THE CANTEEN - A must-visit sandwich shop in downtown Dartmouth
If you can eat it all, you get a prize," says Renée Lavallée as she hands me a metal cafeteria tray holding a bowlful of meat on top of bread. As denoted on the chalkboard menu that day, The Hot Meatloaf is a sandwich that's eaten with a fork and knife; it consists of two slices of house-made light rye, generously buttered, topped with tender pork and beef meatloaf, smothered (there's no other word for it) in a creamy mushroom gravy. Tucked in the side, a handful of long, sliced pickles, just making it into the bowl. My hunger skewed my confidence for a few fleeting moments; about halfway through my lunch I was still sure I was going to be able to finish. Then, with only a few bites left, the heftiness of the meat-bread-gravy combination hit me — and I gave up. I still had to interview Lavallée, the chef-owner of The Canteen, and couldn't do so in the middle of a food coma.
Behind the service counter of The Canteen sandwich shop is a sprawling, open space that Lavallée has transformed, as much as possible, into a prep kitchen. Amidst racks of glassware, big plastic tubs of fermenting sauerkraut and kimchi, is a workspace with plenty of natural light streaming in from the large windows on the back of the building. The front of the building at 66 Ochterloney Street in downtown Dartmouth faces the road, housing Two if By Sea Café on the bottom level and The Canteen on the top. "Pull up a chair," Lavallée says to me as her and staff member Sadie stand at a wooden work table mixing up a huge bowl of falafel. So I did, to hear more about The Canteen.
"I didn't want a restaurant," explained Lavallée. "I didn't want to be put back into that situation, especially with kids." She described her decision to, after about eighteen years working in kitchens, not return as chef at The Five Fishermen Restaurant. This happened five and half years ago, after giving birth to her second child. "This is a lot about family life. And trying to balance it," says Lavallée.
She credits her husband, Doug, with planting the idea in her head about doing sandwiches. The vision of making everything in-house, changing up the menu daily and, most importantly, being home by 6 pm started to grow on both of them. She started applying for financing in October 2013 and signed a lease with Zane Kelsall and Tara MacDonald (who own Two if by Sea, as well as the building) that February. "We basically opened within a few weeks, the end of March 2014."
"I like for everyone to be able to see us, and see exactly what we're doing," says Lavallée of The Canteen's simple, open layout. "I'm happy to be able to go into the dining room and hand people their food and talk to them," she adds. Counter service at The Canteen means glancing at the chalkboard menu, taking a peek in the case that houses the daily selection of salads, placing your order and paying in advance. You can watch the staff working on your lunch from every seat, whether it's the handful of low-top tables or a stool along the railing that looks down upon the staircase to Two if By Sea.
The menu typically offers five sandwiches, a soup and a few salads. Since opening, the offering has changed daily, with variations on a couple of mainstays like the brisket and the meatloaf. After visiting Charleston, South Carolina, last year she added a fried chicken sandwich and a calamari po' boy that both make regular appearances. But Lavallée says she's planning on streamlining to offer three consistent sandwiches throughout the week, plus two daily changing features. Lavallée describes the menu inspiration as a combination between what's in season and the collective specialties of her staff. "Sometimes on Fridays, we'll sit down at 4 pm when there's a lull and have a beer or glass of wine and sort of mull over the next week," says Lavallée. "It's a team effort." Someone worked making porchetta for two years in Toronto, and so they have fantastic house-made porchetta. Sadie rocks the falafel. Over the summer there was charcuterie. Her bread-maker, Jessica Best, has been with her since the beginning. "Depending on the strengths of the staff, the menu moves in different directions," says Lavallée. "It's an ever-changing thing."
The free-form, local, from-scratch menu of hearty (and rather large) sandwiches has earned Lavallée and her team a loyal group of regulars. She says numbers are going up, but there is absolutely no plan for expansion. "I will never open up a second shop. That is set in stone," says Lavallée. "For me it was all about family life and enjoying coming to work." What's happening at The Canteen proves that when you love what you do, it shows.