544 Rideau Street

544 Rideau Street - 2012

I located a second floor apartment close to the university at 544 Rideau Street, right above Dr. Dupont’s chiropractic business and residence.  Now that we had a location, we only needed a name.  After several long discussions and many coffees, someone, I can’t remember who, came up with "Le Hibou" (The Owl).  Since we were to open only in the evening, the name seemed perfect.  So in October 1960 Café Le Hibou Coffee House was born.

We had a place, but we still needed furniture, a menu, and a membership card.  A designer friend, Frank Mayrs from Exhibition Canada (a now-defunct federal department that used to set up exhibits all over the world) designed the owl logo for the Le Hibou membership card.  We decided to charge $1 per membership with the hope that it would cover the rent and other expenses.  As George and I were the only ones with cars, we did the rounds of used furniture stores.  Al’s Used Furniture in the market had the best deal, and I picked up chairs for about 50 cents to $1, and tables from $2 to $5.  Taking the cue from my artist friends, we painted all the walls off-white. That was the "in" colour for artists then.

The piece de resistance was a cone-shaped aluminum espresso maker I picked up in Little Italy on Preston Street.  The espresso was served in a demitasse.  Espresso MakerFor the cappuccino, we would heat the milk to boiling point on the stove, froth it with a wire whip, add it to the espresso, and top it with whipped cream with a sprinkle of chocolate or cinnamon.  It was amazing how fast we could produce espressos and cappuccinos on that little stove in the kitchen on Rideau Street.  For food, we offered a variety of cheeses, ham on crusty buns, and smoked meat sandwiches on Rideau Bakery rye bread.

On the weekend a student friend of Andre’s, Paul Mostovac, would bake fabulous buttery European cakes on large trays: mocha, chocolate, hazelnut or black forest, all of which disappeared very quickly.  In the front rooms, with visions of a romantic Paris which I had not yet visited, I covered the tables with white and red chequered tablecloths, and placed on each one a straw-covered fat Chianti bottle topped with a candle—Paris on the Rideau.  The walls, however, did not stay pristine white very long as Nikki Patterson, a very talented artist, soon drew beautiful figures on all of them.


Harry Howith Poetry Reading (Denis with black beard on left)

Over time, the club evolved by itself.  Glen Kealy organized a chess tournament.  Harry Howith, a local poet, set up poetry readings, with the likes of Barry Lord, Bill Hawkins, and sometimes Brian Robinson, a U of O English professor, would drop in to read his poetry and play his clarinet. Bob Rosewarne, graphic designer and lithographer, met Bill Hawkins then. From this meeting emerged a series of poster poems including the well-known "Postage Stamps." A friend, Gerard Gravelle, organized the French poetry readings.  Gerard became a journalist and news anchor for Radio Canada television and also played in numerous French and English theatre productions at Le Hibou (more on that later).

Charles FisherBudding folk singers arrived on the scene; people like Nev Wells, Peter Hodgson, who later adopted the stage name "Sneezy Waters," and his brother John (who wrote “You’ve got Sawdust on the Floor of Your Heart”).  There was also an enigmatic character, called Carlos by everyone (Charles Fisher), who played flamenco guitar and would pop in regularly.  When Carlos dropped by, we would be granted with an impromptu concert, and before long George Gordon Lennox (who also played guitar) and others would join in.  The thumping of the feet did not exactly please our downstairs landlord.  He would retaliate by playing corny tunes on his electric organ when we held poetry readings—creating a cacophonous effect as the poet read.

During the period of his impromptu concerts, Charles had worked as House of Commons reporter. When the House rose each summer, he would be off to Spain where it was said he had an extended family.  When he died a few years ago, I learned from his obituary that he was also a poet and a good friend of Dylan Thomas.  Apparently, his friends had urged him to write about that era, but for some reason he had refused to do so.

In addition to the music, food, cappuccino, cakes, chess, and poetry, there was always the business side of the club.  Le Hibou was open seven days a week, and Andre fulfilled his part.  As night manager,  he had to kick the strays out and lock the door.  But after a few months of this regimen his law studies were taking a beating.  So it was with regret that Andre had to quit the group.  Not long afterwards, Jean Carriere needed the $800 he had invested to continue his studies.  Reluctantly, we paid it back and lost another good partner.

Staffing, though, was never a problem.  It was amazing how many people were willing to work for what amounted to a pittance and tips.  Many romances blossomed there.  One I recall involved my younger sister, Fernande, who was also waitress.  On the particular night in question, the cappuccinos and cakes were ready and waiting, yet there was no sign of Fernande.  Checking the front room, I noticed Fernande was seated having a spirited conversation with a club member.  That club member, Ralph Kretz, became my brother-in-law.  And of course, Le Hibou is also where I met Penny Knight, who was to become my wife.

At the end of the first winter, we had more than 500 members.  But since half of our membership were students who had exams looming, attendance began to dwindle.  Then an event occurred which gave Le Hibou much publicity and a surge in attendance.

A Burst of Growth

The article that changed the UofO campus and drew people to Le Hibou.

That year (1961), the University of Ottawa revealed its twenty-five year building plan, a plan concocted by three people: architect Jean-Serge Le Fort, Bill Boss, the U of O Communications Director and then Rector Rev Henri Légaré.  I was both appalled and infuriated by the plan.  Most of my courses at Ottawa U were in a Le Fort building, a bleak, rectangular, soviet-style building with few redeeming features.  Moreover, these twenty or so buildings that were proposed in the twenty-five year plan had no connecting fabric—just a bunch of buildings scattered about.  I thought that, with the U of O campus being in the heart of the nation’s capital, the city deserved better.

