Last weekend the chalkboard street sign outside Sweet Basil Bistro read: "Come on in and enjoy brunch with us on our last weekend in business." After 19 successful years nestled in the brick walls across from Historic Properties, Sweet Basil Bistro, known for its quality ingredients and local flavour, closed its doors August 31.
"It's horrible," says owner Unni Simensen. "It's so sad. We've had 19 successful years in business. It's difficult. We have jobs for all of our staff. We've offered them positions in other parts of our company, but Sweet Basil is a restaurant with a big heart. There is going to be a gap in Halifax."
Armour Group Limited, which owns four buildings on the block bound by Hollis, Duke and Upper Water, has applied to tear down 1870 Upper Water Street, the building that houses Sweet Basil. Under the proposal, the other three buildings would be gutted, their facades left in place, and rebuilt as a single inter-connected, nine-storey building known as Waterside Centre, which will include ground floor retail, commercial space in the upper storeys and an underground parking garage.
Waterside Centre has been panned by Heritage Trust, which vows to fight the proposal at every step through the approval process. The development, says the trust, will needlessly raze three heritage buildings. Armour, for its part, maintains that it is saving the facade of the structures, which are in disrepair, and points to its nearby Historic Properties holding to underscore its commitment to heritage preservation.
Halifax Council will hear the proposal this Tuesday, September 9.
If the plan is approved, existing retail operations at ground level, including O'Carrol's Pub and Dining Room on Upper Water and Subway on Hollis Street, will retain their spaces. Sweet Basil, however, was offered only a much smaller space in the new building, akin to a cafe setting. The restaurant had been operating on a short lease, which has expired.
When Simensen learned of the development proposal, she thought long and hard before deciding to close her restaurant. Simensen doesn't want to compromise her vision or quality. In fact, she was planning to expand the restaurant due to the influx of customers and demand for tables, rather than downsizing.
"A lot of our customers are very upset. We're trying to find a new location, but nothing really has the same charm," says Simensen. "There wasn't anything in that kitchen that wasn't made fresh. We've always used fresh produce. It's the big thing now, we've always bought local and supported our local farmers since the very beginning."
Sweet Basil Bistro is merely one branch in the tree that is Scanway Catering Limited. Now based amongst the bustling traffic of Quinpool Road, Scanway Catering was born in Norwegian chef Simensen's kitchen in 1981. The restaurateur quickly became one of the city's creative culinary elite---as she currently owns and operates Cheapside Cafe (1723 Hollis), Saege Bistro (5883 Spring Garden) and the now-closed Sweet Basil.
Sweet Basil manager Sonny Berry could barely hold back the tears when serving the final 100 customers who passed through the quaint, red wine and butter yellow-coloured restaurant. Shortly after 10pm the staff cleared the peacock blue tablecloths off the well-scraped dishes and empty glasses.
"Most places have such high turnover," says Berry. "Some of us have been there for 10 years, like myself and others have been around for six and some of us for four years. I never once thought of it as a job, it was like a second home. It was as if I was inviting people in and treating them as though they were in my own place."
With the bittersweet fate of the restaurant, Berry has decided to take some much needed down time. He says he hopes to keep a close eye on his flower beds planted outside of Sweet Basil and tend to his own garden. "I just want to thank all of my staff---I'll miss my family." a