Forty Years at The Pantry

By David Pritchard

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The back room of The Pantry, late 1970s

When Ilse Kyssa first opened The Pantry in the Glebe Community Centre (GCC) on September 15, 1975, nobody would have expected it to still be thriving 40 years later. Yet, against the odds, it has survived in a much-changed Glebe to become a community institution and one of Ottawa’s longest established eateries.

Quaint and old-fashioned as The Pantry may appear to customers seeing it today, in earlier years it was one of the most innovative restaurants in Ottawa. Kyssa was recycling her waste decades before it was common practice, while smoking was banned from the day she opened; this rule was enforced by a sign reading “Anybody Caught Smoking on the Premises Will Be Hung Upside Down and Pummeled into Unconsciousness with an Organic Carrot.” Even the fact that The Pantry was female owned and operated set it apart, since in the 1970s businesses run by women were still extremely rare.

With very little money at her disposal, Kyssa decorated the restaurant with her own most valued possessions, and scoured flea markets, garage sales and second-hand stores for suitable tables and chairs. Some of these items are still in use today, for instance the old railway station wall clock hanging beside the door onto Second Avenue and a beautiful wooden pew from St Paul’s Methodist Church.

The Pantry’s first home at the GCC was in a small room off Scotton Hall that is now used as a storage cupboard. Shortly afterwards it moved to three rooms at the former main entrance of the building, where it has been situated ever since. On warm spring and fall days the elegant portico, with its granite steps and four stately columns, still offers an exceptionally pleasant outside dining area.

From the beginning cuisine at The Pantry was vegetarian, health conscious and made with the best available ingredients. Meals and snacks were homemade; baked goods featured whole wheat flour and unpasteurized honey. Looking at The Pantry’s first menu, it contains several items that are still popular today, for instance cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches and a daily soup. Prices, of course, were unbelievably cheap by today’s standards and you could buy a soup, sandwich and dessert for little more than a dollar.

Many of The Pantry’s 1970s and 1980s customers came from the offices of the Ottawa School Board, which was situated in the old Carleton University Building on Second Avenue. Others were Glebe residents, including local community activists and our current mayor, Jim Watson. The Glebe Community Association, which at that time was fighting to save the area from developers, often held its meetings at The Pantry. Some of these original clients have remained regulars to this day, and it is not unusual to see them dining with two and even three younger generations of their families.

One memorable “customer” was George, The Pantry cat. This remarkable animal did not belong to  Kyssa but had adopted the restaurant as his daytime home. Every morning at opening time he would come into The Pantry and plonk himself in his favourite chair. If, as often happened, the day was busy and the chair needed, he was picked up and ejected through the Second Avenue door. A few minutes later he would be back trying to reclaim his chair, having run round the building and slipped in via the GCC’s Lyon Street entrance and Scotton Hall.

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The first menu of The Pantry, September 1975

Ilse Kyssa’s work at The Pantry was recognized by the City of Ottawa in 1993, when she won a Whitton Award for Environment and Business Activities. Two years later she retired but she still volunteers at The Pantry, as well as helping at her daughter Natasha’s delicatessen Simply Raw. She was succeeded by her long-time assistant Carolyn Best, who celebrates her 20th anniversary as owner this September. A dedicated and very hard-working chef, she has placed her own stamp on the restaurant, while maintaining its unique character and belief in serving wholesome and organic vegetarian food. Bestw will be overseeing The Pantry’s 40th anniversary celebrations on the week of September 15, when she will be offering complimentary tea to all visitors.

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Ilse Kyssa at work with her daughter Tanya, late 1970s
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Ilse Kyssa and Carolyn Best at The Pantry’s 30th anniversary in 2005


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