Darren Howlett is sitting in Locals Restaurant, a place he has a long history with. He’s worked in this dining room off and on since it was called The Old House Restaurant, before he was old enough to bartend. Now, he’s a co-owner.
“The building does some of the work for us,” he says. “It’s such a mainstay of the Valley, and people are so impressed by it.” This is true. Your eyes can’t help but take in the room repeatedly during conversation, so strong is the sense of ambiance created by the picture windows, rich wood, and massive stone fireplace. Not to mention the sense of history.
In 1921, the building was constructed on the banks of the Courtenay River as a residence for the Kirk family. Its Arts and Crafts design was skillfully built to stand the test of time.
The features perhaps most immediately associated with the building are the gabled roof and wood-shingle siding; the aesthetic is enhanced by the timber frame and masonry (including brick chimneys inside and out). As is standard for Arts and Crafts homes, the building is filled with light, made from local materials, and complements, rather than competes with, its environment.
And what an environment it is. The lot at 1760 Riverside Lane supports mature willow, spruce, and oak trees, as well as lush lawn, shrubs, and gardens. It’s no surprise that careful attention has always been paid to the property—one of the home’s original inhabitants, Kath Kirk, initiated Courtenay’s Mile of Flowers campaign in 1967 when she planted 7,800 seedlings to welcome tourists and commemorate Canada’s centennial year. The garden features a gazebo on the river side of the property, shingle sided to complement the building.
“The lot used to be much larger before the hotel was built,” Howlett says, adding that the fairly recent development of the Old House Hotel & Spa hasn’t hampered the feeling of the property. “It acts as a sound buffer, so it’s even more tranquil than it was before.”
The building was first converted into a restaurant in 1975 and officially took on the name by which it was already colloquially known: The Old House. It offered fine dining in the heart of Courtenay at a time when few such restaurants existed on the Island beyond Victoria.
More than 30 years later, a small restaurant called Locals – Food from the Heart of the Island opened in a strip mall on 8th Street. The owners, Chef Ronald and Tricia St. Pierre, developed a menu centred on local, sustainable, quality ingredients from the Valley and surrounding sea. In 2013, just five years after opening, they scaled up to a historic location when the Old House Restaurant closed its doors. Under their leadership, the restaurant flourished in partnership with the farmers and fishermen of the community right up until their retirement in 2023.
Thanks in part to the St. Pierres’ mentorship over the years, a new team was ready to take the helm: industry professionals (and former co-workers) Howlett, Chef Jonathan Frazier, and Sean Poole, plus Poole’s wife Erin Kenny, who did the branding for one of Howlett’s businesses. Howlett and Frazier, who have hosted The Edible Valley podcast together for over a decade, were already business partners. Between them, they possessed a deep well of front-of-house and kitchen experience, and an arsenal of connections with local producers and vendors.
One day Poole, who had just purchased a home in the Valley with Kenny, ran into Howlett and Frazier in the parking lot of the Old House after visiting the notary public on the building’s upper floor. They quickly realized that their hopes for the future aligned, and Poole and Kenny joined Howlett and Frazier as co-owners of Locals.
“The previous owners went out of their way to make it happen this way, and for us. They knew we had the heart,” Howlett says.
He adds, “Over the past 250-plus episodes of the podcast, we’ve dedicated ourselves to finding out more about local food, growers, and farmers, to try and shine a light on how amazing the Comox Valley is. When this opportunity came along, it was very on brand for us. So much of what we had been working towards, Locals already embodied.”
The Old House’s long history represents a variety of local interests within the Comox Valley’s community. And, with the new owners, a delightfully amicable and collaborative shift.