Goodbye Newport, hello Savoy

Moe Atallah, longtime owner of the iconic Newport Restaurant. (Photo: Chris Mikula)

The cellphones and text messages never stopped as I recently corralled two very busy restaurateurs over lunch to discuss latest plans for the space occupied for 26 years by the iconic Newport Restaurant, home of the world-famous and philanthropic Elvis Sighting Society, smack in the middle of trendy Westboro.

There, longtime owner Moe Atallah plans to be completely moved out by Dec. 31 — relocating the Newport down the street to his second restaurant, Donna’s Express at 322 Churchill Ave., to make way for renovations by partners behind the Empire Grill, Metropolitain Brasserie, and The Grand Pizzeria and Bar in the ByWard Market. The new tenants plan to gut the former Newport and have the 3,000-square-foot space fully renovated in French bistro style by April 1 “at the latest.”

The new restaurant will be called Savoy.

“We’re doing another version of the Metropolitain Brasserie but it won’t be quite as fancy,” says Gary Thompson, partner with John Borsten and Dave Mangano in this latest venture, who shared his plans over generous plates of the Newport’s famous rice, tabbouleh, chicken kebabs and hummus.

“It will look like a 100-year-old French brasserie, but with a more neighbourhood style with a neighbourhood feel. Nothing is finalized 100-per-cent, except the name.

“This is a bit different for us because our current restaurants have a lot of foot traffic with hotels and tourists in the ByWard Market, so we’re not sure exactly what to expect. But you’re going to walk into a place that looks like it’s been here 100 years with a zinc bar similar to what we have at the Metropolitain, mosaic floors, lots of subway tiles inside and out, and a tin ceiling.”

The new Savoy may also one day open a rooftop patio.

The menu will be similar to what’s offered at the Metropolitain, which opened at Sussex and Rideau on the former Daly Building site in June 2005, complete with takeout and a popular oyster bar. Favourites at the Metropolitain include such bistro staples as French onion soup, cured meats, bouillabaisse, coquille St. Jacques, steak frites, coq au vin and bourguignon, for example.

“This neighbourhood has great growth potential — it’s exploding right now,” Thompson says. “The demographics are perfect.”

And he thinks the recently opened Gezellig across the street, by restaurateur Stephen Beckta and chef Michael Moffatt, will complement what he offers. “In a lot of respects you’re competing for entertainment dollars, and dining out is entertainment, but we feel the area is under-served. It’s up-and-coming. We do what we do very well, and we’re excited to be here.

“We’re looking for a neighbourhood crowd and the brasserie concept is one that opens early and closes late. Our plan is to serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night, with brunch on weekends. On Monday to Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. we’ll have featured menu items similar to the Hill Hour at the Metropolitain Brasserie,” Thompson says.

Design for the Savoy is by Shannon Smithers-Gay, owner and principal behind One80 Design, who did the hip Union Local 613 restaurant on Somerset Street.

“I had my overall concept nailed down quite a while ago,” says Smithers-Gay, “but I was really able to fine-tune it on a recent visit to New York City. My entire trip was spent going to some of the best restaurants and taking in all of the amazing designs — I was so inspired.

“So my intentions for the Savoy are really to create a less ‘refined’ version of the Metropolitain Brasserie (with) warm tones, amazing flooring, comfortable seating, classic lighting with mixed styles of furniture — old and new. My intention is to use as many old or ‘reclaimed’ pieces as possible, as I think it’s better than trying to make new ones appear old.

“It will really help to evoke that authentic neighbourhood brasserie feel that is completely different for Westboro,” she says. “I’m really excited about this project.”

Recall that restaurateur Atallah created something of stir in August when he announced he is leasing out the space at Churchill Avenue and Richmond Road to the principles behind Empire Grill, who at that time had rather vague plans about opening a high-end pizza place similar to The Grand downtown. But those plans quickly morphed, Thompson says, as the partners realized a brasserie would fit better in the upscale neighbourhood.

“We want to grow The Grand concept,” Thompson says. “But the more we researched and thought about it, the more we thought the brasserie concept would work well here.”

On other fronts, the partners have additional ambitious plans to develop new restaurants in the ByWard Market and in New Edinburgh, he revealed. They’re close to a deal to take on 3,000-square-feet of space beside Empire Grill (which celebrates 15 years on Feb. 23) in what was formerly a travel agency. “It will be a totally separate restaurant,” Thompson says. “We haven’t figured out the concept yet, but it will be a neighbourhood-style place.

“We’re also talking to developers in the Beechwood area to open something in New Edinburgh by 2014.

But before the tenants take possession on Jan. 2, Atallah still plans to serve his free turkey dinner for upwards of 1,500 people on Christmas Day. After that, he’s got to clean up and get everything out in a matter of days — of course, taking the charity Elvis Sighting Society with him.

“Donna’s Express is ready,” Atallah says. “The signage is there for the Newport.

“I have mixed emotions about moving. For years we opened every day, we closed, and we met people. I hope the trend continues. For us, it’s not the closing of a restaurant, it’s moving down the street. But we will miss the ambience, the atmosphere.”

“It’s been like raising a child,” Atallah says, “and of course you become attached.

“Lots of people say they’ll miss this place and they’re taking pictures, but Elvis is just going down the street with the same name, same menu. Certainly this place has sentimental value in my heart with what we’ve accomplished so far. Over the years we’ve welcomed cabinet ministers, prime ministers, ambassadors, members of parliament, mayors — everybody — and hopefully we’ll have them again at the new location. But after more than 25 years in business, thank God I’m not just shutting it down.

“But I’m 66 now, and figure I can last longer on a smaller scale without the pressures wearing me down.”

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