Covent Garden Market is a gigantic indoor and outdoor market space located in the heart of downtown London, Ontario. Home to 47 permanent tenants and a wide variety of temporary vendors and farmers who come to the outdoor market to sell their wares, Covent Garden Market is the downtown hub for buying and selling in London. For nearly two centuries Londoners have come to the Covent Garden Market to shop for food, gifts, and services, and to eat at one of the stellar restaurants located within it. The market is open Monday through Saturday, 8 AM to 7 PM, and Sundays from 11 AM to 5 PM.
The history of London, Ontario’s Covent Garden Market dates back to 1835, when a license to hold a “public fair or mart” was issued by the government of Upper Canada for an area of the city around Richmond Street, Dundas Street, and King Street. This market eventually settled on what was then the courthouse square; the growth of the market, however, dictated that it get moved to a more open, publicly owned area. In 1844, the Board of Police for London decided that it should be located in the new Eastern Survey region that they were hoping to grow. The problem, of course, was that merchants who owned and operated close to the existing market had grown used to the foot traffic and were not pleased to see that potentially vanish. In 1845, then, thirteen of these local business owners donated land that combined would mark the place for London’s new market. For two years, between 1846 and 1848, both markets operated in an awkward, overlapping fashion. In 1848, the city granted the downtown market sole monopoly over the terms of being the “local market” as defined in the 1835 license. The Covent Garden Market became a permanent fixture in the London economic landscape from then on.
From the beginning, the Covent Garden Market was a place where farmers met to conduct the business of trade. Sean Gouglas wrote that farmers used it to combine “market-centered commerce with other activities”, which included “buying new shoes, stocking up on dry goods, eating at local restaurants, fixing broken equipment, or financing mortgages.” It was more than what we consider a “farmer’s market” today; it was a central place for the elites of the rural world and the urban world to meet, with built-in markets for goods and services. The quick success of the market for this goal can be seen by the fact that only a few short years later, in 1853, the city council ordered a one-and-a-half story construction of white brick to be built, which would become Covent Garden Market House.
The growth of the market parallels the growth of the city in many important ways. It’s no coincidence that the first major bank in London appeared on Ridout Street across from the original market in the courthouse square. It should come as no surprise, either, that when the market moved to it’s current location the financial services merchants moved along with it. Farming, then and now, is a capital-intensive operation, and it requires mortgages and lines of credit to ease it along. With the market, local farmers could hawk their wares and fuel their business all at the same time. Businesses that catered to farmers did a booming trade around the market as well. These included saddle and harness makers for horses, hardware stores for farming implements, hats, furs, and clothing for rural families, and general staples goods like salt, mustard, spices, and sugar.
Proximity to the market for some industries was more than a good business move, it was an imperative. The rise and fall of businesses in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries show a pattern: if your business was situated near the market, there was a much lower chance you would go out of business. An example: regarding stove, tin, and hardware stores operating away from the market, only 20% of the stores listed in 1880 were still in operation by 1885; the survival rate of stores operating within a block of the market was 83%. The pattern was similar when it came to economic strength, as well; businesses near the market outdid their outer competitors by nearly three to one.
In the beginning, the market was open three days a week: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The interior of the Covent Garden Market House was given over to butchers and in those days the floor was strewn with sawdust. Meat did a brisk business, with a healthy competition between a large number of butchers keeping prices low. The grounds outside the Market House were given over to sales of any other good imaginable: produce at different times of the year, including wild berries, crafts, garments, litters of kittens and puppies, and items imported from elsewhere. If you wanted to buy or sell something, then Covent Garden Market was the best place in the city of London to accomplish that task.
The market remained the premier place of business in London through the darkest days of the 20th Century, through the Great War, into the Depression, and through the Second World War. The end of the Second World War, however, brought the rise of automobile ownership, which changed the way Londoners went shopping and conducted business. The rise of car culture meant the decline of the market as the best place to center your business, and so the Market was forced to compete with shopping malls for commercial status. To this end, a new market building was commissioned in 1955, larger and with four levels of parking to accommodate car-driving shoppers. While it’s status diminished to being merely one of many great places to get your shopping done in London, it remained the best place to get meat and produce fresh from local farms. By the late 1990s, the market’s owning group decided that it was time for another overhaul, and the current version of the Covent Garden Market was unveiled in October of 1999.
The Market Today
The Covent Garden Market today is a bustling operation comprising a number of market, restaurant, and cultural sections. As per tradition, there is still both an indoor and an outdoor market, although the indoor market runs through the entire year.
Meat and Produce
The perception of the Covent Garden Market historically as a “farmer’s market” continues today, although with less intensity than in the 19th Century. In the early days of the market, one could find a dozen butchers on the floor of the market building, feverishly competing for the crowd’s business. Today there are two main butchers, each with a take on what the city is looking for from it’s meat vendors. Mark’s Fine Meats is the best place to find organic meat, including local Fieldgate organics, as well as a variety of other locally sourced and sustainably sourced meat options. Chris’ Country Cuts, on the other hand, brings breadth to the market. Their products, all locally sourced and cut on site at the market, include beef, chicken, pork, Ontario lamb, milk-fed veal, Muscovy duck, geese, Cornish hen, rabbit, bison, and even more.
