By Dave Allston
For forty years, one of the most popular and unique restaurants in the city was located right here in Kitchissippi, during the vintage era of Wellington Street West.
Taking on almost legendary status among long-time residents, Jimmy’s Restaurant — and “The Top Hat,” as it was originally known — was a neighbourhood institution. Once calling itself the “Community Centre of the West End,” this restaurant was a favourite spot for a wide variety of clientele, particularly after it became one of the first 24-hour diners in the city (certainly the first in the west end).
The building at the corner of Clarendon Avenue remains standing today as the home of Arc of Life (1318 Wellington St. W.) and Wine Rack (1320 Wellington St. W.). Believe it or not, its construction back in 1936 had a direct effect on the design of Wellington Street. Real estate investor Charles Kert acquired the lot, but would only build if the city agreed to eliminate the mandatory 20-foot setbacks. After much debate, a compromise was reached. The city cut the setback down to 10 feet, but the discussion then prompted the city to widen Wellington Street the extra 10 feet, giving it its present size.
The firm of Mahoney and Rich began excavation on Oct. 5, 1936, for the construction of a one-storey brick and cinder block building to house two stores, at a cost of $12,000. Kert announced that construction would be rushed; the stores would be ready in six weeks to house a “chain store and a druggist.”
Sure enough, on Dec. 11, a new Dominion grocery store opened for customers in the east half of the building (1318 Wellington St. W.).
In the west half of the building (1320 Wellington St. W.), the proposed drug store fell through and the new shop actually sat vacant for nearly three years. Michael Montagano opened a confectionary shop there in early 1940, but it lasted barely a year, closing by the spring of 1941.
That paved the way for the opening of the Top Hat Grill and Soda Bar, which would become one of west Ottawa’s popular spots for the next two decades.
Operated initially by Alma Bilodeau (1941-1944) and George Hayes (1945-1948), it was actually the Weeks family that built the business up and ran it the longest, and with whom the Top Hat is most associated historically.
For retired high school principal Michael Weeks, the memories of his parent’s business are still strong. He remembers growing up around the restaurant, which was his mother’s idea. For Lebanese immigrants in Ottawa, opening a restaurant was a popular endeavour, and so Helen Weeks encouraged her husband Jack to take over the Top Hat after leaving gruelling mining work in Sudbury behind.
“Mom would open it at 6 a.m. every day, and Dad would close it, staying until midnight or even later,” Michael said. “I joined Mom, and would help serve. Even at seven or eight-years-old I would go and open the store sometimes by myself, start serving the truckers and early risers. Breakfast was an easy thing to make,” he joked.
His brother Ronald also worked many hours at the diner, though younger sister Pamela was too young to contribute.
“Dad would arrive around noon, and Mom would stay until two, an overlap of just a few hours. It was a hard life,” Michael said. “I never appreciated until later just what kind of an effort that took.”
The restaurant did attract a difficult crowd in the evenings. As a young teen, Michael occasionally found himself a “target for every teen in the area with nothing better to do than create problems,” as some youths would come in and pick a fight for no particular reason.
“Dad would pick them up physically and put them out the front door,” he added.
The Top Hat was also a frequent target of petty thieves, the break-in reports frequent in the pages of the Citizen and the Journal during the era, with the front glass window being smashed in and money or cigarettes taken on the regular.
Michael remembered jukeboxes when the craze first arrived (done in partnership with Regent Vending Machines of Ottawa) and also a large original shuffleboard game that his parents would occasionally place in the restaurant to keep the kids amused.
“Entertaining the youth was important,” he noted. His parents even advertised using the “Community Centre of the West End” moniker.
Burgers were the Top Hat’s main specialty (offered in 1947 as “still only 10 cents”), and they had acquired a reputation for their burgers, as well as its very popular soda fountain.
“It was the era of milkshakes”, Michael added with a laugh.
Top Hat also sold magazines, as well as cigarettes and papers, out of an eight-foot long cigar counter. For a time when the Weeks first took over, they operated a small bake shop out of the restaurant, selling cakes, pies and pastries. A renovation in 1953 led to the addition of air conditioning and expanded seating, for a total of 78 seats. Waitresses wore uniforms, and were paid $25 weekly, plus meals.
Eventually, Jack Weeks began to develop severe heart problems, so the difficult decision was made to sell the business in 1960. Sadly, Jack passed away only weeks after selling, at the young age of 51.
In the fall of 1960, the Saikaley family took over and rebranded as Jimmy’s Restaurant. The restaurant had operated briefly at 1297 Wellington St. W. before moving into larger digs at 1320 Wellington St. W.
Just as for the Top Hat, Wellington Street was then still a primary access road to downtown from the suburbs (the Queensway and Parkway were still to come), so morning commuter and trucker traffic kept the diner busy.
A large L-shaped neon sign lit up the Wellington Street streetscape, capturing eyes from both directions. The night-time crowd gave Jimmy’s its true identity, as one of Ottawa’s first, rare 24-hour restaurants.
Wayne Rodney has a memory of the west end like no other, and certainly recalls Jimmy’s and its reputation. Like others I spoke with, he recalled Jimmy’s as the place everyone would go after the bars in Gatineau closed at 3 a.m., particularly the Hotel Chaudiere.
“You’d always see Jimmy sleeping at the counter. Of course, he was there probably twenty-four hours a day,” Wayne only half-joked. “He probably did most of his business at night.”
Jimmy’s was the type of place where there are probably a thousand good stories, most of them now just anecdotes of a long-lost era. Many wouldn’t be printable anyways.
It was the place where the clientele changed many times throughout the day. The morning breakfast crowd gave way to housewives and friends meeting during the day, the regulars in for lunch or a coffee, families and couples for dinner. In the evening, Fisher Park students would roll in, replaced by bored taxi cab drivers and policemen, finally giving way to the bar crowd.
Like at the Top Hat, some evenings could get rough. There are several stories shared by long-time residents, and brought alive through old newspaper pages of fights and robberies, with gun-shot blasts and manhunts down the side streets of Wellington Village.
By the late 1970s, the restaurant had reached its end. An Ottawa Citizen profile described it as “a late-night oasis not only for the down-and-out, but for street roamers too restless to sleep or too excited to end the day.”
“The vinyl seats are a little shabby, the formica tables are chipped in places and there’s a seat missing from the long line of stools at the counter. But the jukebox selector at each booth offers a choice of current hits, the coffee’s on tap and if you don’t feel like talking, you can stare out the window at the passing traffic or plug into the TV,” the profile stated.
By that time, it had become a place of nostalgia in an era where history was best left in the past. The city was growing fast, and fast food, donut shops and coffee shops were the venue of choice for kids, families and bar-hoppers alike, leaving greasy spoon diners in their wake.
By the end of 1980, Jimmy’s closed, and the space has cycled through as a workwear shop, several bakeries, a children’s shop and the original Thyme & Again location (1994-2001). The east half of the building was the original Hillary’s Cleaners (1950-1954), Vail’s Clean-O-Mat and John G. Roy’s upholstery, later a used book store and a post office, among others.
Jimmy’s and the Top Hat: Classic memories from another era in the always-interesting history of Wellington Street West.