It’s been almost four years since chef Jeremy Charles and restaurant manager and sommelier Jeremy Bonia took over the old Brother T. I. Murphy Centre building on Water Street and transformed it into one of the best restaurants in the country.
In June, along with their business partner Chris Hickman, they’ll be opening the doors on their latest project: The Merchant Tavern, a casual dining restaurant and bar — more laid-back than its fancy cousin Raymonds, but with the same dedication to locally sourced, high-end ingredients and expert preparation. “There is a handful of the crew from Raymonds coming over,” says chef Charles, who will be splitting his time between the two locations for the time being, “And some fresh blood from around the country.”
Bonia says they found themselves wanting to tap into something a little more casual. “At Raymonds,” Charles adds, “we can only seat five people at the bar, and some more in the lounge area, but we find we’re turning away people because we never had the room. Now, we got a bar that seats around forty.”
“When we opened Raymonds, we didn’t realize how popular the bar area would be,” says Bonia. “People really enjoy that casual atmosphere, and casual music. Just a place to get some oysters, maybe a glass of wine.”
Charles is excited about the new possibilities that come with serving the lunchtime and dinner-and-drinks crowd. “We want to focus on a great lunch, and a great dinner.” The menu will feature handmade pasta, as well as a raw bar, serving oysters, lobsters, and snow crab. “All beautiful Newfoundland seafood products,” says the chef. “A lot of simple, casual food, just done well.”
On the business side of things, things are looking equally sunny. “We’re able to double-up on the ability to purchase,” says Charles. “Now, we’re big enough that we can buy enough to keep the relationship [with protein and produce providers] going and maybe keep them going, too.”
The Merchant Tavern is hoping to fill a need in the city for event space, as well, with opportunities for hosting, catering, and weddings. And another big difference between the two restaurants has to do with what’s stocked behind the bar. “I think it’s going to be less wine focus, I hate to say,” says Bonia, laughing, who personally stocks Raymonds’ extensive wine cellar. “We’ll have a small, tight wine list, but the focus will be more on cocktails and craft beers.”
“We’re a little bit behind in the national scene in terms of that — the kind of bar-centric thing that’s going on in the rest of North America,” says Bonia, who is hoping to see more items like Pimm’s and quality vermouths in stock. “We’re coming along, and moving away from sugary bar-mix drinks, and getting more into a Negroni or an Old Fashioned. Something that’s unique, but classic, and great with food.”
The team will be infusing the drink menu with Newfoundland flavour, with locally sourced Newfoundland berries for their cocktails. As for the beer menu, along with local breweries like Yellowbelly and Quidi Vidi, Raymonds has pulled some great selections from the Newfoundland Labrador Artisanal and Craft Beer Club (beerthief.ca), and they are hoping to do more at the Merchant Tavern. They’re currently working on bringing in out-of-province kegs, as well.
Located at 291 Water Street, the restaurant will be calling the old Scotia Building home. However, unlike the previous two restaurants that occupied the space (The Press & Bean, and the Vault before that), diners won’t be descending the stairs to eat in the cool darkness of the former bank’s basement.
“The main dining room is upstairs,” says Bonia. “We’re taking the banking floor. It has high ceilings like Raymonds. Big windows. Lots of natural light. The kitchen is open concept, so we’ll be standing right there, cooking in front of you,” says Charles. “There’s no hiding there. It’s very exciting, and terrifying at the same time. I’ve always been down in the dungeon at Atlantica, and in the basement again at Raymonds. It’ll be nice to be up and see the guests. That’s something I’m really looking forward to … I think.”