seen. The area of Hintonburg, once known as Mechanicsville, brimmed with blue collar workers who were employed in the neighbourhood’s wealth of factories, many of whom filled the taverns as much during lunchtime as they did in the evening. One by one, those factories closed, and Hintonburg underwent a series of drastic urban and economic developments, which have resulted in what is today’s very eclectic, artistic, and residential community. The Carleton Tavern has adapted to its surroundings with its strong devotion to community involvement, its abundance of artistic and charitable activities, and has thrived on the support of its intensely loyal clientele, some who have continued their patronage for well over 50 years.
The tavern has grown into a haven for artists and musicians alike, offering up something for everyone from live entertainment on weekends, to writing/poetry workshops, JazzWorks jams, participatory singing with the 613 Casual Choir, and even theatre productions put on by Chamber Theatre Hintonburg. A large room on the second floor, which was once a series of rooms for rent, was remodelled to house dart leagues and private parties of every occasion. The room is free for use and licensed for 95 people.
Annual charity events have raised funds for The Children’s Wish Foundation, Heart and Stroke Foundation, various Cancer societies, numerous community services/programs, the Ottawa Boys & Girls Clubs, and 65 Roses for Cystic Fibrosis…of which the late, great, Bernadette Cameron (aka, Mama Bare) was such a tremendous part of. For the last 14 years, the tavern, in conjunction with the Hintonburg Economic Development Committee, has hosted a free Christmas dinner on December 25th. It remains one of the biggest events of the year, complete with music, and plenty of food and gift donations.
The extensive menu offers everything from finger foods to full meals, all made from scratch…even the hummus and tabouleh is made by matriarch Linda Saikaley herself. Fresh specials are offered each day of the week, and the prices are more than reasonable. Festivities honouring the Carleton Tavern’s 80th anniversary will take place next week. From Mon. Jun. 15 to Fri. Jun. 19, one can enjoy a free meal with the purchase of a beverage, from 11:30am until 1:00pm, and drink specials all day/night long. On Sat. Jun. 20, a fundraiser will be held for the Hintonburg Recreation Association, featuring an all-day open jam and an evening performance by GAMUT.
On any given day or night, one can walk into the Carleton Tavern and feel at home. Come as you are, spend a little time there and you’ll soon feel the essence of its deep-rooted ties to the community. “If the walls could talk”…Simon says with a wink. Some say they’ve even seen ghosts. I watch as server of 41 years, Mike Labrie, shuffles from table to table, offering a smile and a friendly quip to bring out a laugh or two from his customers. The place remains one of 4 remaining taverns left in the city – unpretentious, unchanged, undeniably precious…with an unbreakable spirit.
To close, here are a collection of thoughts on the Carleton Tavern
“It’s my favourite place to play, and has been the band’s home every month for 9 years. It’s where folks go to have fun. We’re all the same there.” (Ken Lecompte – GAMUT)
“I’m not big on trendy places. It’s blue collar. It’s a throwback. Maybe that’s why I’ve been going there for 25 years. The Saikaley family are very community minded…they give back.” (Dick Cooper – The Cooper Brothers)
“Sam. Sam. Sam. The old restaurant next door. Fries. No booze. No loud music…just friends growing up and talking to each other.” (Robert Cabana, aka Uncle Bobby – Fabgear 64, The Fenton Brothers)
“Celebrating its 80th anniversary, the Carleton Tavern has been a stalwart business and community member in Ottawa. Offering friendly faces and a welcoming atmosphere for all, I am certain the tavern will continue to welcome the community through its doors for many more years to come.” (Mayor Jim Watson)
“The Carleton has given back so much to this community and major charities for more than 40 years. The Saikaley’s shy away from recognition for their generosity – they see it as a part of what we should all do. Their philosophy – “We help – you should too.”” (Cheryl Parrott – Event Co-ordinator, Hintonburg Economic Development Committee)
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