BY LINDA MONDOUX
When plans for Sarnia’s first highrise office tower on the downtown waterfront were announced in 1976, with petrochemical giant Polysar Corporation as the chief tenant, the project was hailed as the start of the city centre’s “rebirth” along the banks of the St. Clair River.
Three decades later, with a first-class waterfront developed around it, the landmark building now known as First Sarnia Place is in the limelight again, this time for a rebirth of its own. Once a glitzy world headquarters, the waterfront tower is today a premier residential address, thanks to the transformation of seven upper floors once dedicated to the corporate world into luxury condominium suites.
While the new residences, which have attracted both young and retired residents to the core, boast fabulous views of the waterfront, no view can compare to that found on the 14th floor, home to On The Front Restaurant & Lounge.
The tower’s crowning glory, which features floor-to-ceiling windows and 180-degree views of both the St. Clair River and Lake Huron, is where business is conducted over lunch, anniversaries are celebrated over sunsets, and where Sarnia’s mayor and economic development managers woo visitors from around the world.
As On The Front owner Deborah Renaud-McDermott puts it, “They come here to show off the city.” Call it Sarnia's unofficial ambassador's residence.
Mike Denomme, who works with an environmental consulting firm, is among those who make a point of taking out-of-town clients to On The Front Restaurant. “The outside patio faces west and the view of the sunset on a warm summer evening is breathtaking,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “For our visitors from out of province, it is often the highlight of their trip.”
Denomme was among visitors to MyNewWaterfrontHome.com whose online votes helped On The Front win the title of Best View for Dining in Ontario. (Find out what other views made our Top 10
With windows on three sides — facing north, west and south — there isn’t a bad view inside On The Front, or outside on the expansive deck. On one side, there’s the St. Clair River, with views of the city and Chemical Valley, a fairyland of twinkling lights at night. On the other side, there’s views of the Blue Water Bridge that connects Point Edward to Port Huron, Mich., and the aqua waters of Lake Huron.
'You're out in the open. Like you're a bird flying'
“I could stand there all night,” says diner Doug Kennedy, who lives in nearby Corunna. “I’ve been spoiled because I’ve been fortunate to be able to live on the river. But that view up there — the height of it gives you a whole new perspective,” he adds. “You’re out in the open. Like you’re a bird flying.”
Renaud-McDermott, who has owned the fine dining restaurant since 2001, first with two partners, and now solo, says the view out her floor-to-ceiling windows never gets boring. “There’s always something new happening — the ships coming through, geese flying by ...”
Sarnia is a significant gateway to the U.S. and has long been an important port for lake freighters and salt-water ships carrying grain and petroleum products. The passing ships, and the wintering over of several in the harbour, have drawn spectators to the waterfront for decades.
Viewed from above, however, Sarnia’s waterfront is even more spectacular.
Cisca De Jong, who also cast her ballot for On the Front, describes the restaurant and the views as “a gem.” “One never gets tired of sitting there, dining or just sipping a glass of wine and looking out, watching the waterfront of the city and its beauty,” she says.
De Jong first discovered On The Front when she and her husband decided at the last minute to dine there for their 35th wedding anniversary. “We got a nice little table and it was so beautiful,” she recalls. “Of course we love our waterfront, but I didn’t realize until that moment that Sarnia could have a view so nice.”
Peg Kivi, an artist whose work is on display in a model suite at First Sarnia Place, says she often takes visitors to see her art in the condo, then heads up to the 14th floor to view works by other artists on the walls of On The Front. “That’s a nice thing they do for local artists,” says Kivi, of the restaurant gallery.
Everyone agrees the view can’t be beat. But how is the food?
This Cincinnati resident, who wrote a review on TripAdvisor.com, had this to say:
"We stopped for a late lunch here before crossing back into the U.S. Found the prices much better than at the restaurants in Stratford, and very fair for the quality and kind of food. The stuffed portobello mushroom starter was excellent, as was my husband's French onion soup. Grilled chicken open-face sandwich was well-prepared. Loved the freshly made cole slaw.
"Our server was delightful - had mastered the fine art of being attentive yet not intrusive. The staff was warm and welcoming, despite the fact that we were in 'travelling clothes' of basic jeans and T-shirts.
"It was a beautiful blue-sky day, and the view from the deck is amazing. So glad we found this place. Will definitely go back when I am in Sarnia again.
According to Rory Goulding, the restaurant’s new head chef, On The Front has been known for both its food and its service, in addition to its panoramic vistas, and he plans to enhance the dining experience with a new menu that will feature more seasonal dishes and a Sarnia first: an 18-ounce ribeye steak that has been dry-aged to intensify the flavour.
“Our beef is extremely premium, so we want to be known for the best steak in town,” he says, adding that only a select group of providers supply dry-aged beef. “We also want to be known for our rustic classic dishes, like coq au vin and beef bourguignon. And we’ll be sourcing local as much as possible, like the heirloom tomatoes I just got in from local farmers for a nice, simple tomato soup.”
'The view at work is an awesome perk'
Goulding says his new menu is inspired by the view from his kitchen, insofar as it’s “100 per cent unique to Sarnia. So we want everything we do to be just as unique to Sarnia. We want to give the total package: the view, the food, the service.”
While he’s having fun cooking, Goulding gets to watch over the dining room from his open kitchen. That means he and his fellow chefs enjoy the same views as the diners, with the bonus of an extra window in the kitchen only the cooks can see.
“We have a gorgeous view of the marina and the bridge. We’re literally hanging over the water,” Goulding says. “The view at work is an awesome perk.”
Renaud-McDermott, who lives with her husband Les on the St. Clair River in Mooretown, south of Sarnia, says running a restaurant can be stressful. On those crazy, busy days, which can see her act as hostess or server, Renaud-McDermott says she sometimes wishes she could escape to the kitchen to cook.
The lure of the kitchen explains why Renaud-McDermott is no doubt the only one in Sarnia who would willingly turn away from the stunning view that lies beyond those floor-to-ceiling windows. “I like to sit facing the kitchen,” she confesses. “I like watching them cook.”
So when you head out to Sarnia to check out the best view for dining in Ontario, don’t forget to drop by and say hello to Renaud-McDermott. She’ll be the only one with her back to the view.
On The Front is located at 201 Front St. N.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — October 2010