By BRYAN LAVERY
Wortley Village has a lengthy past as a residential suburb of London with a uniquely independent personality. This history of the village is reflected in the concentration of recognizable architectural styles (Victorian, art deco and mission-style) and an aesthetic combination of heritage buildings dating from the area’s early years between 1850 and 1930. The well-preserved heritage character of many of the homes and long-standing public buildings, along with the pedestrian-oriented streetscape of the Wortley Road commercial strip, give the neighbourhood an identifiable charm and cultural uniqueness. The area is bordered by Wellington Road to the east, Wharncliffe Road to the west, Horton Street to the north and Commissioners Road to the south.
A walkable and bicycle-friendly community whose residents have a reputation for their significant contributions to the creative vitality of London, Wortley Village is a respected core neighbourhood. A panel of judges from the Canadian Institute of Planners named Wortley Village Canada’s Great Neighbourhood for 2013 in both the Grand Prize and People’s Choice categories. “It has a true identity. When you think of great neighbourhoods, you think of physical spaces as well as the people,” said judge John Fleming, a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners, who is also London’s Managing Director of Planning, and City Planner for London.
Back in 2002, Wortley Village was dubbed one of Canada’s “coolest neighbourhoods” by enRoute magazine. The publication noted Wortley Village’s “gorgeous old homes as well as every kind of merchant and shop run as independent businesses. Residents don’t even need a car.”
Home to artisans and artists, unique home-run and independently owned shops, services, restaurants and nightlife, the Wortley Village mixed-use commercial strip has evolved organically over time to its present revitalized state. The streetscape is a varied collection of interesting buildings bustling with boutiques, restaurants, cafes, small-scale from-scratch bakeries, and one of the best ice cream vendors in the city. There are landmark retailers, like the recently renovated and environmentally friendly Quarter Master Natural Foods — one of the original health food stores in the city, having served Wortley Village and the community for over 30 years.
There’s a very strong café culture in Wortley Village, with a diversity of outdoor culinary experiences for everyone. On the corridor the staggered buildings are mostly set back from the street and in season this allows patrons to enjoy dining at a sidewalk café, in a secluded courtyard setting, under a pergola, or on an elevated patio or a charming side-street terrace. The following section highlights some of the interesting culinary options found in Wortley Village:
The Village Harvest Bakery
This nearly 20-year-old Wortley Road institution, helmed by Sharon Landry and Douglas Huskilson, is a scratch bakery that has been operating since 1997. This is true artisanal baking — rustic, with an emphasis on quality wholesome ingredients and freshness. The bakery retails over 30 types of bread and a selection of high-quality specialty items, including diabetic-friendly muffins, granola, cookies, squares and tarts baked daily on site. The bakery is known for their pies, in particular cranberry pecan, apple and three-berry flavours. One of the breads the bakery is known for is Adelaide’s Nova Scotia Brown. Village Harvest Bakery’s apprentice Eric reflects their collaboration with the Youth Opportunities Unlimited organization. All the baking is from scratch and with as many locally-sourced Ontario ingredients as possible. The bakery offers seniors and the unwaged 10% off their purchases daily. 145 Wortley Rd., 519-667-1199
Sweet Onion Grill
The Sweet Onion Grill is located in the premises previously occupied by Ciao Bistro, and Relish, across from the Black Walnut Café. This informal, bistro-style restaurant is operated by the restaurant-savvy Ross Agathos (father of Zack Agathos of the newly opened Icarus Resto Bar) formerly of Ross Eagle Custom Sports and Huron House/Dancing Greek Restaurant. Agathos’ new hire, Welsh-born chef Chris Powell, has put together a traditional menu, albeit not locally-focused, having assimilated many influences. The restaurant looks to Greece as an accent, not necessarily a theme. Pan-fried pork belly is served with sweet onion marmalade and port reduction. Saganaki prepared with kefalograviera (hard sheep’s milk cheese) is flambéed with ouzo tableside. The service is genuine and hospitable and the price point is the most accessible in the village. There is a nicely situated outdoor terrace in season. 135 Wortley Rd., 519-204-5575
