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Where to Eat in Canada’s Shawarma Capital

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When you think of the nation’s capital, what food comes to mind?

Poutine? That’s more of a Quebec thing. Back bacon? That’s just stereotyping Canadians. Arguably rivalled only by BeaverTails, shawarma – marinated rotisserie chicken or beef, an assortment of veggies, hummus and creamy garlic sauce(s) served in a grilled pita – is Ottawa’s quintessential dish.

But in 1989, when Aziz Dawi first arrived in the city, there were few if any restaurants in Ottawa serving shawarma or falafel (vegan‑friendly deep‑fried chickpea balls), which often go hand‑in‑hand. Dawi, a Lebanese chef, had served Canadian and Italian staples on military bases since arriving in Canada from South Lebanon in 1971, but when he got to Canada’s capital, he thought he would try his hand at the fast food he knew back home – only with a twist. The shawarma he wanted to serve was a mashup of North American topping‑focused fast‑food counters like Subway or McDonald’s, and the original Lebanese version, which only has lamb, chicken or beef, hummus, garlic sauce and usually served with French fries.

So, in 1997, Dawi opened Shawarma Palace in downtown Ottawa, joining a small group of similar restaurants, including Shawarma King on Bank Street and Marroush (now closed) on Elgin Street.

But the first two years were a struggle for Dawi, according to his daughter, Hanadi, who took over the family business with her brother, Ahmad Sobh, when their dad died eight years ago. “It took time because not everybody knew what shawarma was,” she says.

April 14, 2021
A stack of six shawarma pitas from Shawarma Palace in Ottawa
   Photo: Shawarma Palace

A couple years later, Shawarma Palace took off. Ottawa shawarma restaurants kept popping up all across the city, making it one of the most popular places for shawarma anywhere outside of the Middle East. “It kind of became a thing where when you come to Ottawa you want to try the shawarma and figure out which one’s best,” says Abbas Sobh, Dawi’s youngest son who now runs Shawarma Palace’s Hunt Club location. “Back home in Lebanon, shawarma is not a delicacy. It’s just fast food... and it has nowhere near the popularity that is out here in Ottawa.”

According to Sobh, Canada’s other big cities don’t have the quantity nor the quality that Ottawa shawarma has. “If you compare Ottawa to a big, big city like Toronto, I can guarantee you we have better shawarma,” he says.

So how did Ottawa become such a hot spot for shawarma? One theory is the city’s sizeable Lebanese community. Lebanese immigrants may have chosen Ottawa thanks to a strong job market for people who speak both of Canada’s official languages.

Shawarma’s popularity may also be a case of competition begetting more competition, Sobh says. “It becomes a trend where you see ‘okay this company is doing well... why not me, why don’t I try it?’”

And the pandemic has done little to put a skewer in shawarma’s popularity, with late‑night takeout being replaced by delivery and wider adoption among families. “It definitely had a big shift in popularity, even from the early 2000s till now,” Sobh says.

Ask anyone in the capital, and they’re bound to launch into a passionate speech about the best shawarma in Ottawa, but here’s a sampling of some our favourites so you can form your own opinion.

A shawarma platter with hummus, garlic sauce, salad, potatoes, rice and pita from Ottawa's Shawarma Palace
   Photo: Shawarma Palace
  1. Shawarma Palace (multiple locations) —

    More Ottawans than not will call this beloved family‑run shawarma restaurant chain their favourite. Why? Its ingredients are always fresh, the meat spits are gigantic, and its platters can easily leave two people stuffed. There are now five locations across the city: Rideau, Glebe, Hunt Club, Orleans and Barrhaven.

  2. Shawarma King —

    Ottawa’s longest‑standing shawarma restaurant, Shawarma King is still going strong in Centretown and sits atop the list of favourites of many. Open until 4 a.m. on weekends for the late‑night crowd.

A shawarma poutine from 3 Brothers Shawarma & Poutine in Ottawa
   Photo: 3 Brothers Shawarma & Poutine
  1. 3 Brothers Shawarma & Poutine —

    When the ByWard Market is hopping, this Ottawa shawarma restaurant near the Rideau Centre has a lineup down the block late into the night. For the full experience, try the shawarma poutine (fries, cheese curds and shawarma chicken smothered with gravy). There are also locations farther east on Rideau Street and near the University of Ottawa campus.

A bowl of falafels, dipping sauce and vegetables from Chickpeas in Ottawa
   Photo: Anthonia Bejide
  1. Chickpeas —

    Good falafel in Ottawa is rare because most shawarma restaurants pre‑cook the falafel and reheat it before serving. There’s no shawarma on the menu at Chickpeas, a Palestinian‑owned Glebe restaurant, but you will find delicious freshly deep‑fried falafel and a choice of seven different hummus flavours. There’s also a location at the Train Yards.

A chicken salad, Lebanese style, from Mr. Shawarma in Ottawa
   Photo: Mr. Shawarma
  1. Mr. Shawarma —

    With three locations across Ottawa (Nepean, Gloucester and Kanata), Mr. Shawarma keeps the suburban crowd well fed with its quality sandwiches and magical garlic potatoes. It also does a good shawarma poutine.

  2. Shawarma Station —

    Shiny metal doors, checkered tile floors and neon lights scream retro diner, but instead of burgers and milkshakes, Shawarma Station specializes in – you guessed it – shawarma. Find it in the Towngate Shopping Plaza in South Keys.

A mixed meat platter with garlic sauce, hummus, rice, potatoes and salad from Shawarma Mango’s in Ottawa
   Photo: Mango’s Shawarma
  1. Shawarma Mango’s —

    Along with its awesome shawarma, this Alta Vista Drive restaurant serves fruity smoothies and shakes filled with avocados, mangoes, strawberries or bananas.

  2. Shawarma Byte —

    Just landed and hungry? This shawarma spot near the airport has shawarma sandwiches and platters that are about as good as anywhere else in the city (in other words: they’re great).