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From racoons to bomb threats, 99 Rideau Street is no quiet place. Photo: Parker Townes.

An inside look at Ottawa’s most notorious downtown restaurant

On Sept. 21 I spent a night on Rideau Street with the high aim of unpacking an important cultural phenomenon—the Rideau McDonald’s. This particular McDonald’s franchise is an infamous one to say the least, with a reputation for attracting interesting crowds and hosting equally interesting situations.   

In order for one to truly understand the Rideau McDonald’s, it is critical to first visualize the location of this infamous fast food restaurant.

Behind the Rideau McDonald’s is the ByWard Market, home to perhaps the most well-frequented club scene in Ottawa. In front of the store are stops for some of the city’s busiest bus lines, and in front of that, the Rideau Centre. Finally, only three blocks away is the U of O, home to over 40,000 students.

From an economic standpoint it is a prime location for any fast food restaurant, guaranteed to attract a wide variety of clientele from the broad spectrum of Ottawan life.

But in order to dig a little deeper, I began my journalistic endeavour at 10 p.m. sharp.

10 p.m.

The most shocking thing I notice as I enter the restaurant is the choice of music playing: Austrian composer Franz Schubert’s Das Wandern. Released in the early 1800s, the orchestral song plays peacefully over the store’s soundsystem.

I wonder to myself if this is a strategy to soothe the customers and create a more relaxing environment in the restaurant? Or maybe this is merely the calm before the early morning storm?

Another important thing to note about this specific McDonald’s is the very unique layout. The main entrance is located on Rideau Street, and hosts the main seating area of the restaurant along with bay windows that look out to Rideau Street and a large plasma TV that runs a stream of local news 24/7.

Arguably one of the most unique aspects of this McDonald’s is that it is connected by an eerily long hallway to the George Street entrance in the market, equipped with at least eight security cameras, by my count. In this hallway the sole washroom can be found. I’m not brave enough to venture into it.     

There isn’t a long line at the register at this point in the night so I walk to the cashier and place an order of grub I’m hoping will last me the night: a 10-piece order of Chicken McNuggets, a Junior Chicken, fries, and a pop. It takes about 10 minutes for my order to arrive, which is longer than what I’m used to. It will be interesting to see how fast the crew works when the clubs close and the real rush hits.

10:30 p.m.

By this time, the McDonald’s has gotten a little bit busier. I’m joined by a group of U of O students, a crew of construction workers on break, and a group of what I guess are high school students.

I decide to approach a group of four, who turn out to be first-year students from the U of O, to find out why they came to the Rideau McDonald’s. They give me a pretty simple answer.

“We’re lazy and cheap.”

Most of them live in Stanton Residence on campus, adding that the walk was quick and, with the student budget, the food nice and cheap. I ask if they have had any interesting experiences at this particular McDonald’s. One girl, who has lived in Ottawa since high school, explains that she has seen three fights break out at three separate occasions here.

She goes on to explain that one of the fights happened right in front of her. She had been ordering food when the man in front of her yelled a racial slur at the cashier—the argument had supposedly broken out over a burnt panini. The manager asked the man to leave, and as he began to step back to do so somebody bumped into him and hit the very same controversial panini out of his hand. From there, she says, chaos ensued.

Once she finishes her story, I asked if she feels uncomfortable coming back to the McDonald’s after witnessing the incident.

“I come with friends or in a larger group now,” she admits

I scout out my next interviewees. Sitting down with my 10-piece Chicken McNugget meal, that has now reduced itself to just two, I ask the two men sitting next to me what’s brought them here.

One of the men, Joe, begins sharing some Rideau McDonald’s lore. A week ago, he says, he entered the McDonald’s from the Rideau Street entrance to witness a man pull out a gun. He ran as soon as he saw it, he says, but explained that that kind of behaviour is usual for this area.    

“Of course, we’re downtown!”

11 p.m.

Joe and his friend finish their food and leave. It’s about 11 p.m., and the next three hours start to feel a bit like limbo. Time passes slowly, and eventually the pace starts to pick up again come 2 a.m.

2 a.m.

There are a significantly more drunk clubbers in the McDonald’s than any other time in the night thus far, and the lines for food can no longer be called lines—they have instead merged into a large mob of drunk, frustrated and hungry people.

It is at this moment that the closest thing that night to a fight begins to assemble. A man wearing rollerblade hockey equipment and an Ottawa 67’s jersey is at the front of the line trying to speak over the drunken crowds for a coffee. But then, an extremely drunk clubber, boasting about having just downed bottle service at Tequila Jacks , walks to the front, skipping the entire mob of customers in the process.

Almost instantly I feel the tensions in the room rise. A handful of people in line shoot angry and frustrated looks at this rule-breaker. Yet, a happy ending: everything is resolved when the clubber begins paying for meals. Coffee for some, six McDoubles for others, and two Junior Chickens for himself.

And so, while the Rideau McDonald’s does have a reputation for its interesting antics, my time there the night of Sept. 21 and the early morning of Sept. 22 leaves me happily surprised. For what it’s worth, this notorious spot might just receive more criticism than it deserves.