Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/1/2017 (1045 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Amici and Bombolini — sibling restaurants that in their heyday helped put Winnipeg on the North American culinary map — served their last plate of risotto on New Year’s Eve.
The restaurants have closed after close to 31 years in renovated space in an old building on Broadway where it was once part of the vanguard of the revitalization of downtown Winnipeg that is still ongoing.
Amici, the upstairs fine-dining big brother to the casual dining downstairs at Bombolini, was a regular on best Canadian restaurant lists a decade ago, but competition and changing tastes made it a tough go for the past few years.
Owner Brian McKnight said the decision to close was made after careful consideration.
"It’s been a five-year battle, and we lost," he said.
McKnight was gracious about the support he’s had from his landlord, the Rivard Group, who he said was very supportive over the years by trying to come up solutions while business was declining.
"We had it all going for us — amazing landlord, staff, suppliers and clientele — but in the end, it just did not work," he said.
Whereas it was once a mainstay in the influential Where to Eat in Canada publication, the combined 170-seat restaurants were clearly having a tough go maintaining the originality and quality that finicky restaurant-goers demand.
In her most recent review of Bombolini in the Free Press in 2015, former Free Press food critic Marion Warhaft used words such as "disgracefully hard," "anemic" and "dud" in describing the food, adjectives any restaurateur would surely cringe at seeing.
McKnight said a good portion of his approximately 30 staff — whose numbers have dwindled over the years — will be offered positions at Wow Hospitality, which has taken over the former Amici catering business.
Not surprisingly, McKnight could not put his finger on what caused the downturn in the restaurants’ fortunes, but he did say the location was a factor.
"We needed to relocate, to find a new space, but we just never did," he said. "Our space needed to be updated many years ago, and we just couldn’t do it. When you struggle like we have been, it’s hard to put money back into the space... The numbers just did not add up."
The potentially unwieldy combination of fine and casual dining along with a long-standing catering business did not seem to be its downfall.
McKnight — who worked for former owners Heinz and Johanna Kattenfeld since before he was even old enough to be a server and then bought the restaurants in 2001 — said they served different niches and each helped support each other.
When Amici opened, the northern Tuscan-inspired fine Italian dining establishment had fewer pretenders in town to contend with. But competition in the Winnipeg market has increased.
"There are some beautiful new restaurants out there," said McKnight.
Rob Walker, the chairman of the board of directors of the Manitoba Restaurant & Food Services Association, said, "Money being tight, fine dining gets hit more than others. People just have so many more options now."
It likely could also be said trends have shifted from the kind of white-tablecloth rooms featuring large meat dishes at which Amici excelled.
When asked what the current restaurant trends were in an interview in enRoute Magazine in 2015, former Winnipeg chef Ron Shaw mentioned a couple of things that ran counter to Amici’s offering.
"There’s a continuation of a couple of trends: the decline in fine dining and the increase in menus featuring locally produced, organic vegetables or proteins. People seem to want to go out and share plates more. They’re not into really formal service and white linens."
McKnight refused to blame the challenging parking scenario as one of the factors that influenced the closing of his Broadway and Hargrave Street location.
"We have been here for 30 years, and it has always been difficult, but we did very well even when it was difficult," he said. "The draw to come back downtown to come to Amici just did not seem to be there anymore."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.