Restaurateur Tim Yee had faith in the downtown and James North in particular long before most saw potential.
Now, the 30-something entrepreneur who owns Chinese food restaurant Harvest Moon is taking another leap of faith, this time in what some may consider an even tougher spot: King Street East in the core.
He bought the building at 103 King St. E. — the former Joe Buttinsky's wing spot across from the shuttered Royal Connaught. It is being transformed into two restaurants and a dance club.
“It's what you want in a good city, places to walk to on a nice day,” said Yee. “There are tons of people who walk by the building every day. We don't want to be a city of bingo halls and dollar stores and vacant buildings.”
Yee's initiative is being matched by other optimistic restaurateurs, including an ambitious project to transform the former Philthy McNasty's site on Upper James into a Japanese eatery.
In July, there were four building permits issued by the city for alterations to small restaurants in key urban areas of the city including the downtown — part of a recent uptick in restaurant renos, says the city's urban renewal manager Glen Norton.
“I think that people are just seeing more traffic downtown. It's been a lot more vibrant. Maybe now they're making a bit more money so they can put in a new fryer or make a small addition. Our employment numbers are up and our survey shows the downtown population grew by about 320 people,” he said.
“It's not all great, not by a long shot, but it's a journey.
“The encouraging thing is that a lot of these renovations or new restaurants are a bit more upscale.”
Yee has partnered with another entrepreneur, Bright Kyereme, who plans to open at the former Joe Buttinsky's site by Halloween.
Kyereme said the new concept will include an Irish pub in the basement level named The Cap after the Capitol Theatre, which was the original purpose of the building. The second level will be a more formal restaurant called The Reel, after the old movie reels. The third floor will be a lounge/dance bar area.
Kyereme said he's still waiting to get city approvals for the third floor and for his liquor licence.
He said the second floor was in rough condition but the top and bottom floors were only in need of some minor repairs and cleaning up. All the renovations will be done with a goal of restoring the building, peeling back the more recent layers to expose the beautiful brick walls, and letting the building's structure act as the main design element.
“We will be preserving all of the original architecture, cleaning it up and replacing the old staircase with a glassed-in stair case with all glass along the front so people driving by on King can see what's going on.”
Because ultimately, for a second time, Yee was lured by the architecture and the potential he sees in its location.
Yee moved from Toronto to Hamilton in 2004 and opened Harvest Moon, at 80 James St. N., after falling in love with the building's architecture.
It hasn't been easy — the first years were tough, like the neighbourhood in those days.
“Sometimes I had to throw people out who just wandered in. It was horrible. It's a lot better now,” he said.
Still, Harvest Moon became a destination, drawing customers from all over the city.
“This was an old theatre. I like unique buildings, you just can't buy these kinds of interesting old brick walls and features in a new building,” said Yee. “Since the (2008 recession), a lot of buildings turned over in ownership on the street and it seemed as if the old owners were just holding on, but the new owners they want to do something with these buildings.”
The moderate increase in restaurant activity in Hamilton is mirrored in a restaurateur outlook survey conducted by the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association released in July which found 40 per cent of restaurant owners were guardedly optimistic about growth potential in the last six months of 2012.
That was up slightly from 38 per cent in the first quarter and a subdued 22 per cent in Q4 of 2011.
Aside from the downtown, several other pockets of the city are also seeing an increase in new restaurant openings, such as Stoney Creek (look for a new Kelsey's on Queenston Road) and on the Mountain.
Anna Huang is in the midst of breathing new life into the 12,000-square-foot space which once housed Philthy McNasty's at 1441 Upper James.
Huang plans to open an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant called Chihiro in the early fall.
The restaurant bears little resemblance to the former sports bar. Huang has installed stunning tile and glass work she custom ordered and shipped from her native China, including a dramatic white glass sketch of a geisha welcoming visitors at the front entrance.
“I chose Hamilton because there's nothing like this here and I really love the location on Upper James,” she said.
Yee is pleased to see the competition increase among the city's menu of restaurants.
“(Competition) is an excellent thing,” he said. “We want to see a lot of different restaurants. That's what makes a downtown exciting, interesting places to visit.”