In addition to butcher options, several produce vendors also operate year-round inside of the market. Sacred Earth Whole Foods offers a variety of wholesome organic produce for family-friendly meal creation. Havaris Produce offers customers a chance to get their hands on otherwise hard-to-find vegetables that are nonetheless necessary to complete certain recipes. Havaris is also a major tradition at the market, having been there since the early days in the 19th Century. Their produce shop offers organics, sun-dried fruit, salads, honey, syrups, and whatever fruit you’re looking for. There is also Doris Family Produce, which offers an assortment of Greek food, olives, jams, maple syrup, and a full range of salads and vegetables.
In addition to the all of the food vendors, there are three full restaurants on site at Covent Garden Market. Waldo’s Bistro On King is a fine-dining destination spot in the city of London, featuring a wide variety of red and white wine that you can order by the bottle, half litre, or glass, with or without skins. The menu gives you a sense of fine dining without having to pay through the nose with fine dining prices. Some of Waldo’s best items include fried Lake Erie perch (caught fresh daily), lobster sea scallop bisque, sautéed shrimp, escargot, a fantastic Greek salad, and a delightful seafood crepe. The interior, homey and a little arty, plays into all of this perfectly.
Tanakaya Japanese Restaurant is one of the city’s best Japanese places, tucked away inside of Covent Garden Market. If you want the freshest, most flavourful sushi rolls or sashimi in the city, then the Market is the place to be. Tanakaya also offers tempura vegetables, ramen, bubble tea, regular hot tea, and an assortment of ‘bubble tea’ type snacks.
Olive R Twists, finally, is a place that offers good homestyle cooking using the finest ingredients in a warm, inviting setting. The centerpiece of Olive R Twists is the 75-foot bar, which offers up to sixteen craft beers on a rotating basis. In addition, Olive R Twists features outdoor BBQ and some of the best late-snack nachos in the city.
Prepared Food Vendors
In addition to the sit-down, formal restaurants, the Covent Garden Market also offers a number of places where you can stop and pick up a quick bite or something for lunch. The Salad Bowl has great salad, to be true, but their soup is honestly some of the best soup you’ll ever taste in London. Their wraps are also great, and every ingredient is hand-picked to be the healthiest possible option for you, I f you’re looking for that sort of thing. The New Delhi Deli, meanwhile, offers a dizzying array of spicy foods whose aromas will draw you from all over the market. Don’t let the name fool you completely: the New Delhi Deli sits staunchly in the area of Caribbean food, meaning jerk chicken, oxtail, curried goat, roti, samosas, Jamaican patties, and a variety of seafood, duck, lamb, and chicken. Thai Delight offers an assortment of Thai food, including their famous salad spring rolls; a lot of Thai food lends itself naturally to be prepared “to go”, so there’s a lot to choose from here. Petit Paris, meanwhile, offers exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of French foods including sandwiches, crepes, quiche, small cakes, macaroons, and other pastries. If an amuse-bouche is what you’re after, Petit Paris has it for you, along with custom creations made to order.
Bakeries, Delis, and Coffee
There are two main spots for coffee in the Market. The Little Red Roaster is the probably the first one you’ll see, since they’re located right inside the main entrance to the Market House. They offer a wide selection of coffee and tea, as well as a selection of breakfast, sandwiches, quiche, salads, and cookies to go along with your caffeine injection. If you prefer your coffee paired with obscure indie records, Hasbeans is located near one of the Market’s side entrances. Hasbeans offers fair trade coffee from a staggering array of sustainable cooperatives. More importantly, they offer the beans for sale, in both roasted form and in green form, for those enthusiasts who like to roast their own beans. If caffeine isn’t really what you’re looking for, Taylor Sue’s offers a tasty assortment of cold and frozen fare, including yogurt, ice cream, smoothies, slushies, crepes, and waffles.
If a European-style bakery is what you’re in the mood for, then you’ll be glad to know that one of International Bakery’s two London locations is located in the Covent Garden Market. The International Bakery has been going strong since 1955 and has all of the European groceries you’re looking for, including deli meats, kringle, pastries, breads, and some of the tastiest pizza slices in the downtown core. Cucina Italiana, meanwhile, offers a true “Italian American” menu, including hot Italian deli sandwiches like hoagies and muffulettas, as well as lasagna, manicotti, tiramisu, and cannolis.
Services: Fun and Games for Old and Young
The Covent Garden Market is more than just a great place to get food, of course. CTV London operates out of the Covent Garden Market House, as does the Original Kids Theatre Company. The OK Theatre Company is located on the second floor and prides itself on providing an environment “where kids feel safe to express themselves, without fear of ridicule.” The Market is also home to Andrew Gillet’s The Studio, where local realist painter A.R. Gillet works to combine traditional techniques with the cutting edge of digital media.
In terms of services, Mr. Kwik Fix has all of your repair needs covered. Whether it’s shoes, general leatherwork, sports equipment, luggage, frames, keys, or watches, James Watkin Sr. and his associates can get it done. They also run a small dry cleaning business for all of your suit cleaning needs. If massage therapy is more your ticket, then you can find Carpe Diem Massage Therapy on the second floor of the Market, offering a variety of treatment options by a number of different therapists.
Outside, during the winter season (depending on the weather), the Market also runs a skating rink that operates during the regular market hours: 8 AM to 7 PM Monday through Saturday, and Sundays from 11 AM to 5 PM.
The Outdoor Market
As is tradition, the Covent Garden Market also features an outdoor market May through December, operating on Thursdays from 8 AM to 2 PM and on Saturdays from 8 AM to 1 PM. For the winter months, January through April, a smaller winter market operates inside the Market House. The outdoor market is a great place to find fresh ingredients, including garlic, beans, bread of all types, melons, herbs, local wine, and cheese.