How Freshwater Road became a St. John's melting pot of cuisine and culture

·8 min read
Ches Barbour, founder of Ches's Fish & Chips waves behind the counter at the Harvey Road location. (Submitted by the Barbour family. - image credit)
Ches Barbour, founder of Ches's Fish & Chips waves behind the counter at the Harvey Road location. (Submitted by the Barbour family. - image credit)
Submitted by the Barbour family.
Submitted by the Barbour family.

The eastern end of Freshwater Road in St. John's has been a fish and chips crossroads for decades.

These days, it's a face of change in St. John's, a place where old traditions continue but new flavours are abundant.

First, though, some history.

If you wanted to find a place to eat back in 1969 and took a little browse through the St. John's Yellow Pages, you would discover that there was not only Ches's Fish and Chips at 9 Freshwater Rd. and Marty's Snack Bar at 12 Freshwater (Leo Pittman of the future Leo's was running the place by then,) but  also Chopstick's Chinese and Canadian Cuisine and The Big R.

In those days, one of the hotspots was the Paramount Theatre on Harvey Road. After the evening show, hungry moviegoers would spill out onto the street and fill up the restaurants along Harvey and Freshwater.

Right next door was House of Hong at 30 Harvey, serving up Chinese food, as was Gin's restaurant (now empty) at 45 Harvey. The Candlelite and the Big R, at 53 and 69 Harvey, respectively, both served up local favourites like hot turkey sandwiches and burgers.

For a long time, the restaurant scene in St. John's was summed up on this stretch of road: fish and chip joints (a.k.a. snack bars), Chinese spots serving North American Cantonese dishes like chicken balls and fried rice, along with steaks and burgers, and fancier places with table service for date night (which in the 1960s would have included places like the Candlelite and of course, the hotel restaurants).

But in recent years, this area, which lies in the shadow of The Rooms and which is a hop, skip and a very steep hike up from the vibing downtown restaurant scene, is a diverse little food pocket.

There aren't many places in the city where you can eat fish and chips, down a samosa, slurp Szechuan noodles, and grab some croissants to go in less than five minutes of walking.

But ironically, it still reflects the greater city food scene.

The Freshwater food pocket is worth exploring, one plate at a time, but it also raises some questions: why does a neighbourhood change and why do restaurants cluster?

Let's dig in.


The more it changes, the more it stays the same

In the restaurant industry, an endeavour is considered successful if it lasts five years, but there are several in this area that have stood the test of time. Ten times the test of time to be precise.

Submitted by Gabby Peyton
Submitted by Gabby Peyton

Ches's Fish and Chips first opened on Harvey Road in 1951, one of the first to serve fish and chips from a bricks-and-mortar snack bar in the city. Owners Ches and Betty Barbour moved to their current location at 9 Freshwater Rd., which has become their landmark location, before spreading across the province. The Barbour family still runs the fi & chi empire to this day.

Just up the street, Leo's Restaurant & Take-Out at 27 Freshwater Rd. is another one of the classic fish and chip spots in the city and another family affair.

It first opened as one of 16 Marty's restaurants in the 1950s that are looked back on so lovingly and with a sense of tasty nostalgia in St. John's. Leo Pittman took over the Freshwater location after running it for a few years before it became "Leo's." Daughter-in-law Debbie Pittman has been at the helm for 44 years. Now, granddaughter Melissa Pittman has been running the place with her brother for the past 21 years.

Across the street, Chopsticks at 12 Freshwater Rd. eventually became Mea Mei Wok Eatery which specializes in Cantonese, Szechuan and North American Chinese they've been serving for decades.

Quick-shifting tastes = shifting restaurants 

Some restaurant spaces seem to have a revolving door. One day it could be a vegan restaurant, the next a BBQ joint. The Freshwater Road area saw major shifts even in the past few years: Resto Beirut and Balkan Kitchen, the combo Lebanese and Balkan restaurants on Cookstown Road which opened in 2018, closed while I was researching for this article.

Take Loong Wah Restaurant for example. Sisters Zoe and Leah Wu have been running the restaurant at 13 LeMarchant Rd. (which for the record was Ron's Snack Bar in 1969) since May 2018. The pair took over the space from an operational Chinese restaurant.