Mai’s Café and Bistro
This spot in Wortley Village has an unimposing frontage leading into a compact and pleasant interior, where aromatics of Thai cuisine permeate the narrow room, and the queue for takeaway is constant. There's an assortment of traditional Thai fare and an unexpected variety of Western food on the unconventional menu. Generally, Mai’s offers a satisfying dining experience with curry dishes, pad Thai, pasta, fish and chips and a Canadian breakfast. The Thai food is the real reason to go, though. Kai, Mai`s sister, is a welcoming and knowledgeable presence in the restaurant. Many of you will remember Mai as the former owner of Café Milagro in Byron. 142-A Wortley Rd., 519- 679-1221
Black Walnut Bakery Café
On a recent weekday morning at Black Walnut Bakery, customers lined up in front of the glass counter for shiny apple tarts, melt-in-your-mouth scones, lemon squares and a variety of savoury delicacies. From the welcoming hospitality and the rich aroma of fresh coffee, to the smell of pastries baking in the ovens, the Black Walnut Bakery Café is a destination café experience. With close attention to detail and strong relationships with the community, co-owners Wilson and Mandy Etheridge create a warm, neighbourly vibe. The Etheridges strive to provide a unique coffee experience by roasting their own distinctive organic, Fair Trade and Rain Forest Alliance coffees under the Black Walnut label. Specialty trained baristas are adept at handcrafting espresso drinks with organic syrups using the latest top-of-the-line equipment. The Black Walnut offers scratch baking every morning, seven days a week, as well as a café menu of artfully prepared made-to-order sandwiches, seasonal soups and salads, frittatas, bread, squares and light meals. Nothing is served in the café that isn’t hand-crafted and made in their scratch kitchen. 134 Wortley Rd., 519-439-BAKE (2253)
Old South Village Pub
Located in a restored heritage home, the Old South Village Pub is a warm, inviting old English-style pub and a good choice for relaxing alfresco in Wortley Village. The pub is located in the heart of the village, so there’s a great view of the neighbourhood. The menu includes homemade wood-oven pizzas, steak and Guinness pies and “the best” sweet potato fries. The pub also features a selection of popular Indian-inspired dishes. The pizzas are a favourite of locals in Wortley Village. 149 Wortley Rd., 519-645-1166
Gusto Food and Wine Bar
Open since September 2012, Gusto is a welcome addition to Old South’s dining scene. The restaurant is housed in a refurbished Victorian home that was formerly an antique shop and then the late lamented Casa Cubano restaurant. Chef Stephen Burns shows off his skills with a menu that includes charcuterie and tapas-style plates with “sharables” like risotto balls, pulled pork sliders and signature meatballs. The restaurant is known for its cracker-thin crisp pizzas. Dine inside or al fresco in season on the attractive verandah. 175 Wortley Rd., 519-937-1916
Wortley Village Fire Roasted Café
Fire Roasted Coffee has built its reputation on roastings, tastings, retail, wholesale, by the cup, and by the bag. The outpost café with its large picture window attracts Wortley Village hipsters, coffee aficionados, students and professionals with laptops. The café is known for its simple honest fare: freshly-roasted coffee, baked goods and pastries provided by the Artisan Bakery in Old East Village — locally produced beer, and a small wine list curated by local wine expert Michael Buck.
Last year, entrepreneur David Cook approached Kendra Gordon-Green of the former Little Red Roaster, seeking to take over their space in order to give Fire Roasted a presence and higher profile in Wortley Village. Now there are plans to expand Tuckey Home Hardware into the current café space in 2015. A deal has been reached with owner Dave Tuckey, whose grandfather opened the store in 1946, to incorporate a new flagship Fire Roasted café in the plans. In the meantime, Cook views the Wortley Road location like a pop-up restaurant where he is able to create a complementary niche and a distinct footprint in the neighbourhood. 138 Wortley Rd., 519-601-9477