Dining in Victoria, BC

April 23, 2010

VICTORIA, BC, Apr. 23, 2010/ Bon Voyage / — Victoria is renowned across North America for many things: it is known as Little Britain, for having Canada’s only Mediterranean climate, and as the City of Gardens. These are all well-deserved reputations. But, increasingly, Victoria is becoming known for something else – something which is usually the preserve of much larger centres:

Victoria is becoming known as a culinary capital. Before you scoff – yes, the local produce and meats are unparalleled, but come on, it’s just too small. The city itself has a population of just over 78,000, while the Greater Victoria Region has a population of just over 330,000. But consider that Victoria also has the most restaurants per capita of any city in Canada. Continentally, it comes in a (close) second, behind only San Francisco. In other words, there’s a lot of great food here.

High Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel

The beating heart of Victoria is the Inner Harbour, so it’s only appropriate to start there, in her most famous landmark – The Fairmont Empress Hotel (721 Government Street). High tea is justifiably famous, but its fame comes at a price, perhaps because it is the most expensive tea and sandwich you’ll ever consume. Victoria residents and connoisseurs often give the main hall a miss and head to the Bengal Lounge in the southern corner, next to the beautiful Victoria Conference Centre.

The Bengal Lounge is everything Anglophiles dream of when they think of Victoria – both the city and Her Majesty. Straight from an H. Rider Haggard novel, the Bengal Lounge is a marvellous nod to the aesthetics of an empire that spanned the globe. It feels like a gentlemen’s club where walrus- moustachioed gentlemen harrumph over their newspapers and gin – except anyone and everyone is welcome. Despite appearances, The Bengal Lounge is actually about as casual as the Empress gets (a lot of golf-shirted conference attendees find their way in) but both the service and food are otherworldly. It’s classic Anglo-Indian fare, as you might expect, but the worst meal I’ve ever eaten there is better than most Indian restaurant’s best. Their lunch buffet is quite possibly the highest-quality buffet I’ve ever seen.

Victoria is more than just “more English than the English.” It’s also a very bohemian, liberal arts-friendly city. This tradition is reflected in many modern restaurants and eateries, but perhaps none more so than Cafe Brio (944 Fort Street). With a dark, cool atmosphere than can only be described as funky, it’s one of the coolest-looking eateries you’ll ever find.

Its menu changes with the seasons, but there’s a strong emphasis on local fare – which, in Victoria, is practically an unfair advantage. If available, the Cowichan Valley duck may just change your life, as the forest mushroom tagliatelle literally did for my wife, converting her from a lifetime of detesting fungus. Cafe Brio is also where we happened to sit next to alt-rock star Beck, fashionably dressed in a wide-brimmed hat, quite possibly originally intended for women. Ah, Victoria.

Beer lovers have their own nickname for Victoria: “heaven.” Not only does Victoria boast Canada’s oldest brewpub in Spinnaker’s (308 Catherine Street), there’s no shortage of choice of local brews, brasseries, and brewpubs. One of the newest is also one of the best. The Bard and Banker Scottish Brewpub (1022 Government Street) took over the gorgeous old Bank of British Columbia building on the corner of Government Street and Bastion Square, which had until recently been a Spirit of Christmas store. Personal biases aside, this is a far more appropriate (and better) use. Though brand new, the B&B keeps an eye on the building’s history; the “banker” is obvious, and a casual visitor would be forgiven for thinking the Bard is a tribute to Robert Burns – also immortalized in nearby Beacon Hill Park. In fact, the bard in question had a direct and local tie. Robert Service, author of The Cremation of Sam McGee, known as the Bard of the Yukon – was an employee of the bank.

History lesson aside, the B&B is a worthy addition to Victoria’s crowded and lofty brewpub scene. It’s visually striking, especially at night, when the lamps and chandeliers are glowing. Of the 30 beers on tap, 10 are brewed within shouting distance. The food is pub food-plus: all the favourites like burgers and pizzas, but extremely well done, with local ingredients.

A chef’s chef

Most visitors to Victoria arrive either via the international airport, or Swartz Bay ferry terminal, both at the northern tip of the Saanich peninsula, and head straight for Victoria proper about 30 minutes south. The nearby small town of Sidney boats one of Greater Victoria’s true culinary gems – Bistro Suisse (2470 Beacon Avenue). Now in his 70s, Chef Lucien Frauenfelder is often described as a “chef’s chef.” I don’t know what that means, but he’s become a fixture in the Sidney and Victoria dining scenes with his old-world food. We have been there many times, and I always tell myself I will order something other than the weisswurst, with rosti (or fries), sauerkraut, red cabbage, and onion sauce. But here’s the thing: the weisswurst is awesome. I almost never resist it, which is a shame, because in Bistro Suisse’s cozy confines, you can watch all your fellow diners’ eyes roll into the back of their heads. “Oh my God…” is overheard almost constantly.

With vineyards and breweries, the ocean, year-round produce and games, Victoria has a lot of unfair advantages. It knows how to use them, too.

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