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All photos by Terry Steeves.

Goodbye Maxwell’s… and thanks for the memories

By Terry Steeves on January 19, 2016

078Last Saturday night, people showed up in droves to live out their last hurrahs at Elgin Street’s landmark venue, Maxwell’s, who will close their doors after 34 years. So many familiar faces, former employees, and long-time patrons came to revisit and reconnect with one another one last time in a place that was one of the biggest hotspots in Ottawa, let alone on the Elgin St. strip. Emotions ran high as we all said goodbye, and remembered the life and times of an incredible era.

During the early to mid-80’s, what would become our future Sens mile had begun its transition into an eclectic melange of restaurants, food stores, and boutiques. And it was a time like no other, somewhere between the post-disco era, and the technological explosion into the birth of the internet and beyond. The sixties baby boomers, now in their 20 and 30-somethings, were filling up the many dance clubs that existed in the Byward Market. We were heavy into the live-to-dance days of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and MTV. The time was ripe with delinquent indulgences of happy hour, less severe drinking/driving laws, smoking indoors, and late night extension runs to rue Principale to close the bars at 3am. Those days were wild with excess, and that invincible feeling you were going to live forever. Bartender at Maxwell’s for 27 years, Andy Sinclair, describes the scene back then:

“There weren’t a lot of bars on Elgin St. back then, so when we opened, we had a captive audience and we took advantage of it. I think Elgin St. was looking for another nightclub and we definitely filled that void. The timing was perfect. The DJ was spinning the top 40 tunes of the day, the dance floor was always packed, and there were long line-ups to get in. It was nuts – you couldn’t move in here. Thursday nights were the night to go out in the city, until I’d say the mid-90’s. It was my favourite shift because the night was filled with people who just wanted to go out, as opposed to feeling like you had to go out because it was the weekend.”

Elgin St. had and still has a different brand of entertainment… there’s an exquisiteness about it, compared to any other area of the city.

The second floor of Maxwell’s soon brought on an onslaught of patrons who were looking for an alternative to the Market area of downtown. A surge of trendy restaurants, bars, and businesses followed, and the Elgin St. strip morphed into a unique and sophisticated mix that catered to a wide variety of palettes and the growing mainstream of nightlife entertainment. Maxwell’s DJ of 20 years, Greg Harvey, shared with me some of his experiences:

Maxwell's bartender of 27 years, Andy Sinclair (left), and singer/entertainer of 20 years at Maxwell's, Johnny Vegas.

Maxwell’s bartender of 27 years, Andy Sinclair (left), and singer/entertainer of 20 years at Maxwell’s, Johnny Vegas.

“It was a time where anything went. Elgin St. had and still has a different brand of entertainment… there’s an exquisiteness about it, compared to any other area of the city. Everyone got along from one establishment to another… it was kind of like a brotherhood. In all the other places I worked as a DJ, I was in an elevated spot. Here, I was right on the floor and very accessible, so I could have that connection with people placing their requests. I enjoyed playing a variety of genres and mixing up the tempos… people liked that. The staff and management were awesome… the place almost ran itself. The combination of the long-standing staff and patrons was amazing and will always be the highlight of my life as a DJ. When I started, I thought I’d only be here for a couple of years, and it lasted 20.”

In Nov. 1995, Maxwell’s began a Wednesday night series of shows with J.P. MacDonald, aka singer/entertainer, Johnny Vegas, who harnessed a different audience, and created a successful brand of entertainment that lasted there for 20 years, or 936 shows to be exact.

“Maxwell’s was the hottest place on the strip back in the day. I’d thought of the idea of Johnny Vegas many years before. By the time opportunity knocked here, I was already doing shows at the Manx down the road as Johnny Vegas. It was almost like 2 crowds that came here – a more mature crowd, and a younger, university-type crowd… very unique. It was top 40 on the weekends, but on Wednesdays it was a Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Elvis Presley kinda thing. Generally though, throughout the 90’s and beyond, the regular crowd were still coming here, 10-20 years later.”

Owner of Pure Kitchen, Amber Stratton w/husband, restaurateur Dave Leith.

Two of the owners of Pure Kitchen, Amber Stratton and Dave Leith.

Today’s face of Elgin St. continues to change, along with a trend toward healthier food options. The main floor of Maxwell’s will turn into a second location for Pure Kitchen, who will open its doors in the spring of 2016. Owners Dave Leith and Amber Stratton, who run their very successful Westboro business, both cut their teeth in the industry right here on Elgin St. and now return to be part of its new growth. I spoke with Amber and Dave about the changes:

“Elgin St. has changed, and it hasn’t, right? There’s still the same kind of players on the street – Lieutenant’s Pump, Pancho Villa, Al’s Steakhouse, super successful places that have been here forever. But at the same time, there’s been an “upping the game” I guess in the food market. El Camino has been doing well, and the Whalesbone is coming here too. I think Elgin St. is in need of some fresh blood and some new life. There are a lot of vegetarian options in town now, but not a lot that have sit-down table service. We also feature everything local as much as we can, including beer and wine. We plan to keep the two sides separate with the bar side becoming more of a take-out counter during the day, and the other side the restaurant. Outside, there’ll be a 20-seat sidewalk patio.”

You could say as we’ve grown, Elgin St. has also grown up and ventured off into an exciting new horizon. But for now, some of us will remember a time of our lives, and a place called Maxwell’s that once ruled the roost on Elgin Street.