The village of Elora has so much to offer — hiking, quiet walks, fishing, festivals, scenic views, music, water activities, history, wildlife — and of course wonderful places to eat and drink. Unique shops that have been carefully restored in keeping with heritage architecture also offer exciting wares year round. Retaining tradition, yet constantly evolving to present something new makes Elora an ideal road trip destination — for any season.
At Elora Mercantile (eloramercantile.ca), vivacious Patti Boutin, speaks ardently about being “a general store with a conscience.” This credo is reflected in choices that are always organic, local when possible and predominantly made in-house by Patti herself, with assistance from her mother Michele, who brings a charming Québécois sensibility to many of the offerings. Like all of the vendors in Elora, they have a stalwart concern for the environment (bottled water is simply not available, anywhere). Re-fillable containers are used for many of the products. Patti invited me to try a few samples and both the quality and unique selections were impressive. Cretons, a rich meat spread beloved in Quebec, and its French cousin rillettes, made with duck and pork, come attractively packaged in glass jars and were moist and fragrant when spread on a crispbread. Piping hot wontons were succulent pillows of duck meat. A variety of cheeses including Wild Nettle and Black Truffle, onion confit, tender samosas with a sharp coriander chutney, and many jewel toned jellies such as Spicy Northern Crab Apple rounded out the feast. Michele also presented me with their satiny smooth maple crème brûlée — I was very sad indeed when it was finished.
Turkey, Meat and Boeuf Bourguignon pies are also popular take-home items from the store freezer. It’s clear that Patti understands that people work hard and deserve a homemade treat that they can feel good about. She is already planning the launch of an old school picnic basket — complete with blanket and shop selections — that can be enjoyed and then returned at the end of the day.
The Evelyn (theevelynrestaurant.com) is an intimate French-inspired restaurant that combines fine dining with a welcoming, unpretentious environment. The vintage interior décor with gilded pineapple light fixtures, an elegant wall mural and candlelit seating, make it difficult to believe that The Evelyn has not yet been open a year. Like many others, owner MacLean Hann was drawn to the less frenetic way of life available in Elora and the restaurant has flourished with the local support and friendliness of the community. The menu offers five entrées and there are sharing opportunities in the chaud and froid section such as mussels or pork terrine. I enjoyed the Coq au Vin (made with Cornish Game Hen) and a green salad featuring shaved radish, pickled shallot, roasted pear and dried cranberries in a chardonnay vinaigrette which was divine, artfully presented on blue and white willow china. The portions were absolutely spot on and left me able to enjoy an oozing, still slightly warm butter tart served up with Kawartha ice cream.
Greg Dove has already been working at Elora Bread Trading Co. for about six hours when we meet at 10 a.m., but this father of twins still looks freshly scrubbed and cheerful as the door opens into the moist, inviting smell of freshly baked bread. Large bags of flour bear playful names like “Rye Humour” and Greg is quick to mention 1847 Stone Milling in Fergus (1847.ca) for producing organic grains and a discriminating product. The mill actually brought a stone burr mill from Europe in 2013, once it was clear that they were going to make a go of it.
Greg and his small staff turn out about 800 loaves every week and well over 1,000 in peak season. The bakery offers an extensive selection — choices vary daily — with a naturally-leavened sourdough as a constant. Elora Bread Trading Co. also has a tempting lunch menu and the sandwiches are especially popular with locals. Quality and sustainability shine here as well with mayonnaise, hummus and pesto all made in-house. Greg is a relative newcomer to Elora and he also cites the warm support of a community that reflects a united vision of food integrity.
Elora Brewing Co. is in a building that was originally an old hardware store but which has been converted to a gastropub/craft brewery. It’s a lively, comfortable spot to have a bite and sample some award-winning beer. Elora Borealis, a Gold Medal winner at the Ontario Brewing Awards last year, is clean and fruity and one of many to choose from, both bottled and on tap. Locally-sourced menu choices are delicious and hearty with an emphasis on farm-to-table philosophy and staff are knowledgeable and pleasant. The EBC’s interior is yet another example of repurposing, with the original tin ceiling now adorning the bar and fire-scarred beams dating back to the 1800s still visible en route to the mezzanine level. Spotless stainless steel vats remind diners that the brewery is directly on site, lending a cool industrial vibe. It’s obvious that a great deal of hard work and attention to detail is paying off and will ensure EBC’s continued success.
