Twenty years in the making, Quinpool Road’s vegetarian mecca continues to grow

When you think of the pillars of hyper-local and organic cuisine in Halifax, you may dial up memories of Halifax’s only two vegetarian restaurants from many moons ago. Or perhaps you’re the new vegan in town? There’s certainly no shortage of options in Halifax — from vegan cuisine at places like enVie A Vegan Restaurant and Wild Leek Food & Juice Bar, to others boasting some vegetarian fare like The Wooden Monkey and Humani-T Café, to Halifax’s only vegetarian restaurant at the moment, Heartwood.

Laura Bishop, Heartwood’s original owner, is often described as someone who ran her restaurant from the heart. While raising her children, she struggled to find good food in Halifax. Her original concept was healthy food prepared fresh daily from scratch with a strong emphasis on local and organic. You have to remember that back in 1995 this was progressive thinking. Every choice she made was a thoughtful move towards environmental sustainability — heritage grains versus refined wheat, plant-based dishes, organic whole foods. It was a tall order for a small restaurant. At the same time, another strong woman in the industry, Sarita Earp, had been running the only other vegetarian restaurant since the early eighties, Satisfaction Feast. In 2011, it closed its doors after 30 years of service, leaving Heartwood to carry the solo vegetarian torch. That very same year Laura Bishop was also looking to retire. 

It is a bit of a daunting idea to carry on the torch of a restaurant that, for 17 years, had a strong food philosophy and work ethos, along with an engaged dining clientele. How does one carry on a legacy like this? After spending a couple of hours chatting with current owner Carrie Surrette, it’s clear she is definitely the right person in the right place at the right time. And it just so happens that Heartwood was her favourite restaurant growing up.

Carrie was born in Halifax but spent her formative years in Moncton. She returned to Halifax to undertake an undergrad in psychology (helpful in the restaurant business!), followed by a degree from the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. She waitressed all through high school and university, and she references a few mentors along the way who made it such a positive experience and thus ignited her love of the industry. Fresh out of school, she opened a nutritional consulting practice in concert with a naturopathic doctor.

Over time, her philosophy morphed into “food is medicine,” which led her to opening Moncton’s first health food store, Sequoia Natural & Organics, which featured a raw food bar. She experimented with ingredients, superfoods, cleanses, diets — you name it — until she landed squarely on vegetarianism. This was the food she felt she thrived on, that fueled her body and ultimately became her favourite way to eat.

Owner, Carrie Surrette

The store was born out of her love of natural and organic products that were really hard to come by in New Brunswick at the time. Her clients were curious, seeking answers around heathy food regimes, and she had the time and energy to make them feel secure in their decisions. With a demand for this kind of information, her true passion started to develop.

When the opportunity to return to Halifax presented itself six years ago, Carrie purchased Heartwood from Laura. The two remain friends to this day. Carrie loved Laura’s vision, has the benefit of her on-going mentorship and tries to adhere to the original principles and recipes (with modifications over time).

Her education continues apace. “There are ways to make the food delicious, without feeling like you’re sacrificing anything,” says Carrie. “You’re going to have a higher success rate if you pass a customer a plate of delicious food.” She stands behind the high ethics without preaching them, instead just tucking them into the food on a regular basis.

“Expect delicious food. Expect to leave full, happy and feeling good.” – Carrie Surrette

For well over a decade, Heartwood served up “paperweight meals,” which customers built on a plate from a daily buffet that was then weighed at the cash. Carrie remembers eating at the original restaurant with her sister and brother-in-law, claiming the food was so good she wanted a little bit of everything. As a result, there is an enormous trove of original recipes she pulls from to this day.

In this day and age, when most restaurants are pressed to deal with food allergies, health issues and specialty diets, Heartwood is up to the challenge. All are welcome through these doors — oh come all ye vegans, celiacs, lactose-intolerants and gluten-frees! The menu staples are the hearty Heartwood bowls. People apparently get stuck on them for years, and let’s face it: we all have that menu item we can’t get past somewhere. The bowls are chock full of steamed greens, seasonal roasted veggies, marinated tofu, toasted seeds and sprouts on brown rice or vermicelli noodles. And it’s choose your own sauce — from spicy peanut to miso-sesame. There’s also a large selection of veggie burgers, open-faced sandwiches, spelt pizzas and salads. The taco salad, with its spiced bean mix, is a top-seller, and it makes for a nourishing yet comfortably filling feed. They also offer a daily special salad and pizza to work even more seasonal offerings into the menu.

