When I think of a perfect host, I can’t help but think of Alex McMahon. He’s a guy who loves good food, wine, music, and company. The type of person who’s genuinely excited to see you each time you cross paths. So when I heard months ago that Alex was finally going to open his own spot, called Arlo, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to see the kind of experience that would be offered with him at the helm. Everything seemed on track to meet their April 2020 opening date.
Until COVID-19 forced us all into lockdown.
“I don’t know if the place we designed is still viable. We don’t know how the industry is going to actually change,” said Alex. “Do we need to pivot before even putting the systems in place? That’s a terrifying thought to an owner.”
“The history of the building is really important to us,” said Alex. “We really want to honour that legacy and make Arlo a place where people are comfortable and encouraged to be themselves.”
Walking the space, even amid the renovations, it takes only a bit of imagination to picture Arlo completed. The room has an electricity all its own. McMahon is especially animated when talking about his plans.
“This is going to be our dream place, something we’ve always thought this city needed but never quite had.”
“There’s room for it all: a private dining room, an event space, enclosed patio out back, we really hit the jackpot,” he said, almost bouncing in place. “This is going to be our dream place, something we’ve always thought this city needed but never quite had.”
The “we” is the crack team McMahon has assembled. While he’ll be splitting his time between ownership duties and cultivating Arlo’s natural wine program—in the same inimitable style he’s shown at places like El Camino, Fauna, Bar Laurel and Riviera—his core staff are all superstars in their own rights.
Emily Bertrand is McMahon’s partner in business as well as in life. Her genuine joy of hospitality rivals Alex’s own, and she’s a well-known face in Ottawa’s dining scene. Mark Ghali, another owner/manager, brings not only his love for creating a great atmosphere for guests, but also his experience managing teams from his time at Holt Renfrew. Both share McMahon’s belief that the well-being of restaurant staff is crucial.
“One good thing that comes out of this could be a look at our own industry to make sure our workers are actually taken care of,” said Alex. “I’ve always thought that socialism and forward-thinking social policies are what the industry and society need more of.”
Rounding out the team is Jamie Stunt, a long-time friend of McMahon who has been tapped as Arlo’s chef. If you know anything about the food scene in Ottawa, Stunt needs no introduction, having helmed local kitchens like Oz Kafe and Soif.
Food, wine, ambiance, music, and design will all be given their due at Arlo, a philosophy Alex absorbed from his time interning at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant often described as the best in the world.
“I really took away the theory of leaving no stone unturned and making sure all aspects of the restaurant are given equal thought,” said McMahon. “Everything’s going to be given equal respect, so that each element can be great. My hope is that Arlo can offer as much or as little as people want, whether it’s just a quick glass of wine and a snack or an opulent evening of a fully paired dinner.”
Now, selling wines and snacks a few days a week from their online bottle shop, McMahon saw the chance for action.
“It’s honestly just about sharing the wine with people. That’s at the core of what I want Arlo to be,” said Alex. “I want it to be a place where a seasoned wine appreciator can be excited to sit across from a bunch of kids just getting into natural wines, and vice-versa.”
When I first met Alex, we were both part of the opening crew at Fauna. He approached me with a glass of wine after only knowing me for days and said, “Here, you’ll probably like this.” It was one of the most delicious sips of my life, perfectly attuned to my palate. We’d shared only a few words about my taste in wine, but he managed to nail it in one.
“I’ve gotten to meet so many people through wine I’d never have met otherwise,” Alex said. “So, I reached out to the city to find out about selling the bottles as a storefront. I always kind of wanted my own wine shop, anyways.”
Arlo’s grand opening has been pushed back to the fall of 2020. Despite the setbacks, McMahon remains cautiously optimistic about his dream restaurant.
“I’ve spent 10 to 15 years in the industry, most of that dreaming of my own place. I was lucky to meet my investors. We bought the building, designed the restaurant, bought wine, designed a menu, hired staff—and within a matter of months everything changed,” said Alex. “But it might be a gift, being given the chance to check our egos and have a long hard think about why and how we do what we do. I think, as an industry, a lot of the egotistical shit goes out the window.”
McMahon feels the industry must be open to exploring other revenue streams, like takeout or bottle shops.
“I don’t want to open my dream restaurant in a compromised state,” said Alex as we wrapped up our conversation. “We’re discussing the restrictions. If they’re intense, we may not open the original concept right away. Comfort and closeness are at the heart of this concept, and if we can’t have that, we may wait until it’s safe to do so.”
Until then, McMahon will still be selling the wines he’s so passionate about and dreaming of opening his doors. From the sounds of it, I’ll be dreaming of Arlo as well.