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Dispatch: Spirit Away, Stay Downtown

Dispatch: Spirit Away, Stay Downtown

Dispatch, a new restaurant on St. Paul St. that serves an eclectic range of international fare, is both a wholehearted endorsement of the downtown core and an escape from its usual flavours.

“We want to be a part of re-inspiring people who live in St. Catharines that have an issue with downtown,” said Chef Adam Hynam-Smith

Inspiration is welcome. Let’s be honest – downtown hasn’t always looked this good. Not too long ago the downtown core was considered to be decrepit, and even dangerous.

In a 2005 article, “From Garden City to ‘Garbage City’”, The Globe and Mail’s Anthony Reinhart noted the homicide rates, rampant drug use, and abandoned retail space that St. Paul St., and St. Catharines as a whole, were known for. Take a stroll down St. Paul St. today and you couldn’t imagine it as the downtown of “Garbage City”.

Droves of young parents, students, and born-and-raised residents stream from Beechwood Doughnuts to catch a show at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. Patrons line up to eat at the likes of Oddbird before seeing a concert at Warehouse – but not before stopping at the NAC on the way to check out the latest exhibitions. The downtown core is thriving with more activity and a greater economy than it has had in decades – and Dispatch, located at 386 St. Paul St., is on the downtown’s leading edge

“We’re stoked to be at this end of the street,” said Hynam-Smith. “We’re trying really hard, as is the NAC, to have this officialized as the arts district of St. Catharines.”

Fittingly, Dispatch is built directly into the old Lincoln theatre, which has been rejuvenated and is now home to a number of businesses. Dispatch’s space on the main floor is open concept, not overcrowded with chairs and tables, with high ceilings to boot. Its roll top windows will make it a comfortable spot for summer afternoons, as will its phenomenal selection of cocktails, wine, and beer.

On that note, if you’ve heard anything about Dispatch, it’s probably to do with the Tom Yum Caesar, an immediately popular Thai twist on our country’s Bloody Mary variation. In this case, it’s made with house Tom Yum broth, vodka, fermented hot sauce, and garnished with a shrimp salt rim and puffed rice.

While the Tom Yum Caesar has gotten plenty of buzz, there’s a lot more worth mentioning on Dispatch’s menu, from Lamb Manakish and Turkish Manti to Persian Sibzamini and New Zealand Monkfish. That’s just for the moment, though – the plan is for their menu to continue to evolve, focusing more on sharable meze plates.

If you’re unfamiliar with dishes like these that hail from the Mediterranean basin and beyond, don’t be afraid. Our city is woefully lacking in these regional dishes from the other side of the world, but there’s no prerequisite for dining at Dispatch. You’re advised to jump in.

“I understand that if you were to just read the menu, for a lot of people here it could be intimidating,” said Hynam-Smith. “It’s not intimidating food – it’s just the fact that I don’t want to bastardize something that doesn’t belong to me.”

“If we were to take an American hotdog, it’s called a hotdog – why the fuck would I change the wording of it and say it’s an “American meat tube in bread”. That’s not what it’s called, let’s show some respect. Dukkah is dukkah – we don’t call it Egyptian spice blend.”

Despite this commitment to calling dishes by their authentic names, there’s no need for diners to fret when it comes time to order. Dispatch’s servers know the menu inside and out and help to make ordering a stress-free experience.

“We’re getting as many positive reviews on the food as we are on the service,” said Tamara Jensen, Proprietor at Dispatch. “I pinch myself every day that we have these people here. They’re just remarkable, they’re such professionals and they’ve embraced the concept.”

The menu, unique to St. Catharines, isn’t the only draw for team members at Dispatch either. As you’ll be informed when the check comes, Dispatch doesn’t accept tips of any kind – and for those working there, it’s a good thing.

“Even before we started looking for staff, it was already decided that we wouldn’t have tipping in our model,” said Jensen. “Ultimately, it’s about treating them as professionals. They’re not groveling for tips. Adam and I, as humans, couldn’t sleep at night if we weren’t paying our staff enough.

Hynam-Smith and Jensen are joining a growing number of restaurateurs in Canada that have foregone accepting (or, expecting) tips and instead elect to pay their staff what is known as “living wage”. At a higher rate than minimum wage, living wage is meant to reflect what the actual costs of living are, as well as to accurately compensate skilled workers for their efforts. In the restaurant industry, this often means eliminating tipping from the equation.

“When we have this tipping culture, what are we telling the general public? We’re telling them that we’re below them, and what we’re doing here is a second-rate job,” said Hynam-Smith. “We don’t earn enough money, so you rate us on how we perform and you tip us. That’s what the tipping model says.”

Tipping, a primarily North American custom, has its roots in post-slavery America when freed slaves were not given any compensation for their work as servants, waiters, and barbers. The expectation was that they would receive a tip for good service instead. Eventually, it was deemed illegal to claim the patron’s tip as reasonable compensation, and so employers subsidized their employees’ meager wages with the customers’ tip instead. That’s why, still today in some states and even three provinces here north of the border, there is a separate minimum wage for servers. The thinking is that they’ll make up the rest of what they’re owed in tips.

“It’s bigger than just switching the model,” said Hynam-Smith. “There’s a lot of talk about mental health, and the struggle that people in this industry face on a daily basis. That comes from a lot of long hard hours, financial stress, and the pressure of the judgment of customers and guests, every single time a plate goes down on the table.

“We need to address the fact that, when you’re paying people, we need to have a balanced work environment, being paid and rewarded fairly for ourselves as professionals.”

Commendable as this stance is, it’s not easy to maintain. Many restaurants that have tried a no-tipping model have since backslid into it again. A key obstacle is in getting diners to accept the philosophy and the higher prices that often result from it.

Dispatch’s menu is more expensive than many of its neighbours’ along St. Paul St. – but for good reason. The food is undeniably delicious and unavailable elsewhere in the city (let alone the region). The staff is skilled, professional, and properly compensated for their time and effort.

“We stand behind what our product is,” said Hynam-Smith. “When you break down what a plate is, you look at the amount of work that goes into it, it’s a lot of labour, especially if you’re making things from scratch. You have to pay for quality.”

And at Dispatch, quality is what you get. The menu’s smaller dishes are ideal for sharing, allowing diners to try more of what the menu has to offer. Make no mistake – you don’t go to Dispatch to stuff yourself after a skipped lunch. You go for the flavours you can’t find elsewhere in St. Catharines

“This city is the heart of the region – let’s make it that,” said Hynam-Smith.

Dining there, you can also take pride in knowing you’re contributing to an establishment that supports its employees and its city. Dispatch is just the latest step our downtown community is taking towards being something greater.

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