The Porch Light The Porch Light is a singular, intimate spot that has quickly forged a place in Elora’s heart. With its clever octopus wallpaper and funky, custom bar stools (made by local artisan Mike Hintermeister using re-claimed steel), the general vibe here is full-on, unapologetically Irish pub. That is also reflected in its having one of the largest selections of whiskey in Southern Ontario, over 30 from around the world including the twice-distilled Kilbeggan. Tayto’s Cheese and Onion crisps are here to go with it too! There is a quirky selection of specialty cocktails/mocktails and the companionable website suggestion that if you don’t see what you want: “just ask, chances are we can make it anyway!” Sunday nights herald the “Porch Light Sessions” with live music. There are hopes to expand further outside during the summer months. An eclectic menu offers many choices from traditional Irish soup to a selection of artisanal boards and there is a kids’ menu. All foods are chosen carefully and the website notes “we know where our products come from and we are proud to highlight the best of the best.”
Janet Etherington’s The Cellar Pub & Grill is enjoying its ninth year of business. When asked about the Elora camaraderie everyone talks about she raises her hands playfully and smiles, “Born and raised in Fergus!” She shrewdly recognized early on that this is where she wanted to be, and that passion is still evident.
Janet has worked with Chef Kevin Zuber for many years and credits his ability to provide affordable, quality dishes (including gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian choices) as being a big part of The Cellar’s success. The menu offers house specialties such as Lemon & Herb Basa Fish and the salads are especially noteworthy. Watermelon and feta with blueberry vinaigrette can be topped with grilled chicken, salmon, shrimp or smoked tofu. A stunning outside patio at the back is unexpected and like entering a painting, as the river is silvery calm here and one can enjoy a drink watching ducks (and sometimes swans) gliding past. Janet is an enthusiastic participant in the Swan Conservation program and everyone looks forward to a sighting.
During our time in Elora we were fortunate enough to stay at The White Garden (febba.ca) where hosts Karen and David Drimmie offer a pampered bed and breakfast experience in the setting of their stately home. Bright, high-ceilinged rooms are filled with thoughtfully placed art and statuary while plants billow freely out of pots in sunny corners. The atmosphere here is tranquility — not museum. Our room was quietly elegant with an excellent bed and stained glass doors. A private bathroom was delightful with an oversized shower, modern fixtures and plenty of hot water. We loved every minute — including some excellent conversation and a breakfast served on vintage china.
The Elora Mill has been an imposing and majestic landmark since it was built over 175 years ago. Its location offers dramatic views of both the Gorge and the Grand River thundering beneath. After a series of incarnations and sadly, some neglect, the former grist mill (one of the few five-storey Ontario mills still in existence) has recently been transformed into a luxury hotel and spa by Pearle Hospitality owner, Aaron Ciancone — but with a genuine sensitivity and respect not often seen. Twenty seven million dollars in renovations included carefully repointing stone, the creation of the Mill’s own power plant to take advantage of the Grand River’s hydro potential, thirty opulent guest rooms, many featuring breath taking views and every imaginable luxury, ‘The Granary’ with a rooftop garden suitable for special events and weddings, and an elegant dining room with seating overlooking the river and falls. The site of the Mill’s stables have also been re-imagined as a new spa complex and incorporates cliffside views of the gorge.
We enjoyed lunch in Elora Mill’s dining room which provides an authentic vista to the river and gorge below. The atmosphere is stylish but friendly and our server was especially good. I particularly admired the staff uniforms, which included long brown tailored aprons as chic as a Burberry scarf and flattering to both male and female servers. The menu offered traditional mains and I selected the frittata which was sinking with mushrooms and tangy sheep’s milk cheese; my partner ordered salmon which was cooked to flaking pink perfection.
For those who want to combine Elora’s history, scenic beauty and the Grand River consider a “punt” tour. These 20-foot English-style punts, hand-crafted by Ken Thompson, are similar to gondolas. Thompson’s company, Elora Raft Rides offers guided or self-piloted options as well as a myriad of customizations from white water to twilight tours to specialty (add a musician, a historian — or a picnic basket!) to eco-cruising (400 million year old fossils, anyone?) Thompson notes that the flat-bottomed punts are manageable for seniors and stringent safety precautions are in place. Ken’s sincere passion for Elora’s history presents a unique opportunity to spend some time on the river.
Choose whatever you want to do in Elora — you’ll be so glad that you came!
Sue Sutherland-Wood is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Eatdrink. Read more of Sue’s work at www.speranzanow.com
Doug North is an enthusiastic photographer, writer and historian living in London.
Sue and Doug were guests of Elora & Fergus Tourism (elorafergus.ca), which did not review or approve the contents of this article.