Stratford is known internationally for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which runs from April to October. The Festival’s primary mandate is to present repertory productions of William Shakespeare’s plays, but it also produces a diverse variety of theatre, from classic Greek tragedies to more contemporary works. The Festival and the renowned Stratford Chefs School have contributed to the formation of a distinctively vibrant dining culture and restaurant community.
One of the standout features of Stratford’s successful gastro scene is its relaxed but intellectually driven approach to cuisine. Restaurant enthusiasts have long disputed whether Rundles, The Prune, Bijou, Mercer Hall and more recently The Bruce, with their pre-theatre prix fixe menus, are the cutting edge dining experience in Stratford. Incidentally, Stratford’s prix fixe menus are an arrangement that is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously. These fine dining establishments mostly justify their price with quality, innovative cuisine, and dazzling, intelligent service.
The Church, (now Revival House), was also in its heyday a benchmark for fine dining. There are of course, many other notable contenders with fresh and original dining concepts, including Monforte on Wellington, Pazzo, Canadiana Grub, Sirkel Foods, and soon, the highly anticipated Red Rabbit.
Stratford is also flush with culinary ‘hubs’ where chefs, farmers, artists, locals and visitors come together, such as Your Local Market Co-op, the Local Community Food Centre, Stratford Farmers’ Market at the Agri-plex on Saturdays and the Slow Food Market on Sundays. Anne Campion’s Revel Caffé on Market Place is also a great local hub, or a place to grab and go with Chef Jordan Lassaline’s delicious baking. The coffee beans are from Las Chicas del Café and come exclusively from a farm in the Nicaraguan rainforest.
For many years Bijou has been at the top of its game for inspired, locally-sourced cuisine in Stratford. The restaurant has built a reputation for providing a good local taste experience. Mark and Linda Simone purchased the bistro in March and added a new entrance off Wellington Street, and a new bar in the front area. The blackboard pre theatre dinner menu is prix fixe, offering two courses for $48.00 and three courses for $54.00. Chef Max Holbrook has added a globally-inspired tapas bar menu of small plates that is available after 7:30 p.m. Bijou is expected to operate for 10 months of the year. 105 Erie Street, Stratford (2nd entrance off Wellington Street) www.bijourestaurant.com
The dining rooms are white linen, chic and understated, with comfortable square-backed upholstered chairs and settees. This is the top of high-end dining indeed, and the menus are loaded with the ingredients which that term evokes. New chef at The Bruce Hotel is Arron Carley, who was former sous chef at Oliver & Bonacini’s Canoe in Toronto. He describes the vision for the new menus: “Looking into our past and understanding our roots as well as looking forward into the undiscovered wilderness of our nation, we will forge New Canadian Cuisine.” At the time of this writing the dinner menu is prix fixe, offering two Beginnings and Dessert for $58.00, one Beginning and Middle for $58.00, or a Beginning, Middle and Dessert for $68.00. There is also a five-course tasting menu available after 7:30 pm for $90.00 per person and only available to an entire table. Breakfast and lunch are à la carte and The Lounge offers a separate menu. There is a stunning courtyard for al fresco dining. 89 Parkview Drive www.thebruce.ca
Down the Street
Down the Street recently re-opened under new ownership with partners Jacqueline Hayden and Cassandre Frost along with Alondra Gálvez as the new manager. This iconicbar/restaurant is Stratford’s late-night hot spot with high-energy bistro dining that offers both pre- and post-show dining. The open kitchen features menus from Chef Lee Avigdor’s and sous chef Greg Him, which showcase locally and seasonally inspired items. Bar chef Ulises Sanchez features an exciting list of craft cocktails, micro-brews and wines by the glass. 30 Ontario Street www.downthestreet.ca
Bill and Shelley Windsor, who also own The Prune, purchased Mercer Hall in May. Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell was planning to be involved with The Prune as well as Mercer Hall. He realized this was too much of a stretch and details were subsequently worked out that have placed him at Mercer Hall. We love the rusticity and innovation of O’Donnell’s cooking. The theatrical plating of both the vegetable charcuterie plate with carrot terrine, parsnip chips, smoked beet mousse, grilled ramps and pickled mushrooms, as well as the cold smoked salmon board with Monforte cream cheese, dill, salmon roe and crackers are inspirational. The Monforte Halloumi salad with grilled romaine is a stand-out. The craft cocktails are excellent and the service is spot on. 108 Ontario Street www.mercerhall.ca
