Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bonne chance, Chez Sophie! Ignore the trolls

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It never ceases to amaze, the way some Winnipeggers balk at big ideas.

Where some see opportunity -- the first national museum built outside of Ottawa, a downtown arena, a new football stadium -- others see elitist conspiracies, taxpayer boondoggles and most often, unbridled chutzpah. Call it the 'too big for your britches' perspective.

The latest example of this is the ongoing saga of the Esplanade Riel footbridge.

When the pedestrian bridge over the Red River was first championed in 2003 by former mayor Glen Murray, it was derided by many as a waste of money. Sure, it was pretty, but far prettier than necessary.

Designed by renowned local architect Étienne Gaboury and Colin Douglas Stewart of Wardrop Engineering, the elegant white span is cable-stayed, about 200 metres wide.

But what really makes it too big for its Prairie britches is its restaurant.

Who puts a restaurant on a bridge?

Nobody in North America, apparently.

You can find one in Chengdu, China, which gets good reviews for its food, and raves for its location; and a bizarre UFO-type sphere perched on top of a bridge in Bratislava, Slovakia.

But otherwise, our restaurant is a marvel of both engineering and creativity, with great views of the city's downtown, the French quarter, and the river.

It should be celebrated, no? Marketed as a tourist showpiece, something to take the rellies to when they visit from Saskatchewan?

Well, not exactly. It became somewhat of a scandal, at first, when Murray revealed its price-tag.

It cost $72 million to build this bridge and its companion, the four-lane Provencher vehicle bridge plus all the connecting roadways and sidewalks. Some media and many citizens were outraged when they discovered the city spent a million of that to install the restaurant's fibre-optics, kitchen and plumbing.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation gave Murray a Golden Sow Award in 2003 for 'flushing' taxpayers' dollars away on a 'million-dollar toilet.' (An unrepentant Murray defended the bridge and the cool new tourist attraction, and vowed to put the award up in his bathroom.)

The federal Conservatives used it as a backdrop to undermine Murray's record as mayor. His rival in the 2004 election, Tory Steven Fletcher, held a press conference there, denouncing it as an example of government waste. Again, Murray defended the esthetics and vision behind the project.

Fletcher won the election; Murray moved to Ontario.

And since then, the Riel bridge has become one of the city's most-photographed and admired landmarks, a signature shot in tourist material everywhere.

North America's only restaurant on a bridge, however, hasn't fared as well.

Yes, it's ranked one of the top 10 things to visit in Winnipeg by tourist guides like Lonely Planet. And everyone agrees the view is great. But the only restaurant willing to take a chance on the postcard-pretty site was the Salisbury House. (City council's culinary goals were somewhat loftier, possibly a link to Western Canada's largest francophone community.)

So the place with the 'million-dollar toilet' became the focus of even more negative mutterings -- on everything from its diner fare to the hike to its front door to its homespun red-roof logo. Business wasn't good enough to stay open during the winter, Sals' officials explained, even as they offered a bird's-eye view of the world's longest outdoor skating rink.

Last month, after seven years, the Sals' lease lapsed and brave new restaurateurs stepped up to give it a try -- two recent immigrants from Alsace, Sophie and Stephane Wild, the owners of a much-loved little restaurant in St. Boniface called Chez Sophie.

And again, out came the not-so-friendly Manitobans.

"I give it six months," one commenter scoffed. Nobody will make that hike in the dead of winter, said another. Pity the place facing the 'monstrosity' next door (the Canadian Museum for Human Rights), wrote another. And this proclamation: "Any restaurant that doesn't have its own parking lot is on its deathbed already."

I say nobody frets over parking more than those who never leave their house.

The city is lucky the Wilds are willing to embrace this big idea. The Wilds take over the lease on the bridge restaurant April 1, although they won't open that day. Loyal patrons -- who have been squeezing into Chez Sophie a few blocks away for years -- are thrilled, and say the food and the ambience will be well worth a short walk.

Despite the knee-jerk naysayers, hopes are high. The deal is largely seen as a win for this city and its one-of-a-kind restaurant on the Red.

Bonne chance is on the Wilds' side, after all.

Clearly, it's a bridge too far for the trolls.


Margo Goodhand is the former editor of the Winnipeg Free Press. She is working on a history of the women's shelter movement in Canada.


-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2013 A15

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