It’s been over thirty years since I became enamoured of Bayfield. Restaurateur/entrepreneur Tania Auger, of Sarnia’s Lola Lounge, had asked me to join her in opening the Shark Inn (formerly the Ritz Hotel — now the location of the rebuilt Virtual High School — on the main street across from The Little Inn).
Tourism officials refer to this region as Ontario’s West Coast. There are two well-known inns located in this area. The 19th century The Little Inn of Bayfield is known for being Ontario’s oldest operating inn and for its full-length double-deck verandahs. Beginning in the 1830s, the Inn was a stop for stagecoaches on the Sarnia to Goderich route. The other notable property is Benmiller Inn & Spa (a former woollen mill) located in a hollow beside the Maitland River, twenty minutes outside Bayfield. Benmiller’s contemporary rustic lodgings and its white-linen Ivey Dining Room retains a more buttoned-down ambience. Menus highlight old world classics like Chicken Duxelle, Maple-glazed Duck Breast or Metzger’s Seared Beef Tenderloin with Butter Poached Shrimp. On Highway 21, three minutes north of town, is the appealing Ashwood Inn, a revitalized 22-room boutique property.
On the wide, pedestrian-friendly, Main Street with its pea gravel pathways are historic yellow brick and clapboard buildings that are designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. In many ways the village nestled on the precipice of the sandy eastern shore of Lake Huron remains much as it was three decades ago.
Bayfield can boast more than 20 stops for food enthusiasts, on the main street, the highway, and near the harbour. Local menus showcase dominant food trends including elevated street food. Fish and chips are de rigueur, but not all of the fish comes from Lake Huron. There are galleries, boutiques and one-of-a-kind shops. A favourite is Martha Beechie’s indie Village Bookshop, situated in a yellow clapboard house on Main Street where I recently spotted Ruth Reichl’s recent memoir, Save Me the Plums, about her days as editor of Gourmet magazine.
The building which houses The Albion Hotel’s English-style pub was a store in the 1840s and became a hotel in 1856. Through the years we have made regular stops at The Albion for its inspired pub fare featuring in-house made gourmet burgers, BBQ platters and sixteen taps.
Known for its extensive range of single malt whiskies and craft beer, Black Dog Village Pub and Bistro is located next door to The Albion in a circa-1850 general store, with the original display windows. It is among the top tier of best sit-down places to eat and drink in Bayfield with well prepared and presented fare and all the attributes of an excellent gastropub. At Black Dog they understand hospitality and customer service. Burgers are a speciality here. At last count there were nine versions available. A deep bowl of bright tomato and red pepper soup was a recent hit. Expect such items as osso buco, bouillabaisse, flat iron steak and properly battered haddock served with fries on the dinner menu. We especially liked the listing of VQA wines and the selection from nearby Maelstrom and Dark Horse Estate wineries. We savoured piping hot coffee at the bar, sourced from the village’s Main Street indie coffee roaster Shopbike, and were entertained by the knowledgeable barman before returning for a three-hour late lunch (not recommended when they are busy). The outdoor patio is one of several prime spots on Main Street for al fresco dining.
Across the street is Copenhagen’s, with a walk-up ice cream counter and a take-away window at the side of the building. Menus feature food-truck-style offerings such as perch or yellow pickerel with fresh cut fries, crispy fish tacos, Metzger Meat’s footlongs and burgers and BBQ pork poutine. Take a seat at one of several umbrellaed backyard picnic tables, or do as their website suggests and take your repast to the nearby Clan Gregor Square where you will find a small pavilion, plenty of shade, a splash pad and more picnic tables. At the opposite end of Main Street is Rosie’s Ice Cream Shoppe, known for its pink, turquoise and purple awning and old-fashioned, batch-by-batch London Ice Cream offerings.
Next to the Black Dog is Olio, a reasonably priced snack bar and summertime pizzeria. Olio’s mantra: “We refuse to compromise quality in our restaurant. That’s why we source our fresh ingredients from our local vendors and farmers.” There is a stone oven for their signature pizzas and the smoker and BBQ are fired up for breakfast and all-day snacks. One offering from the smoker is pulled pork with BBQ sauce and apple slaw on ciabatta. Also on ciabatta is brisket, smoked cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and horseradish aioli. There is a black bean burger, veggie dog and a plant-based burger. The Olio Hypocrite Burger is a plant-based patty wrapped in bacon.
Down the street, the hospitable Lake House of Bayfield is much more casual than The Red Pump ever was. The menu features starters and shareables, salads, burgers and entrées, best described as comfort foods. There are battered lake perch tacos, pulled pork nachos and smoked rainbow trout. The signature Baron Burger with smoked bacon and freshly-ground chuck and brisket and smoked cheddar cheese on a brioche remains a knockout. On the dinner menu, there are chèvre, sundried tomato and pesto-stuffed chicken breast, chipotle red snapper and strip loin steak.
Four years ago, after 33 years of business, Gayle and Pat Waters turned The Little Inn over to new owners. The Little Inn was beautifully renovated and refurbished and the kitchen was redesigned so the Inn could focus on becoming a culinary destination. The plan was for diners to experience Huron County and Bayfield in particular through its culinary offerings.
Now owned by Mike Oliver and Jamie McDougall, The Little Inn’s Willow Room offers seasonal menus by executive chef Dan Stubbs, who came to The Little Inn four and a half years ago from Clevelands House, a historic resort on Lake Rousseau in Muskoka. Stubbs always showcases the best of locally-procured Huron County ingredients. The hybrid of elevated comfort food cooking and high-end refinement and technique is something that we don’t mind paying a premium for. The beautifully appointed Four-in-Hand Taproom features an extensive selection of beers, wines and specialty cocktails and items like charcuterie, fish cakes, schnitzel and beer battered haddock and chips.
We are long-time fans of the seasonal drive-in restaurant and when we want to wax nostalgic with old school fast food the Farmers Dell (est. 1956) in Brucefield is consistently good. We continue to hear great things about the new owners. The long-established Woodland Drive-In just outside Bayfield also continues to be a local hot spot.
In the morning, be sure to grab yourself a coffee at Shopbike Coffee and a salted caramel cupcake at the Pink Flamingo Bakery to start your day.