From the Okanagan Valley to Salt Springs and Vancouver Islands, British Columbia offers such a bounty of locally grown food and drink that it was nearly impossible to take it all in during our short stint on the west coast – but we certainly did our best! Fish tacos and wild salmon; breads made from locally grown wheat and grains; cheeses, yogurts and small-batch ice cream made with milk from island-raised raised cows and water buffalo; and the produce! – fresh, seasonal and a staple in eateries that range from food trucks and casual diners to upscale bistros and fine dining restaurants.
Foodies on Vancouver Island were among the first Canadians to act on their concerns about food security, to consciously support local food growers, and to embrace the slow food movement. Cowichan Bay became North America’s first officially certified Cittaslow/Slow City in 1999. Then in 2007, two B.C. writers (Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon) wrote 100-mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, and ignited the locavore movement. Today the island is a pretty self-sufficient place – you can even season your dishes with locally made sea salt – and creativity abounds. As B.C. food writer Shelora Sheldon describes it, “Menus are not written, they’re curated.”
We started our travels in Victoria, a charming little city with an overwhelming number of eateries and a healthy selection of microbreweries and brew pubs. When in doubt ask the locals! That led us to four distinctly different experiences at Spinnakers, Moon Under Water, Irish Times Pub, and Pagliacci’s.
Located along the scenic Songhee’s Walkway, Spinnakers (308 Catherine St.) opened in 1984 as Canada’s first purpose-built gastro brewpub. The warm weather drew us to enjoy our meal on the waterfront patio, with its beautiful view of Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Spinnakers menu showcases food from 35 local farmers and producers, more than two dozen craft beers that are brewed on site, and a selection of provincial wines. The seafood chowder and Island grown salad greens were a delightful introduction to tasty local fare!
Moon Under Water (350 Bay St.) is one of Victoria’s newer brewpubs. I enjoyed a flight of craft beers, most brewed in-house and a few from the guest taps which feature other Island microbrews. My hands-down favourite was MUW’s Creepy Uncle Dunkle, a pilsner made with dark Munich malts. We were offered a tour of the brew house with co-owner and brewmaster Clay Potter, a graduate of the Brewing and Distilling Master’s Program at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Clay describes his beer as “a west coast interpretation of traditional European styles” and proudly describes Victoria as “the best craft brew city in Canada, second only to Portland in per capita breweries.” We also met Brew, the inspiration for Canada’s first dog beer, a non-alcoholic concoction for canines made from the grains that are left over at the end of the brewing process, then bottled and sold onsite.
The Irish Times Pub (1200 Government St. at Bastion Square) is just one of the British-style pubs in beautiful historic buildings that are sprinkled throughout the city. The menu offers traditional pub fare, but also fresh seafood and dishes built on local seasonal ingredients, like the locally raised pork and lamb, and the bar takes pride in serving 10 beers brewed within two miles of the pub. A visit here is a feast for more than the palate – the architecture and décor are beautiful, the food presentation is visually appealing, and the nightly live Irish music will have you humming along and tapping your feet.
Pagliacci’s (1011 Broad St.) is a local favourite – even after 35 years, you still need go early to avoid the lineup. This fun and funky eatery is colourful and busy, and has a high-energy atmosphere, in contrast to the typical relaxed west coast approach. Pagliacci’s serves up mainly Italian dishes (healthy portions, local ingredients, lots of gluten-free options) and amazing desserts, with everything made in-house from scratch. Most evenings there is live music, an interesting range of styles including klezmer – likely a nod to owner Howie Siegel, a self-described short, balding Jew from Brooklyn and former stand-up comedian who purposely brought some New York hustle to his restaurant.
On to Tofino! Rugged landscape, a mecca for surfers and home to a number of upscale resorts and a wide range of eateries. On the recommendation of the locals, we had lunch at Tacofino (1184 Pacific Rim Hwy.), a permanently parked food truck that offers tacos, burritos and gringas (a type of taco made with a quesadilla as its base), filled primarily with Island sourced food. The outdoor dining tables are fashioned from huge slabs of wood, harvested from local trees. We finally tasted the fish tacos that everyone had been raving about – truly delicious (although after our long drive to get there, that may have been a testament to the fact that ‘hunger is the best sauce’!)
At Jack’s Pub at Marina West we enjoyed dinner with a commanding view of the mountains around Clayoquot Sound, and a brief visit from a sea lion who swam up to check out the dockside diners. I savoured the taste of freshly caught, beer-battered fish and wheat ale brewed down the road at Tofino Brewing Company. Sunset on the beach was the perfect end to a long day!
Our last stop on the Island was Nanaimo. There is a surprisingly large range of dining options, but we narrowed our choices to the Dinghy Dock (Canada’s only floating pub, accessible by ferry) and Gina’s Mexican Café (47 Skinner Street), which our Nanaimo hosts favoured, so that’s where we ended up. The city’s original authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex eatery opened 28 years ago and is a local institution. Fondly known as ‘The Pink House on the Hill’, it is brightly lit and colourful inside and out. Restaurant reviewers have raved about Gina’s food, and I have to agree – everything tastes authentic and homemade, portions are generous and when the bill came it was pleasantly reasonable. But next time…I’d really like to check out the Dinghy Dock!
The next morning we hopped on the ferry that would take us to the mainland, ready to explore Vancouver and enjoy its food and drink offerings…but that’s a story for another day!
KYM WOLFE is freelance writer based in London, Ontario