All of the soups and baked goods are vegan and naturally gluten-free. There are no fillers, no additives. All dressings and sauces are made from whole foods. You can buy their breads and baked goods right in the restaurant. In fact, the original mother — that is, their sourdough starter that they use to make daily breads — has been used for over two decades.

Admittedly, I’ve been kind of healthy and not-so-healthy in my food choices these days. There is a weird balance struck in there somewhere, but it’s hard to maintain with work, travel and an engaged, super-fun (often late night, after hours) food scene here in Nova Scotia that one can’t help but tap into.

When I ask Carrie what people should understand about Heartwood’s fare, she pauses and then, with an assuredness, says, “Expect delicious food. Expect to leave full, happy and feeling good.” And I’d have to agree. I can’t remember feeling quite this stuffed and without even finishing half of my Heartwood bowl. When I go for a run the next morning, I’ll be damned if I don’t have a little more energy than usual. “Ultimately, people need balance in their diets, and are not afraid of the idea anymore. This makes me hopeful for the food and restaurant industry,” Carrie explains.

The décor makes you feel like you’re tucked away in the depths of a forest, kind of like a shire. There are dark green walls and comfy booths, and the metallic artwork (from Carrie’s artist husband) reflects the rays of sunlight back into the space. There is a patio on the street, too, and a large front window with a bar and mirrors that extend the room.

Two summers ago, a kiosk on the Halifax waterfront became available and Heartwood by the Sea put down roots in the middle of the touristiest part of our city. The experience turned out to be quite a rewarding one for the team, as they got to spread the gospel of heathy grab-and-go meals in a veritable sea of fried foods (not that there’s anything wrong with that, ahem). This year will see them return to a new spot between Salter and Sackville Streets in a 20,000-foot makeshift outdoor food court — a temporary setup while the ongoing waterfront construction continues. They’ll be serving up some of their most popular dishes, including salads, wraps, burritos and the Heartwood bowls. Carrie feels they thrive in this location, as you have to meet tourists where they are. Often, people on vacation aren’t seeking out healthy foods, or, conversely, they have been on vacation and are now seeking out healthy foods.

As an entrepreneur and a mother of two, life is about balance on a number of levels for Carrie, much like it was for her predecessor. Her love of being in the kitchen is often usurped by other duties such as accountant, front-of-house staffer and psychiatrist. The restaurant team is a cohesive group, drawn first and foremost by their shared food philosophy. But they are also a diverse group with a number of other passions that Carrie encourages them to follow. One of her servers, for instance, has a farm where they grow food for Heartwood dishes (they call it “server-to-table” dining). There are also a number of artists and touring musicians on staff, and the baker goes on the road with theatrical productions. With such a young and passionate group, it’s important to Carrie that she keeps them all happy and returning (which is also important for their first Heartwood production). The clientele is much the same: passionate about their food choices, engaged and gracious. Heartwood has maintained its core customer base for decades, and those customers continue to keep staff on their toes, especially if an original recipe isn’t up to snuff. Some of Carrie’s most rewarding moments are when she’s helping fuel students from the neighbourhood with healthy food, either giving them their nutrients back post-weekend or giving them a boost during mid-terms.

Later this season, pending a smooth renovation period, Heartwood will open a third location at St. Joseph’s Square in The Hydrostone in partnership with their current upstairs neighbours on Quinpool, Bhavana Yoga Boutique and P’Lovers, the south end boutique known for its eco-friendly products and gifts. This holistic trinity, a trifecta of mindful living, is interesting not just because the businesses are quite complementary, but also because they are all run by three strong women in the community. “We’re not pioneering anymore, we’re blending in, making it an exciting time for businesses like ours,” says Carrie. “The north end is an authentic community, it’s a natural fit.”

Regulars, take note: the future of the Quinpool Road location is solid. The plan is to stay for the long haul and keep you happy. Carrie and her team have embedded themselves in the community and will continue to offer quality food that people will feel good eating, physically and ethically. Heartwood is open seven days a week, and there is brunch on the weekend.