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Remember This? The Green Valley Restaurant

For more than fifty years, the family-run Green Valley Restaurant was a landmark on the Prescott Highway, later known as Prince of Wales Drive.
Green Valley Restaurant
The Green Valley Restaurant.

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.

For more than fifty years, the family-run Green Valley Restaurant was a landmark on the Prescott Highway, later known as Prince of Wales Drive.

Despite being far from the downtown core, the restaurant was an enduring favourite of Ottawa diners. It garnered a reputation for fine dining. Thousands made their way out past the Experimental Farm, tempted by the Green Valley’s traditional offerings of prime rib of beef, leg of lamb, chicken pot pie, salmon, trout and scallops.

For those who still had room, a wide range of home-style desserts were served, including carrot cake, coconut cream pie, and cheesecake with raspberry sauce.  A dessert favourite among the younger set was the “Mickey Mouse” – scoops of ice cream decorated with chocolate wafers ears and maraschino cherry eyes. A Sunday brunch attracted the after-church crowd. The restaurant became the place to celebrate birthdays, Mothers’ Day, weddings and wakes.

The Green Valley Restaurant had an unlikely genesis in the depth of the Great Depression when Waldorf John Stewart, who had moved to the spot with his wife, Florence Irene, neé Mulligan, in around 1933, built an attractive play house for their young daughter Miriam on their property. Visible from the highway, travellers to the Ottawa area began stopping and asking whether they could rent it for short stays. Recognizing an investment opportunity, Stewart built twenty-four tourist cabins, which became known as the Green Valley Tourist Court. The new hostelry was open on a seasonal basis from May to mid-October. The new business was named after his wife’s nearby family farm. Stewart also began selling ice cream and hot dogs to holiday makers and day trippers from Ottawa out for an afternoon drive.

At the end of June 1947, Stewart expanded the food side of the business, opening the Green Valley Restaurant for guests staying in his cabins as well for the general public. He advertised his new restaurant in both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal noting that meals would be prepared by chef “Gustave,” formerly of the Engineers’ Club of Montreal and the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity of McGill University. The restaurant was an instant success.

The following year, Lyall M. Gillespie, married Stewart’s daughter Miriam, and joined the family business. Gillespie who had university degrees in business and commerce, took an active interest in the restaurant, doubling its capacity to 120 guests with the construction of the “Pine Room,” and expanding its menu.  Later, Gillespie left another enduring mark on Ottawa’s tourist fabric. As a member of Ottawa’s Board of Trade, he was the person responsible for persuading the federal government to hold a regular “Changing of the Guard” ceremony on Parliament Hill. So successful was the event among Ottawa’s tourists and residents that Prime Minister Diefenbaker made the temporary, summer season event a permanent feature of Ottawa’s tourist calendar in 1959.

Within a few years, the Green Valley Restaurant had eclipsed the tourist accommodations’ side of the business. In 1956, the restaurant expanded again with the building of the “Walnut Room.” Capacity increased to 225 guests. A gift shop called “Now and Then,” sold souvenir items, chinaware and jewellery. The expansion, along with the construction of new cooking facilities, which included two walk-in freezers, a poultry-prep station, a pastry station, a vegetable-prep station, as well as a dishwashing section and a dessert table, cost $300,000—a huge investment, roughly equivalent to $3 million in today’s money.

These changes vaulted the Green Valley Restaurant into the top echelon of Canadian restaurants. Duncan Hines recommended it in his book Adventures in Good Eating that described good eating places in North America. Hines, now best known for the eponymous brand of cake mixes and icings owned by Proctor and Gamble, was an American pioneer in rating restaurants for travellers. The Green Valley was also recommended by the Automobile Association of America, Gourmet Magazine, and Diners’ Club, one of the first purveyors of credit cards. It was also voted by readers of the American Business magazine as the fourth-best restaurant in Canada for business people to entertain clients. Not bad for a family-run eatery on the outskirts of little Ottawa! Graham Kerr, a.k.a. the Galloping Gourmet, was also a frequent patron of the Green Valley Restaurant while he and his family lived in Ottawa for the filming his world-famous television show.

In 1967, Waldorf Steward died, and the Green Valley Tourist Court and Restaurant passed into the hands of his daughter Miriam and son-in-law Lyall Gillespie. That same year, the cabins were closed, leaving the firm to concentrate on its restaurant business. Two years later, Miriam died leaving the firm to her husband Lyall who later ran the business with his second wife, Linda, until his death in 1987. Linda Gillespie with brother John Meyers subsequently managed the business.

By this time, the restaurant was deeply entrenched in the fabric of Ottawa’s hospitality industry. One much loved restaurant tradition was its Christmas tree. Each Christmas season, the restaurant decorated a neighbouring forty-foot spruce with 2,500 coloured lights. Seen for miles, it became a welcome beacon for drivers on the Prescot Highway.

In 1985, this festive tradition was threatened when the owner of the land on which the tree stood decided to develop the property. The land had originally been part of old Green Valley Tourist Court acreage, but had been sold off in 1972. With the tree slated to be cut down to make way for an entrance way, Ottawa residents rose up in arms in an effort to save the landmark tree. A petition to keep the Christmas tree attracted a thousand signatures, while several hundred people protested in person. Mayor Dewar was warned that she would be “a grinch” if the tree was cut down.

During the negotiations between the developer, the restaurant and the city to find a way of saving the tree, somebody tried to kill it by drilling holes around the base of the tree’s trunk and injecting it with an unknown fluid. Arborists opined that the tree, which was already stressed by the cutting of its roots to build a nearby watermain, was unlikely to survive. The magnificent spruce was cut down. Fortunately, the Christmas tradition was maintained when a local tree company donated a replacement tree that the restaurant owners planted on their property.

In 1995, the Green Valley Restaurant passed out of Gillespie/Myers family hands when the business was sold to an outsider, Ron Karam, a lawyer. But for its patrons, little changed. Karam retained the name and the oldy-worldy atmosphere of the restaurant, and its staff.

However, by this time, the still popular but increasingly old-fashioned restaurant was losing ground to more hip downtown eateries. The Green Valley Restaurant was disparagingly referred to as catering to the “blue rinse set.”

In 2002, the business was sold again. This time to restauranteur Peter Thorp who was the owner of Oscar’s on Queen Street, a purveyor of wood-fired pizzas. At the end of May of that year, the Green Valley Restaurant served it last prime rib. A month later, the redecorated restaurant reopened as Gilmour’s, named after John Gilmour, the pioneer Ottawa lumberman.

Gilmour’s, the successor restaurant to the Green Valley, did not last long. On New Year’s Eve, 2002, just months after it opened, the restaurant was destroyed by fire.

At 7:30pm, while staff were catering to the needs of roughly twenty guests, smoke was detected coming from one of the back vents to the restaurant. The alarm was sounded, and staff and guests were evacuated. There was little hope of stopping the blaze. The building was made of wood with little or no fire stops or flame-retardant materials. Extreme heat prevented fire fighters from entering the building for a time. While the fire was contained by midnight, the fire department remained on the scene until about 6:00am the following morning. Damage was estimated at $1.5 million, $1 million for the building and another $500,000 for its contents.

The building was not replaced. Today, all that is left of the venerable Green Valley Restaurant, an Ottawa landmark for 67 years, is its driveway blocked by concrete traffic barriers.

 

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