I wrote a letter to the University of Ottawa student paper, The Fulcrum (still going strong), venting all the fury of my young, idealistic heart.  It was not long before journalists picked up the story, and Le Hibou was swarmed by the media for television, radio, and newspapers interviews.  A group of Ottawa architects applauded, met, and pressed for changes to the plan.  At meetings, I met Matt Stankiewicz and John Leaning. More about them later.  The furor was such that the University of Ottawa relented and named Murray & Murray as chief architects, with Le Fort as consultant.  I was pleased with the outcome and doubly pleased to see new Le Hibou members joining up.  Today, as I drive by the University of Ottawa campus, I always marvel that one little article in The Fulcrum provoked such a change.

Summer Doldrums

April arrived and exam time was approaching quickly. It was “cramming time” for many students, including me, since I was still at University. (I passed except for one philosophy course which I had rewrite that August.) Although we had new members, thanks to the coverage from the architecture issues with the University, half of our membership was students and they were busy studying. By summer, attendance was worse. Out-of-town students moved out; others enjoyed the great weather. Not having enough money in the bank to cover the rent, we set up a merry-go-round: I would write a cheque to the landlord, cover it with a personal cheque, George would cover my personal cheque with his, Jean would do the same, followed by Andre, then back to the Le Hibou account. Thanks to that strategy, which gave a few weeks leeway, there finally would be enough money in the account to cover the rent. I don’t think this technique would work now in an electronic era but, at the time, the club wouldn’t have survived without it.

Pastries and Poetry

Attentive patrons, 544 Rideau

I had to find a way to bring in money and new customers, so I decided to open the place up as a little bistro in the evening offering very eclectic cuisine, mainly French but also Italian, Japanese, and even Indonesian.  My future brother-in-law, Alan Knight, who was sixteen and already at Carleton University, became my sous-chef.  Every day I was at the marketplace choosing meats, fish, and vegetables for the evening meal.  It seemed to work, and we had a steady clientele.  They loved the food, the prices, and the fact that I never queried them about the contents of the brown bag they brought along.

We also set up a few tables on the balcony overlooking Rideau Street.  It was probably the first café terrasse in Ottawa at that time.  I recall one particular evening when Carlos, with a beautiful date (as always), came rushing into the kitchen proclaiming that he'd just been server the best salmon he had ever eaten.  I had made a pretty good salmon teriyaki, but I suspect the contents of his brown bag had greatly enhanced the flavour.

Another turn of events helped with summer revenue.  CJOH TV featured a local chef weekly on its early evening program.  For some reason they invited me.  I still to this day have no idea why they did so. Maybe it was for a bit of comic relief.  Alan, as sous-chef, insisted on being there even though they told me I was the only one to be interviewed.  So we each washed our two white aprons (purchased at C.A. Paradis) three times and with lots of bleach so that they would look as professional as possible.  The dish we chose was Hati Bumbu Bali, a highly spiced Indonesian dish.  The choice was inspired by Alan’s brother-in-law, who was Indonesian. In those days, there weren’t any Indonesian restaurants in Ottawa.

Looking back, the dish we chose was probably not a wise choice since liver is not everybody’s favourite.  The interview went well, and I talked abundantly about Le Hibou.  Alan, markedly tall for his age, stood silently in the back, mute as a telephone pole.  Then came the cruncher:  "Could you finish the dish—we have only one minute left."  I had prepared very little by then (perhaps I should have talked less) and it was a mad scramble for Alan and I to complete a half presentable dish.  Nevertheless, as a result of this interview, we had many new members and diners, although nobody asked for the Hati Bumbu Bali.

Despite a strong membership, Le Hibou could not live on people, pastries, and poetry alone. We needed a larger place, with paid entertainment on the weekends. What's more, I was receiving not-so-subtle hints from Dr. Dupont, the landlord, that maybe it was a good idea to start looking for another venue, a venue in a commercial district perhaps. I quite agreed. So the search was on to locate a place, preferably in Centretown, close to the two universities and colleges.

Time to Move

Tom Kines

By luck, I found a second floor space above a Sherwin Williams paint shop. It was a long narrow space with a small room and a window in the front—perfect to set up the kitchen. The rent was also reasonable. I suspect that the place had been up for rent for a long time, as the manager of paint store was thrilled to have us.

The new Le Hibou site was not the only thing that happened that year. I also married Penny Knight, and we rented a new apartment at 117 Cooper.

Gerard Garneau, along with his brother Jean, were regulars at Le Hibou. Gerard worked at the CBC as a studio director, and he was leaving to do his Master’s in International Affairs at Carleton University. He suggested that I apply for his job and said I could count on his recommendation. Having just graduated from the University of Ottawa, and Bolex camerahaving studied theatre and acted in many plays, even made some short films using a l6mm hand-cranked Bolex camera, I thought, "Why not?" To my surprise, I got the job. As I soon realized, television was new in Ottawa and everybody was learning on the job.

Preparing for the new Le Hibou, I booked my first performer, Tom Kines, a well-known local traditional folk singer. A new era was about to begin.