Have you ever heard the story of the Brigadoon? It is a tale involving two American tourists who stumble upon Brigadoon, a mysterious village in the depths of the Scottish countryside. The catch? This village only appears for one day every hundred years.
Deep in the heart of Oxford Mills, a small hamlet just outside Ottawa, this age-old story comes to life in the form of the Brigadoon Restaurant. The old stone building appears out of nowhere as you come to the end of the main street. This unassuming little town houses one of the areas best kept secrets in terms of character, ambiance and culinary excellence.
Owner Cheryl Mackie held her first service at the restaurant on New Year’s Eve in 1990, almost 30 years ago. No small feat in the restaurant industry.
Originally from England, Mackie had worked in the restaurant industry her whole life and it was always her dream to open one of her own.
Living in Ottawa in 1989 Mackie started looking for a building where she could make her dream a reality. She didn’t want to rent a space and knew she couldn’t afford the high cost of real estate in Ottawa, so she decided to start looking in the rural areas outside the city.
She heard about the building in Oxford Mills through friends and when she went to take a look she fell in love. “I promised myself I wouldn’t contact the owners because I knew I would buy it,” she says laughing to herself. “I did anyway.”
The building was built in 1853 by Richie Waugh, a prominent businessman in the community. It was constructed using stones quarried from the local riverbed which are about three feet thick. The posts that hold up the ceiling in the main room are old ship masts that sit on huge tree trunks in the basement.
The Waugh family lived in part of the building and the main area was used as a general store and post office. It remained a store (albeit less busy than in its heyday) until Mackie bought the building in 1989.
Mackie says her first year owning the property was a “very expensive year.” A huge amount of work needed to be done to get the building ready to become the Brigadoon. “I begged and borrowed from anyone I could find,” she says. Mackie did her best to maintain the historical integrity of the building while adding necessary facilities like a kitchen and an apartment for herself and her husband. The counter of the general store was turned into the bar while wood from an old staircase was used to make the tables. She turned the vault just off the main entryway into a coat room and upper floors became a supplementary dining area and a banquet room. “The day we opened I had $200 left in the bank,” Mackie remembers.
With the transformation from dilapidated general store to restaurant complete Mackie was still unsure about what to do about one thing – empty shelves lined the walls of the main dining room. Useful for a general store, but not so much for a restaurant. Mackie decided to place some antiques she inherited with the building, as well as some items from home, on the shelves to fill the space.
As the restaurant started drawing attention from the local media and getting busier customers became interested in helping her fill the partially empty shelves. “People just started bringing me things,” she says.
Nearly thirty years later, the shelves are packed with hundreds of antiques and artefacts from England and all over the world. An old gramophone sits in one corner while a gas mask from WW2 takes up space on the bar. China tea sets, old toys, British royal memorabilia, photographs, and postcards are just a sampling of the items that line the walls. “You can bring a young child here and it’s just like a history lesson,” Mackie says, adding that she encourages all her patrons to tour the room and take a closer look at whatever piques their interest.
Mackie says the unique decor of the restaurant definitely helps bring in customers because it sets her apart from other restaurants in the area. “It’s interesting for people to see,” she says. “It’s a walk down memory lane.”
Not only has the decor evolved over the years, the menu has too. When she first started out, Mackie was serving pub fare like fish and chips, fried zucchini, and chicken wings. Although fish and chips is still a staple on the lunchtime menu, they also offer refined dishes like filet mignon, chicken-stuffed crepes and grilled lobster and shrimp over fresh pappardelle pasta. Every night they have a fresh fish feature and a daily wild meat which can be anything from boar to venison to caribou. “My butcher is talking about offering ostrich,” Mackie says.
She is always trying to push the envelope and give the community something new to try. Her wild meat special is a unique offering in the Ottawa area and one that is greeted with interest by locals and tourists alike. Mackie says her goal was always to provide a unique experience for her customers. “I wanted to do something no one else was doing,” she says. “We’re a destination for people from as far away as Gatineau, QC and New York State.”
Everything at the Brigadoon is made in-house and sourced locally whenever possible. Mackie and her granddaughter Stephanie Mackie (who is now co-owner of the restaurant) have their hand in everything; from creating new menu items, to serving guests, and sometimes even preparing the food themselves. “You have to know how to do everything if you are going to be successful in this business,” Mackie says.
Mackie attributes her success to finding her niche as an upscale restaurant offering items that people can’t get anywhere else. At the same time she also offers more accessible items as well as a vegetarian, gluten free and kids menu, all still fresh and made to order. “We have something for everyone,” she says.
When you dine at the Brigadoon you are guaranteed to leave satisfied, not only with a full stomach but also a warm heart. The atmosphere is homey and comforting, service friendly and the food is unlike anything you can get for miles. Mackie says it is not uncommon for tired travellers to stumble into her restaurant off the 401, expecting a diner, but finding an unparalleled dining experience. A real-life Brigadoon.