3 min

Dining out: Building a restaurant empire, from the owner of Helsinki, Kinki and Mambo

Marisol Simoes on life as one of the Byward Market's chief restauranteurs

Kinki, Helsinki and Mambo — Ottawa’s queer community knows them well. While each venue has a distinct identity, what these bars and restaurants have in common is a bias-free, anything-goes attitude with the signature style and wild edge of Marisol Simoes.

Simoes is a powerful female role model succeeding where others have not. In a business that defeats even the most enthusiastic and dedicated of entrepreneurs, Simoes has become a restaurateur-extraordinaire, pushing the boundaries of style and food in our city.

It was the secret of her success that Capital Xtra was after. That, and her interest in Ottawa’s queer community. And it was the perfect excuse for a drink at Mambo.

Simoes appears small and impeccably turned out, seated in the deep leather seat at Mambo. She laughs, dismissively waving off the idea of a secret.

“I have to start at the beginning. So much has happened over the years, you know how it is. Things just fall into place. I never thought I’d live in Ottawa at all, let alone be own a restaurant.”

Ottawa-born and raised, Simoes was a university student studying sociology and public administration. On the side, she worked in various restaurants in the Byward Market, with no serious ambitions beyond earning some extra cash.

“I thought waitressing was simply a means to an end. It took a while for me to figure out it was the other way around. My studies were so isolating but my work was so social. So I developed a love for the industry.”

Simoes wanted to see the world. Forgetting school, she took off in her early 20s, funding her travels through Europe and South America by picking up restaurant and bar jobs along the way.

“My skills were so transferable,” she explains. “I got to meet lots of people and immerse myself in all these different cultures and foods.”

Reluctantly returning home to Ottawa at 28, Simoes mulled over her choices.

“I never thought I wanted to be in Ottawa. After travelling, I hated this city’s close-mindedness and resistance to change.”

So doing what she knew best, Simoes was soon working again and it was while bartending that she met her husband, DJ Zadek Ramowski. From Holland, he had been hired to DJ at Thunderdome.

“Our paths kept crossing, we had this really great connection. I got him to move here in 2000 and we bought our first business venture: The Collection and Bar 56.”

Turns out the waitress and the DJ made a good combo because The Collection and Bar 56 set off a cascade of new ventures: purchasing Kinki with partner Peter Boole (2001), followed by Helsinki (2003). A busy year in 2006 saw the couple sell The Collection/Bar 56 and purchase Mambo instead. Each of the venues received a full makeover and in a few cases, a new name.

“Being the advocate for change was the only option I had. In order for the businesses to work I had to bring Ottawa up a notch and instil the same taste, culture and style I’d seen around the world.”

While the stylish colours and decor are clearly Simoes — her attire and long hair reflects the sultry reds, blacks and browns — she partially credits the progressive style to her queer clientele.

“I think we have the support of the gay community because they have an appreciation of style. They like concepts to be thought through. And I find they’re on the cutting edge, as we are too. We’ve always been years ahead of our time with open, bias-free events. We’ve earned their loyalty. They keep us fresh and on our toes.”

In turn, Simoes hosts regular gay nights, together with special events known for their open-minded atmosphere. When the fight for gay marriage was on, Helsinki hosted Holy Fuck, a party in support of sexual liberation, which resulted in the police fining the venue for public nudity.

Slightly tamer but no less worthy, Simoes will once again be involved in Taste for Life on April 23. Restaurants including Mambo send 25 percent of their profits to Bruce House and Snowy Owl AIDS Foundation. Helsinki finishes up the night with an after-party.

For Simoes it’s all in a days (or night’s) work. She’s taken a painfully conservative city and with a “bring it on” attitude turned a handful of venues into hip, stylish joints with penchant for the wild and edgy.

As for the secret to her success?

“Stubbornness.” She says. “I don’t take no for an answer. I follow my heart.”

People can’t talk me out of things. And maybe, part of it is,” she says and pauses. “I’m simply a sucker for punishment.”