Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The mighty (tasty) Oakwood

Owner takes time to respond to every online critique, but lately, restaurant's getting mostly kudos

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Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press 
The Oakwood Cafe. Customers are silhouetted against the cafe's large windows facing Osborne South.

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Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press The Oakwood Cafe. Customers are silhouetted against the cafe's large windows facing Osborne South.

Everyone's a critic.

Talk to enough restaurateurs around town and you'll discover a love-hate relationship exists between them and the anonymous foodie types who pen reviews for websites such as Open Table and Trip Advisor.

In the old days, one owner told us, if a person was upset with an overcooked steak or had to wait -- gasp! -- 10 minutes for a table, he'd tell a few friends, who might tell a few more, and that would be the end of it. Nowadays, however, more and more diners are whipping out their smartphones the second their entrées hit the table. As soon as they get home, they post evaluations, often snarky, that will be read by hundreds of people trying to decide where to make their next dinner reservation.

At least once a week, Peter Paley sets aside a couple of hours to peruse what people are saying about the Oakwood Café, the cosy south Osborne nook he bought from his aunt eight years ago. Afterwards, Paley makes a point of replying to every critique, often inviting appraisers to contact him personally if they had a less-than-pleasant experience at his locale.

"If somebody is going to take the time to write about us, good or bad, the least I can do is get back to them," Paley says, noting the only pet peeve he has is when customers snap pictures of food that is ("Ugh," he groans) half-eaten. "But what people have to realize is that running a restaurant can be a tough job. At any one time, you need five million things to go right in order for something not to go really, really wrong."

That said, it's probably a good thing Urban Spoon didn't exist when Paley worked his debut shift at the Oakwood Café 22 years ago.

"Oh, it was just awful," says Paley, 38. "During the first 10 minutes, I spilled hot chocolate all over my pants. An hour later, I dropped a full tray of coffee mugs, breaking every last one."

The Oakwood's newest server wasn't done yet. For his pièce de résistance, Paley dumped a full pitcher of water on a customer's pricey leather jacket. He was about to call it a career when his aunt came running out of the kitchen, telling her nephew not to worry, that "these things happen."

And was she right? Were the mishaps all in a day's work?

"No. I have since discovered those sorts of things do not happen," Paley says with a chuckle. (By the way, the lady in the leather jacket? She left Paley a tip.)

The Oakwood Café began life in the late 1980s as Samantha's. Paley's aunt, Nadine Melnyk, purchased the restaurant, tucked inside a strip mall at 660 Osborne St., in 1991, a year or so after it was renamed after a neighbouring avenue.

"It was desolate when she took over. There wasn't a customer to be seen," says Paley. "But within six months she turned it into a thriving business."

Paley, whose childhood idea of a big night out was supper at Mr. Steak, admits he never saw himself as the type of person who would own a restaurant. Sure, he pulled two or three shifts a week at the Oakwood while he was attending university. But after graduating with a commerce degree, he figured his days of slinging coffee were largely over.

That all changed in 2006 when Melnyk announced she was done.

"I walked into her office one day and she said, 'That's it. I've had it. I'm selling,' " says Paley, who, at the time, was working at HSBC Canada. "I looked at her and said, 'OK, I'm buying.' "

For years, the Oakwood Café was primarily regarded as one of Winnipeg's premier breakfast spots. Case in point: Three years ago, Leif Norman and Andrew McMonagle -- the brains behind the ºber-informative Breakfast Winnipeg website -- awarded the Oakwood eight of a possible 10 points. Things began to change about a year ago when Paley's partner, Alix Loiselle, a classically trained cordon bleu chef, joined the fold.

"For the first time, we began to see people who'd only ever come for breakfast returning for lunch and dinner. I was like, 'What took you so long?' " says Paley. (Some of those returnees included members of Winnipeg's vaunted Burger Club, who graded the Oakwood's Fat Boy Platter an unparalleled 4.9/5.)

Of course, you can't please everybody all the time. Paley laughs when he recalls one regular who used to bring her own seasoning, only because his kitchen didn't stock it on a regular basis.

"She was a big fan of saffron, but saffron can be quite pricey and we didn't always have it on hand," Paley says. "So she would bring some from home and we would add it to her rice for her."

Paley didn't have to make any such accommodations for Jane Seymour, a.k.a. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, when she popped by for a bite while in Winnipeg filming a movie.

"I had to serve her and I was so nervous -- I was just shaking," Paley says, noting he was more in control of his faculties the day Thomas Haden Church, star of Sideways and Spider-Man 3, sat in his section. "I knew who (Seymour) was right away, but I didn't feel it was my place to say anything. I do remember that she ordered the stir-fry and that her husband had the beef stroganoff."

As for future plans, Paley and Loiselle are kicking tires in Winnipeg's French Quarter in hopes of opening a high-end pastry shop later this year.

"We've already got a name -- La Belle Baguette," says Loiselle. "We've looked at a few places on Provencher and we just have to decide which one works best for us. It will be mostly takeout, but we should have room for a few tables where people can sit and enjoy a coffee and croissant."

The five-block strip the Oakwood resides in has become a city-wide dining destination, thanks to five-star neighbours such as Deseo Bistro and Bistro 7º, and Paley says the more the merrier.

"I heard a rumour that a Mexican restaurant is going to open where the old Ronald's Shoes location was, and I think that's just great," says Paley, who expanded his own business to 88 seats last year to meet growing demand. "I'm a firm believer in critical mass -- that the busier an area is, the busier you will be, too. So I welcome any restaurant to open near us. I fully support all the places in this end of town."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2014 A8

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