"The previous owner has been a long-term family friend and planned to retire. We thought it was a great opportunity for us," explained Zoe Wu. They transformed the menu into a Taiwanese feast, inspired by their home country. Now, Loong Wah serves up hot pot in the winters (the only restaurant in the city where you can try it) and in the summer Taiwanese street food brunches.

"We thought that St. John's is a very multicultural city when it comes to food industries," said Wu. "There are a lot of Chinese restaurants but mostly in Cantonese style. It was a good time to introduce a new style of cuisine."

When they first opened, there were a variety of vegan restaurants and bakeries nearby, all of which have since closed — even in the span of a few years, tastes and trends have changed. The food trends that have permeated the city have clustered on Freshwater Road.

City of St. John's Archives
City of St. John's Archives

Indian food is another on-the-rise cuisine for the city. While some mainstays like India Gate have been around since the early 1990s, the number of South Asian restaurants in St. John's has skyrocketed.

Rahman Rahim opened Indus Eatery in the summer of 2020, which took over the place of beloved taco hotspot Soul Azteca at 11 Freshwater. The halal restaurant serves up beef nahari, chicken karahi and fast-food items like chapli kabab burgers.

Around the corner, Sedra Foods market (which Talal Elseyadi opened in early 2020) also focuses on Halal edibles with a focus on imported foods from Syria, Iran and Egypt, along with gifts and treats.

The bakery blitz is another trend in the city which can be seen in the Freshwater Road area. Phil Goodland opened Levain Pastry Confections Bread at 77 Harvey last year with a francophile-focused menu filled with pain au chocolat, tarte tropezienne, eclairs and more.

Just down the street, you'll now find a lineup out the door at 59 Harvey for Newfoundland Donut Co. the first bricks-and-mortar doughnut shop the city has tasted, which opened in August of this year.

Mike Moore/CBC
Mike Moore/CBC

Strength in numbers (of restaurants)

So why do businesses cluster, aiding in the foundation of a neighbourhood like this Freshwater food pocket? Well, there's no clear answer for this.

There are myriad reasons whether they be geopolitical or economic, and there have been a lot of complicated studies about "restaurant clustering" — sometimes it's a conscious effort made by a fast-food chain to be close to others, while in larger cities, it can be chain migration that explains a new Chinatown or Little Italy.

When it comes to the Freshwater Road area, it could be that rents are the right price (certainly they are lower than those Water and Duckworth storefronts downtown that remain empty — just look at "East Duck"), or an entrepreneur is inspired by a building, or for people like Chef Amy Anthony at the Nook & Cannery, it was dumb luck.

Submitted by Gabby Peyton
Submitted by Gabby Peyton

"I had been speaking to the previous owner years ago when she was thinking of selling, but I never really anticipated landing here. I had been looking at a few other spots in the neighbourhood and farther uptown but existing close to downtown has always been the dream," said Anthony.

"My uncle who was looking to invest in the property purchased the building and I am renting from him and there is an apartment upstairs independent of the restaurant."

The owners of Loong Wah also offer some insight. "The scale of business could be one of the reasons," said Wu. "We are very close to downtown yet have our own pace, kind of commercial and residential mixed. The way we see ourselves is a place you feel at home; a more laid back and relaxing place to be. Restaurants in this neighbourhood tend to be on a smaller scale and run by a family (or smaller team) which gives us more vividness and flexibility on the food we serve."

While the Freshwater food pocket is a unique little corner of this city — one that is certainly worth any culinarians' time and money — it's also a microcosm of trends in St. John's.

Just like in 1969, when our dining scene was dominated by snack bars and Chinese food, this little neighbourhood offers up fancy pastries and samosas.

Submitted by Gabby Peyton
Submitted by Gabby Peyton

"I get more and more excited seeing new businesses open in the hood. Especially food spots," said Anthony. "I hope the hood keeps growing and I plan to try them all and support them all.  We have a great little neighbourhood filled with such variety. As small businesses, we need to support each other for success and growth."

What will Freshwater Road look like in 2040?

No one knows for sure, but I'm excited to taste it.

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