DJ and club owner Nicolas Hamel has a unique vision for this new venue
Riverside St-Henri isn’t Nicolas Hamel’s first bar in Montreal, but he’s doing things a little bit differently this time. The 30-year-old owner of Mme Lee has been in the bar industry since he was 16. He also used to own Newspeak, Ping Pong Club and Studio 270, a recording studio in the Plateau. But he doesn’t see Riverside as just another bar.
“I don’t want Riverside St-Henri to be seen only as a bar; it’s a community hub,” Hamel said. “We’re not another business that’s just there for the trend. We’re trying to help and get involved in the community long-term.”
Hamel has big plans for Riverside—as big as the property’s 10,000 square foot grounds. Work is in progress to add a community garden for families, a café and restaurant to go with the multitude of night-life options already offered in the city. He has a three-year roadmap for integrating new features into the venue, like free Wi-Fi throughout the property and seminars hosted in the building or the venue’s garden space. Riverside is also the home to experimental events, such as a live 3D virtual reality (VR) broadcast organized by a crew from Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in September.
Riverside, which opened in July, is a venue that doesn’t fall neatly into an existing category of business. It’s a wine bar, but it’s also a dance club. Inside, there are booths to sit at and a huge bar. Step outside and you’re in a casual outdoor beer garden-style terrasse with colourful picnic tables, a shipping container fashioned into a bar and young people chatting around oil drums painted à la Keith Haring. The soft lighting is provided by bare bulbs strung overhead. Walk a little further and you’ll wander out into the vast lawn that Hamel wants to convert into a community garden and gathering place.
“It’s my first place that’s not just about business,” Hamel explained. “I want it be a place where people can eventually say, ‘Hey, I helped grow those vegetables.’ That’s part of the mentality that I’m trying to build, but it’s complicated and it takes time.”
Part of Hamel’s vision for the venue includes creating the most environmentally friendly business possible.
“Environmental sustainability is super important to me,” Hamel said. He is focused on using sustainable water and smart waste management programs to limit Riverside’s ecological footprint.
“The way the location is set up allows me to test stuff, like capturing rain water. I cannot do that in a downtown location, but I can try that [at Riverside],” Hamel said.
Even within Riverside’s existing functions as a bar and club, there’s a lot of flexibility. “To go from a chill beer garden to a nice wine bar to a good club, it’s all about timing and refinement,” Hamel said. “I have a clientele for every time of the night. Everybody from the youth of Westmount and N.D.G. to the moms and pops of St-Henri.”
However, Hamel acknowledged that the way the public perceives Riverside is out of his control. “People are very quick now to put something in a box.”
When it comes to delivering quality wine to his clientele, Hamel said he is trying to encourage younger people to enjoy high-end wines while keeping the price down. “We’re trying to push quality, niche wines to a more [accessible] market,” Hamel said. “We’re trying to elevate the willingness of people to discover more.”
The size of the venue gives Hamel some advantages such as partnering with local restaurants and food trucks that sell in front of Riverside every day. Hamel plans to add a full kitchen to Riverside as well. “I want to eventually have somebody come at eight in the morning for a coffee and stay until 3 a.m. at the club,” he said. “My goal is to have seven different businesses with seven different ambiances.”
As well as being bar owner, Hamel is a 12-year veteran of the Montreal DJing scene and just released a techno project with his DJ partner under the name Anti Anti. He said he wants Riverside to become a “musical hub.”
He described the music the venue plays on its massive sound system as “more dance, boogie, disco-ish stuff.”
”We do have some hip hop playing, but it’s not a Top 40 place,” Hamel added. “It’s quality music but very accessible. I want people to feel somewhere else when they’re here.”
Hamel draws positive comparisons between outdoor music festivals like Osheaga and the atmosphere at Riverside. “When you go to a festival, everybody is smiling. When I created this place, that was the mentality I wanted to bring.”