By virtue of its location, James Avenue Pumphouse Food and Drink is part-restaurant and part-museum.
A pair of paint-chipped fire hose carts — donated by the Winnipeg Fire Museum — flank the front door and old copper extinguishers line a shelf above the long wooden bartop. Worn red fire hydrants have been resurrected as decor pieces dotting the interior and exterior of the grand brick building in the East Exchange District.
"I went to farms and made my kids break their backs to dig (the hydrants) out and load them up," Pumphouse owner Darin Amies says with a chuckle.
The historic touches in the restaurant’s modern 100-seat dining room are intentionally subtle, leaving ample breathing room for the pièce de résistance: a bank of high glass walls that offer views of century-old machinery previously used to protect old downtown Winnipeg from fire.
The James Avenue pumping station opened in 1907 and received municipal heritage status in the ’80s. After many, many failed proposals, the building at the corner of James Avenue and Waterfront Drive has recently been redeveloped to include an upstairs office space and, now, a main floor restaurant — tentatively set to open on Sept. 15.
For Amies, opening day still feels like an eternity away.
"This has felt like the longest open I’ve ever done, and I’ve opened well over 30 restaurants," says Amies, who is president of Eatz Entertainment and True Hospitality; the latter operates the nearby Cibo Waterfront Cafe as well as Junction 59 Roadhouse on Regent Avenue.
"The uncertainty of opening in COVID makes some days feel like a week," he says. "There’s just been so many curveballs."
The pandemic has affected everything from the price of building materials to the availability of light fixtures and plumbing parts. Add supplier issues to the tedium of construction in a designated heritage building and the timeline for completion seemed to stretch on forever.
That said, Amies has enjoyed working with the city’s heritage department. "Nothing they asked me to do was out of line or ridiculous; it all made sense to me," he says.
Patience and care were required every step of the way. Exterior signage had to be approved and carefully installed so as not to crack any of the original masonry; every brick removed to create new doorways needed to be documented and saved; and the pump room machines had to be cleaned by hand to avoid damaging the antique equipment.
"There was 100 years of dirt on some of this stuff," Amies says.
Despite its grand dining room, James Avenue Pumphouse is endeavouring to be approachable. The menu, created by executive chef Mark Merano, is a worldly mix of high- and low-brow fare, including everything from burgers to tacos to schnitzel to dan dan noodles — as well as a significant selection of vegan and vegetarian dishes. At $28, the beef short rib mash is the most expensive item on the menu.
"I anticipate my demographic to be young professionals, people who frequent the theatre… and people who are active and out there; we have a lot of foot traffic and we want to cater to that," says general manager Kaitlin Nikkel. "We try to have a little something for everyone."
Buzz about Pumphouse has been gaining recently on social media and in real life. Twice during the Free Press’s visit, passersby walked in to check out the restaurant.
"That happens all the time," Nikkel says. "It doesn’t surprise me that people are drawn to it, but just the amount of (interest), I didn’t expect it to be this big of a thing for the city."
Pumphouse is one of many new developments in the Exchange District east of Main Street. High-end residential buildings have cropped up nearby and the neighbourhood is populated by a handful of trendy bars and restaurants, "We’re creating a bit of a community here," she says.
Nikkel has worked in the local restaurant industry for more than a decade but this is her first time helping open an eatery from the ground up. Though she’s experienced some of the same staffing challenges as others, she’s feeling hopeful about the future amid the pandemic.
"It could be the worst timing in the world or it could be the best timing in the world," Nikkel says of opening ahead of the predicted fourth wave. "It gives people something fresh, something new and I think a lot of people are craving that right now, so we’re happy to oblige."
Amies has worked in franchises for most of his career and is now focused on opening smaller, independent restaurants in Winnipeg under the True Hospitality banner. After having helped launch Cibo nearly a decade ago, the journey has come full-circle with Pumphouse — in more ways than one.
Historically, the riverside restaurant served as the intake station that funnelled water from the Red River to the pump house at 109 James Ave. The two buildings remain physically connected by a defunct tunnel that runs under Waterfront and are now tied together in another life by high-end, casual dining.
"The buildings are not connected the way they once were, but they are connected," Amie says. "It’s a celebration of Winnipeg history."
Like the restaurant, the James Avenue Pumphouse website is still under construction. Diners can follow @thepumphousefooddrink on Instagram for updates.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.