Monforte on Wellington
The two year-old establishment is a casual, seasonally–inspired osteria featuring a simple menu larded with artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, pastas, salads and other in-house specialties. Chefs Loreena Miller and Sarah Sinasac have developed a synergy between the terroir and the diner — no doubt inspired by Monforte Dairy founder and cheesemaker Ruth Klahsen, whose passion for all things sustainable, local and hand-crafted seems to feed her creative soul and entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The osteria is BYOW with a corkage fee, or, if you order a glass of VQA wine they might bring you a full bottle and charge you for what you imbibe. The kitchen is open to the dining room and there is a passageway beside the kitchen that leads to a charming courtyard for al fresco dining. 80 Wellington Street https://www.facebook.com/MonforteOnWellington
Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria
Taverna at Pazzo’s street-level ristorante proffers rustic Italian-inspired cuisine in a contemporary setting. Chef Yva Santini’s menu offerings feature local ingredients, and products working in conjunction with regional producers to add seasonality to the dining experience. Will Gaynor is still the Pizzeria head chef. Steve Doyle, formerly of The Bruce and Bijou, has joined Pazzo as the Taverna manager and is heading up some changes to the cocktail and wine programs. Pazzo continues to host the Taverna Revue concert series in the Taverna and continues to serve the best thin crust pizza in the area. 70 Ontario Street www.pazzo.ca
The Prune, a long-time Stratford favourite, changed hands in 2011 with Bill and Shelley Windsor taking ownership. Bryan Steele remains Executive Chef at The Prune, and the season is off to a busy start. The menu is prix fixe, offering two courses for $49.00, three courses for $59.00, or four courses for $69.00. Some items like the Church Hill Farm lamb two ways with ramps, roasted cauliflower and mint salt have a $10 supplement. Anticipating a strong season, Restaurant Manager Joel Kechnie tells us The Prune will open for lunch in July. 151 Albert Street www.theprune.com
The Red Rabbit
Chef Tim Larsen, Jessie Larsen and Chef Sean Collins left Mercer Hall earlier in the year to build a new community-shared restaurant on Wellington Street called the The Red Rabbit. Collins and Sous-Chef Jon Naiman will be leading the kitchen at the worker-owned venture. That team is also comprised of a core group of other kitchen and front-of-house professionals. The restaurant’s focus is on local ingredients from area farmers, local producers, local brewers and distillers. There will be beer on tap from Stratford’s Black Swan Brewery, and spirits from the city’s new Junction 56 Distillery. After several delays, the projected opening date is late June 2015. 64 Wellington Street www.redrabbitresto.com
Rob Wigan and Candice Sanderson Wigan of Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub purchased the iconic Church Restaurant. The former Baptist church turned fine dining establishment debuts this summer as Revival House. Chefs Kyle Rose and Byron Hallett (late of London’s former Auberge du Petit Prince) will operate the kitchen, emphasizing a Canadian menu featuring whole animal butchery and charcuterie on the daily menu. Rose apprenticed at The Church eight years ago and Hallett is a graduate of the Stratford Chefs School. Revival House offers event dining. Upstairs in the former Belfry, The Chapel features an 80-seat gastro pub, and a VIP lounge called Confessions. The Revival house features a new patio that backs onto Brunswick Street. 70 Brunswick Street www.revival.house
Neil Baxter has been Chef de Cuisine at Rundles since 1981, and has completed stages in France at such renowned Michelin three-star restaurants as Jamin, Tour D’Argent, Taillevent and Troisgros. Baxter has also completed stages at Noma, in Copenhagen, and Frantzén, in Stockholm. Rundles has eliminated the Sophisto-Bistro and is continuing with the pre-theatre and late dinner service upon which they built their reputation for excellence and innovation. The table d’hôte menu features a selection from the appetizer section, a main dish, dessert, and coffee or tea for $99.50 per person. Wine, taxes and service are extra. 9 Cobourg Street www.rundlesrestaurant.com
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large