By Tony Martins  /  Dan Ziemkiewicz photos

Sara Ainslie and John Criswick are turning a setback into good fortune, taking one of Ottawa’s most established and celebrated cultural venues to unprecedented heights—perhaps literally.

ure, the open-air observatory that they are dreaming of for the roof of their Byward Market nightclub Mercury Lounge is at present just a concept, but if you know Sara Ainslie (the spry manager) and John Criswick (the shrewd owner), you wouldn’t bet against it.


The pair’s setback-turned-opportunity occurred in August of 2014, when an uncoupled soda machine on the top floor caused extensive water damage to all three levels. Mercury Lounge reopened eight weeks later with a sleek new look, but the basement level (called Overkill) and mid-level (The Collection) remained in transi­tion states in the early part of this year.


While many venue owners might have simply closed shop after such a devastating accident, tossing in the towel was simply was not an option for Ainslie and Criswick.


“After 18 years, two recessions, and so many challenges,” reasoned Ainslie, “there’s no excuse for closing. We actually saw this as a fortunate opportunity to shut down for a while and do a retrofit.”


Opened in 1997 at 56 Byward Mar­ket, Mercury Lounge and the integrated spaces beneath are well established as much more than great places to socialize. All manner of performances and cultural events have been held there over the years, making the space one of the most en­gaged and valuable on the Ottawa scene. The list of cultural groups to have worked with the venue is exhaustive and includes the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Juno Awards, Capital Pride, Ottawa Jazz Festival, ArtEngine and a great many more.


While the refurbished Overkill will be graced with a custom-made bar, seating, and bathrooms (for theme, think “fallout shelter”), there’s an entirely new concept for the mid-level space called Small Batch, a unique environment that will fuse micro-brewery pub with fresh food selections opening from 10:30 a.m.


To help stock Small Batch, the ever-industrious Criswick also plans to launch Rideau Valley micro-brewery and Top Shelf distillery in Perth in the coming months—more evidence of his commitment to all things local.


First things first, however. In early March, Ainslie was nearly giddy when show­ing off the in-progress Overkill interior. The concrete-poured bar will feature inset shattered stained glass and acrylic insets of found objects. Custom seating booths will have a faux jagged rock finish. All the light­ing will be vintage or custom-made using found objects. Even the menu will include elements of early 1960s cold war.


So, when the dust settles, patrons can do space race in the basement and (pending approvals) stargazing on the roof. At the risk of mixing mythologies, you might say that Mercury Lounge is rising like a phoe­nix.


May 1: 19:00
OpenSecret / evalyn parry /
Robert Priest (aka Dr. Poetry) /
Mustafa The Poet /
Nicole Lefebvre

May 4: 19:30

Evening of flims
Scott Miller Berry / Larissa Fan
/ Barbara Sternberg / Christina
Battle / Penny McCann / Stephen
Broomer / Pixie Cram / Kelly Egan

May 9: 21:00

Classical music
Music by Brian Current, R.
Murray Schafer, Peter Hatch and
Kelly-Marie Murphy




This content originally appeared in Scene, a free newsprint prologue to the National Arts Centre’s Ontario Scene. Available at all Bridgehead Coffee locations, Scene was created collaboratively by Guerilla, Apt613, and Herd Magazine.