Back from the brink

A couple years ago, Karen Spaulding learned her favourite live-music spot, in one of Halifax’s most storied buildings, was closing. Three years of relentless construction at the Nova Centre across the street pushed The Carleton to the brink. 
Despite winning national accolades such as Best Small Music venue during Canadian Music Week in 2017, collecting a bushel of East Coast Music Awards, and nurturing local talents like Joel Plaskett and Roxy & The Underground Soul Sound, owner Mike Campbell had declared personal bankruptcy. 
The former MuchMusic host was about to lock the door. That’s when Karen Spaulding, the owner of a local software company, picked up the phone and had her lawyer call Campbell’s lawyer. 
“We were going to lose what I thought was an iconic venue in Halifax and I thought jeez, somebody better do something about this!” says Spaulding. “The Carleton was able to bring in amazing large talents such as Blue Rodeo and Ron Sexsmith, but also offer a platform for up-and-coming local musicians. I would often come as a single woman or with friends and I always felt welcomed and comfortable. That combination of live music and just a hangout joint really appealed to me.”


The historic Carleton building dates back to 1760.

Spaulding’s affection for The Carleton and decision to purchase the business puts a new spin on “buying it for a song”. But the sale price was only the first $120,000 she put into it. 
The Carleton building dates back to 1760. It was built as the home of Richard Bulkeley, an influential administrator known as “the Father of the Province,” who served with 13 governors and lieutenant-governors, including city founder Edward Cornwallis. Bulkeley was a genial host and music fan who played the church organ at St. Paul’s Anglican Church across the street.
Shortly after buying The Carleton, Spaulding installed a new stage, new bathrooms, and AC in the kitchen. The L-shaped room boasts great sight lines and a crystal-clear sound system for music fans. To complement walls of exposed gray stones (reportedly shipped here after the fall of the Louisbourg fortress), she redecorated the restaurant and bar in shades of indigo and blue. Plush seats and banquettes have replaced the tavern-style captain’s chairs, evoking a retro lounge vibe, which pairs with the designer cocktails from mixologists Jeff Van Horne and Matt Doyle of The Clever Barkeep. 
For Spaulding, turning around The Carleton quickly became an all-consuming task. “My family and friends joke about it,” she laughs. “But once that call had been made to the lawyer, it was like going to the SPCA to get a kitten: you’re doomed!” 
The intense, two-month reno was put on pause halfway through. Appropriately, it was so a show could go on. The songwriters’ festival, In The Dead of Winter, migrated
to The Carleton after The Company House closed. IDOW organizer Dana Beeler says the Carleton owner and staff were “extremely accommodating,” charging the Festival only for the use of the professional sound tech and helping IDOW with a benefit concert that raised $2,000. 

The Carleton has new décor but the same music-loving vibe. Photo by Jacqueline Anne Photography.

Fortunately, Karen Spaulding has a steady cash flow from her day job. The Liverpool, N.S. native has an MBA and returned home to be closer to family after working on the West Coast. She worked as divisional controller for Maritime Life and then became a silent partner in Metaworks, a local software developer. Metaworks patented a handheld app for mobile phones that allows brand-name companies to collect and report information from the field. Imagine Stanfield’s or Nike hiring someone to check inventory and in-store displays to see how their merch is being promoted. 
Meanwhile, The Carleton is celebrating a milestone it almost didn’t see: its 10th anniversary. Ticket prices for live shows have remained in the $15 to $30 range but music doesn’t pay the bills. Spaulding, a self-described foodie, knew that if the Carleton were to survive, it had to strike a culinary power chord, attracting more diners. So she lured Michael Dolente back home after years in Toronto, where the Red Seal chef prepared mostly Asian and French cuisine at the Shangri-La Hotel.
Patrons addicted to The Carleton’s signature matchstick fries with aioli sauce were tickled to see they’re still on the menu. But Dolente has replaced pub grub with more upscale offerings: risotto and handmade gnocchi, sustainably caught fish, local braised beef short ribs, and refreshing sorbets concocted in-house. At lunch, you can still order a burger, but now you can also try a poké bowl of marinated raw salmon, edamame, and avocado atop aromatic rice. And the “KFC”? It’s a Korean Fried Chicken sandwich.  
Dolente got married at The Carleton in June. He credits the homemade pastas and tomato sauce his Italian grandmother prepared when he was growing up in Bedford with igniting his passion for food, which he now expresses in globally-inspired dishes using local ingredients.

A revamped menu emphasizing seasonal flavours is one of many changes at The Carleton.

“I want the Carleton to be known for great food as well as great music,” he says. “I want the food to be refined but still approachable.” 
Where Dolente really gets to shine is during The Carleton’s monthly fine-dining evenings called “In Concert With…”—a kind of jam session for chefs. The first such event teamed Dolente with Mark Gray of Dartmouth’s The Watch That Ends The Night. They created a (sold out) eight-course gourmet meal featuring charred octopus, classic beef sirloin in bordelaise sauce, and tiramisu with cognac (price, including wine, tax, and tip was $135/person). See The Carleton’s website for the listing of upcoming food and music events.
Spaulding is a seasoned business pro but new to the hospitality trade. She retained Mike Campbell to book and manage entertainment. He still hops on stage to introduce musicians and comics who play the intimate 100-seat room, reminding newcomers The Carleton is “a listening room” that respects performers: no talking during the show, please.
“I’m very happy I’m still part of The Carleton,” says Campbell after introducing a solo U.K. beat-boxer who used to play with Canada’s Crash Test Dummies. “It felt like unfinished business. I’m not a religious guy but there’s a certain karma thing I believe in and honestly, if Karen hadn’t dropped out of the sky when she did, I wouldn’t be in this city anymore. Now … we’ll have a chance to see whether all the work that’s gone into it [the reboot] was worth hanging in for.”
In the heady 1970s, the building housed The Jury Room and the Press Club, where media hacks congregated for drinks and gossip. Those days are gone, and Campbell wryly observes, so are most of the traditional media those journos worked for. But that also makes it more difficult to reach potential patrons, who prefer to stay home and watch Netflix than seek live entertainment. Campbell and Dolente agree getting the word out and putting bums-in-seats is the biggest struggle for any restaurant or live music venue. 
Will people drift back to the patios of Argyle Street now that the detonations, detours, and dust from the Nova Centre construction are over? “Karen is in it for the long haul,” Campbell says. “If she were a skittish owner who started to freak out because everything wasn’t going her way immediately, then we wouldn’t be here right now. She knows its an investment in the future and it’s a long, long game. We’re hoping all of the improvements made here and on the street are going to pan out for everybody because there’s a lot at stake.”   

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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