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Hello from Ottawa – Darcy McGee’s on Sparks Street: An Irish Pub with a Bit of History
When you travel to a new place, you can combine history with a unique dining experience and good food. And so, literally steps away from our temporary home at the Lord Elgin Hotel, we found Darcy McGee’s, which bills itself as “Ottawa’s authentic Irish pub.” Darcy McGee’s is located at the intersection of Sparks and Elgin Streets, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill and all of Ottawa’s major attractions.
In fact, Thomas Darcy McGee was a prominent Ottawa politician and one of the Fathers of Confederation. He was famous for his rousing speeches that helped unite this fractious new country, Canada. On April 7, 1868, he was murdered outside his boarding house in Sparks Street, just a few minutes from where the pub was located.
When we entered the pub it was absolutely packed, every seat was full and the front bar areas were lined up. I found out later that they had a concert planned for 8pm with Lyle Lovett at the National Arts Centre, which is literally across the street from the pub.
We got a comfortable seat in a corner of this cozy pub and rested after a tiring day of skating on the Rideau Canal. The concert goers started to filter out by 19:45 and it was a little easier to breathe in this very popular place.
Skating naturally makes you very hungry, so the reasonably priced menu was top of the line and one particular dish caught my eye: the “Melted Stilton Cheese Dip”, which consists of Stilton, aged cheddar and cream cheeses mixed with fresh spinach. Served in a Pupernickel roll with toasted bagel chips and Granny Smith apple slices. The taste actually reminded me of a creamy blue cheese dip and I really enjoyed it.
I followed the appetizer with a Mediterranean tomato salad made from sliced greenhouse tomatoes with goat cheese, red onion, black peppercorns and extra virgin olive oil, with garlic bread. Although Darcy McGee’s offers hearty, traditional pub fare, I decided to keep the main course calories down a bit.
After dinner, I thought I should explore a little more about the history and unique features of this place, and I approached one of the people who runs the pub. Jennifer Rafuse is one of the managers and she was kind enough to show me around and show me around this unique place.
He pointed out that the pub’s fixtures were designed and built in Ireland and shipped to Canada. The pub really has a lot of unique decor, which consists of hand-crafted reddish wood with uniquely decorated glass inlays. The atmosphere is cozy with dimmed lights and several private seating areas leading to the main bar area.
Just to the left of the entrance is an area with a huge window overlooking Elgin Street. The view from this window on the north-east side is fantastic: we can see the Parliament Buildings, the magnificently illuminated Chateau Laurier, the National Conference Center and the National Arts Centre. It really doesn’t get much more central than that.
Jennifer took me over to a historical wall display that told the story of Darcy McGee and showed pictures of his funeral attended by 60,000 people. At the time of his death in 1868, it was Victorian practice to make death masks, the actual casting of the dead person’s head. However, since Darcy was horribly disfigured during the shooting, a hand was made instead. A cast of his hand is actually on display in a glass case right below the historical plaque, and I have to admit, seeing this guy’s surrendered hand was a little creepy.
Jennifer explained that Darcy McGees is a favorite spot for politicians who come down to freshen up after a long day on Parliament Hill. He said the pub used to be a favorite meeting place for liberals, and since the election of Stephen Harper as prime minister, the number of conservatives has increased.
He also told me about the Barmaster’s competition, where bartenders compete in different categories. They are supposed to create Irish “craic” which means a great fun atmosphere. Part of this Barmasters competition is the ability to pour the perfect Guinness, always topped with a clover.
Of course I had to see the technique of pouring the perfect Guinness and a shamrock on top. Jennifer was happy to demonstrate: first you pour the beer for about 45 seconds, then you let it sit for a while, then you fill it up and move the glass around to create a really perfect swirl in the shape of a clover. This process takes a total of 119.5 seconds. (Of course, the timing is not measured by a stopwatch, but by the perfect judgment of an experienced bartender).
The atmosphere is enhanced by live music, and Jennifer said that the pub has musicians three days a week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Tap music is a mix of Irish music and rock.
Jennifer also mentioned that in April, May, Darcy McGees will actually be opening a patio on Sparks Street where guests can enjoy food and drinks alfresco. Sparks Street is renowned as one of Ottawa’s most important heritage streets. Nicholas Sparks was one of Ottawa’s city fathers and established the street in the early 1800s.
After Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as Canada’s capital, this street became a bustling commercial center for the entire Ottawa region. Sparks Street is now a pedestrian zone, so no cars are allowed, leaving visitors free to enjoy the boutiques, specialty shops, artisan retailers and restaurants that line Sparks Street. This area is also home to many special events such as the Ottawa International Busker Festival, Tulips on Sparks (held in May), and the International Chicken and Rib Cook-Off, which pits chefs from Canada, Australia and the United States against each other. face
So Darcy McGees is right in the heart of historic Ottawa and we got to sample some real Irish hospitality. Anticipating another busy Sunday, we finished an early dinner, walked back to our hotel, and noticed that Confederation Park was still in action. We have now seen the completed ice sculptures, each illuminated in different colors. From there we went down to the Rideau Canal where the American Express Sno-Bowl outdoor concert in front of the National Convention Center was taking place. Hundreds of people swayed to the music and the historic former train station was decked out in shades of pink, orange and purple.
This town sure knows how to throw a big party…..
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