I’ve spent more than a few lunch hours over the past four months walking up or down Grannan Street to catch a small glimpse of the construction work at the old Patterson building. Working just a block away, it was hard not to be curious as to what was going into the side of the building and how that space was likely to change. Locals may know the location as the former home of the Sunstar Lounge, a sketchy dive bar that many have visited, while also being fully aware that they probably shouldn’t have. The building has an interesting history to be certain, but it has since gone through a thorough revitalization. What was once uninviting and uncomfortable now boasts one of the most comfortably familiar atmospheres in all of Saint John. The food’s pretty great too.
The first thing you’ll likely notice about Port City Royal is how open its front is; with large windows and an enclosed entryway, this restaurant is anything but a-hole-in-the-wall. The innards of the restaurant are authentically Saint John. The floors are mostly coarse, pale wood with real nails and the occasional trap door visible. Walls are a mix of brickwork, solid weathered concrete, and upright wooden planks. The ceiling is comprised of open brickwork, metal piping, and wooden rafters. All of this is accentuated by modern décor, vintage inspired lighting, and neutral tones. In my opinion, no other dining location in this city feels so familiar or as lovingly polished. The washrooms are delightfully modernized and the kitchen is open concept, but there is a feeling of grit that accompanies the organized nature of the space.
All three dining areas bear their own individual flavour, the result of close collaboration with Acre Architects. The first, found close to the entryway, is also in proximity to a fully stocked bar and the front-facing windows. A counter has been set up at the window with beautiful cast iron counter stools, and there are several wooden tables behind running adjacent to the restaurant’s side. Natural light complements the space’s atmosphere well, but the wooden chairs and vintage-inspired lights really make it comfortable. The second dining area is what would once have been called a cigar lounge. Large leather sofas surround a space highlighted by its classic pull-out table. Finally, the third dining area sits in front of the open kitchen with the space being characterized by fine tile work near the kitchen and a large seating section. All of these spaces have enough individual merit to almost have them competing against each other for attention, but my favorite thing about the décor of Port City Royal would have to be the little touches hiding throughout the restaurant. To name only a few, there is a framed black velvet Elvis hung outside the washrooms, a record turntable constantly in use at the bar, and a black-and-white picture of a biker presiding over the activities in the cigar longue. It would be easy for most patrons to miss these minor additions, but they demonstrate the fact that this place was a labour of love.
After spending some time touring Port City Royal, I spoke with Chef Jakob Lutes on a number of topics ranging from the story behind its name, to where he found the velvet Elvis. According to Chef Lutes, the restaurant’s inspiration was the realness of Saint John. “There aren’t many buildings in Saint John that I don’t like. When I was looking at different locations in the city for the restaurant, every building amazed me. There was a feeling to them of ‘once alive, and on its way back.’” The name was intended to tap into the history of the area. It’s a nod to the importance of the city’s port, a nod to Trinity Royal, and also a nod to the loyalists. The atmosphere, which echoes the rawness and beauty of the city, was based on what Chef Lutes had seen elsewhere in Canada, most notably in Montreal. The intention is for people to come to Port City Royal to comfortably connect with friends and experience the growing food culture locally.
When asked why he chose Saint John over other locations, Chef Lutes began to wax poetic about his love affair with the city. “I looked at various cities and just felt that Saint John had it all. It had the right look and feel. I walked a few summer nights here before even moving and was floored by the culture in the air. It was so satisfying to see musicians playing openly and lively art studios. I’m not even from Saint John, but I love Saint John.” He went on to say that now was also the right time, as he was excited to have an outlet for creativity and ready to stop working for other people.
Port City Royal is unique in a number of ways, but how closely the restaurant works with local suppliers of meat and produce is something to highlight. Rudolph’s Farm, Kredles Corner Market, and Real Food Connections out of Fredericton have been instrumental in supplying the new restaurant with ingredients for their take on East Coast cuisine. When asked how important locally sourced food was, Chef Lutes stated that it was a necessary element in the creative process, going as far to suggest that buying local shouldn’t have to be advertised – it should be the default. Interestingly enough, he also gave me some insight on how menu items have their inception; detailing how the properties of local ingredients as well as their typical presentation are examined first to see how an East Coast classic could be further altered or improved. He seems keen to revisit his menu often with alternatives to the way meals are presented and balanced. It’s a far cry from simply setting up a static menu and adhering to it every single night.
Intrigued by the presentation of the food and the richness of Port City Royal’s atmosphere, I returned to the restaurant the day after my visit with my girlfriend for lunch. We sat near the front windows and chowed down on soup, sandwiches, and malt vinegar homemade potato chips. I indulged in a hot turkey sandwich with real flakes of meat, fresh gravy and cranberry compote on a focaccia bun, bookended with a Winter Warmer. It felt like comfort food, which is the highest compliment I can give. My girlfriend had a gluten free chicken sandwich with a delicious turnip soup. Normally we will have to pay $2 to $5 for a gluten free bun, but in the case of Port City Royal there is no additional charge for such an option. Unsurprisingly, she has since dubbed it her new favorite lunch spot.
Port City Royal is a new restaurant in an old location that understands Saint John’s history of combing the old and the new. Chef Lutes and his staff are passionate individuals operating out of a trendy hot spot that I would advise visiting at lunch, after work for a beer, or with someone special for a fine East Coast dinner. I would recommend checking it out in the near future and welcoming Port City Royal to the community. The prices are reasonable and the people are friendly.