By Carolyn Best
The Pantry Vegetarian Tearoom in the Glebe Community Centre will close its doors for the last time on June 30. Carolyn Best, the current proprietor, reflects on the impending closure of one of the Glebe’s longest running businesses.
As many of our customers and friends already know, The Pantry will close its doors for the last time at the end of June. This has not been an easy decision for me to make but I feel that it is time to retire. Forty-one years have come and gone since The Pantry first opened in 1975 – a remarkably long life for a small restaurant.
I believe that its survival owes much to the ecological principles of its founder, Ilse Kyssa. From its very beginning, The Pantry was committed to vegetarian food and espoused community activism. Kyssa’s philosophy seemed very forward thinking then, yet her ideas essentially looked back towards an older understanding of our relationship with each other and our planet. Back to the values of organic produce, of the small footprint, of plant-based nourishment, of an old world charm, and to the need for a “third place” – a place that is not work and is not home, where one mingles with friends or enjoys solitude while yet in company.
Since I took over The Pantry in 1995, I have done my best to keep to the high standards she established. Using organic food, recycling waste, and composting are almost as integral to our work as cooking and providing a pleasant environment for lunch. In all my efforts I have been assisted by a changing cast of volunteers and workers who faithfully laboured to ensure the daily appearance of a soup, entrée and dessert – served Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Without their dedication, neither Ilse Kyssa nor I could have kept the restaurant running for a week. At various times our helpers have included successful artists, published writers, a Versace model and a Polish countess, along with many other interesting and unusual characters. Early retirees have gifted us with their time and talents, whether it was a mastery of Arabic or knowledge gleaned during careers in nursing or social work. For several years I cooked with differently-abled students from a Glebe Collegiate program, and was humbled to discover that their patience and care in the kitchen often yielded far better results than my hustle and bustle.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of running The Pantry has been the kindness of our wonderful customers, through whose ongoing patronage we became part of the fabric of the Glebe. It often surprises me how much The Pantry means to people of all ages, not just as an eatery but as a place associated with significant moments in their lives. I well remember meeting one young married couple from Vancouver, who told me they had first met as children in our dining room. Some claim that “a good restaurant makes for a good clientele,” but in my experience the opposite is true. The enthusiasm and encouragement of our customers turned maintaining The Pantry into a pleasure rather than a daily grind. I have no idea how many meals we have served since 1995, but even today I am thrilled when someone praises a dish or asks for a recipe.
Even though the guidebook Secret Ottawa once described The Pantry as a “hidden jewel,” it appeared on several occasions that our lease with the City of Ottawa would not be renewed. The restaurant was only able to continue operating due to the help of concerned neighbourhood activists who voiced the Glebe community’s resistance to the impending closures. In 2013, for example, over 2,000 people signed a petition to keep The Pantry open, while the City and our local councillor were bombarded with phone calls and emails. I was deeply moved by the unexpected strength of this wave of protest, which undoubtedly led to the renewal of my contract for another two years.
Many people have asked me whether we will hold a party before closing The Pantry but I have decided against this. I consider that every day between now and June 30 will be a celebration of the 41 years that The Pantry has been open. Despite the long hours and the many sleepless nights spent worrying about work-related problems, I cannot imagine any career that could have been more rewarding or satisfying than operating our community restaurant. May I take this final opportunity to thank you all for your patronage and support. It has been my privilege to cook for you.
Carolyn Best is the chef and proprietor of The Pantry Vegetarian Tearoom.