Renowned for its annual Shakespeare Festival, its gastro scene, and hometown boy Justin Bieber, Stratford is anything but a quiet little town. Over the past couple of decades, Stratford’s been building a reputation as an innovational, entrepreneurial culinary destination.
This year there are new kids on the culinary scene like Planet Diner and The Common. York Street Kitchen was purchased by the Windsor Hospitality Group and has moved back to a larger revitalized space on York Street, previously occupied by the former Linleys Food Shop. Founder Susie Palach will be sorely missed. Edison’s Café Bar, where all food is prepared in-house using fresh, organic ingredients, has become a charming hub.
While you are in the area be sure to explore the bucolic countryside in and around Perth and Oxford Counties. Take in the small towns of St Marys, Shakespeare, Woodstock and New Hamburg. Drop by the Stratford Tourism Alliance for tickets to self-guided culinary tours like the Bacon & Ale Trail and Chocolate Trail, which are available all year round.
Stratford is awash with culinary “hubs” where locals, visitors, chefs, farmers, artists and artisans gather, such as Market Square, Your Local Market Co-op, the Local Community Food Centre, Stratford Farmers’ Market at the Agri-plex (on Saturdays) and the Slow Food Farmers’ Market (on Sundays). There are many great retailers like Bradshaws Kitchen Detail, Downie Street Bakehouse (“Really Good Bread from the Wrong Side of the Tracks”), Watson’s Chelsea Bazaar and the Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop.
Windsor Hospitality Group’s Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell is excited about the synergies the culinary team is creating with The Prune, Bar One Fifty One, Mercer Kitchen and York Street Kitchen, and how they help create better and better food. “This flexibility to react to the best products, as well as synergies between all our restaurants in Stratford, will be the most exciting part of the new Prune in my opinion,” says O’Donnell.
Anne Campion’s Revel on Market Square is a favourite go-to for a cup of Las Chicas del Café coffee, sourced from the owners’ family-run farm in the Nicaraguan rainforest. We love the custom-made communal table. On Downie Street The Pulp, Stratford’s plant-based “fresh bar,” features cold-pressed juice, smoothies and clean eating with vegan and gluten- and dairy-free options. Grounded is a newer business, creating fresh, healthy, plant-based food using whole ingredients. At the time of writing, Grounded is set to open a storefront on Erie St.
Shakespeare Brewing Company is the newest craft brewer in the area, and uses 100% local ingredients. The owners believe the local terroir is reflected in the flavours of their craft beers. Black Swan Brewing Company continues to create innovative seasonal flavours in addition to the core products: EPA, IPA and porter. You might want to sample the refreshing Raspberry Wild Child, made in the German sour beer style.
After 30 years, Chef Bryan Steele has left The Prune. He continues to be a senior cookery instructor at Stratford Chefs School. Lamentably, Rundles and Monforte on Wellington are gone. Here are a few of my recommendations, in alphabetical order, of where to eat and drink in 2018.
Bar One Fifty One at The Prune has a relaxed and elegant vibe, the perfect backdrop for signature cocktails and a varied wine list. This season the focus is on seafood with an emphasis on small plates and raw bar offerings. Bubbles and Oysters anyone? 151 Albert Street, 519-271-5052, theprune.ca /bar-one-fifty-one
Bijou’s farm-to-table blackboard pre-theatre dinner menu is prix fixe. Mark and Linda Simone purchased the legacy restaurant four years ago, and added a new entrance off of Wellington Street and a small bar in the front area. Chef Roddy Eastman and his team also offer a globally-inspired tapas bar menu of small plates (available after 7: 30 p.m., 7:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday). 105 Erie Street, (2nd entrance off of Wellington Street), 519-273-5000, bijourestaurant.com
The Bruce is at the high end of the dining spectrum. Chef Arron Carley, sous chef Christopher Howard and pastry chef Erin Negus define “New Canadiana” by using only ingredients found in Canada, enhanced by produce from their own farm and gardens. Prix fixe menus (3-courses for $95.00 with a $45.00 optional wine pairing) or the avant-garde “Fauna” tasting menu (7-courses for $115.00 with a $65.00 optional wine pairing) are laden with ingredients which the term “New Canadiana” evokes. Breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch are à la carte, and The Lounge offers a separate menu. There is a stylish courtyard for al fresco dining. 89 Parkview Drive, 855-708-7100, thebruce.ca
The Common is located in the refurbished space previously occupied by Monforte on Wellington. Chef Tim Otsuki offers a mix of global comfort food. Think, Imam Bayildi stuffed roasted eggplant with sweet onions, peppers, spicy chickpeas, rice pilaf and house yogurt; or Hot Spatchcock Chicken Sandwich with bread pudding stuffing and gravy; or Roast Hoisin Pork Tenderloin with Szechuan stir-fry vegetables on steamed rice pilaf. The tagline is “Eat Without Borders.” There is a newly appointed patio for outdoor drinking and dining. 80 Wellington Street, 519-271-0999, thecommonstratford.com
Foster’s Inn is Stratford’s original heritage boutique inn, situated in a turn-of-the-century building two doors from the Avon Theatre off of Market Square. Restaurateur Craig Foster prides himself on the authenticity of the hospitality and service. The inn features nine individually-appointed guest rooms, a restaurant, and a tiny cocktail bar. Foster’s is a go-to for mouth-watering char-grilled steaks and burgers as well as re-imagined comfort foods made with local ingredients. There is a House Cured and Cold-Smoked Pork Tenderloin and a Coconut Green Curry Tofu. 111 Downie Street, 519-271-1119, fostersinn.com
This season Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall + Hotel has some great new menu items, while retaining some tried and true signatures. The casual brasserie-style ambience is inspired by the concept of izakaya — informal Japanese beer pubs. There are 15 draft lines and over 120 bottles, including international award-winners and hard-to-find one-offs. Menus showcase items that are meant to be shared communally and are perfect for the lively, dynamic atmosphere. Try the House-Smoked Salmon Board with herbed chèvre, red onion, fried capers and roe, or a choice of Banh Mi, or Korean BBQ-glazed Crispy Chicken Rice Bowl. 104-108 Ontario Street, 519-271-9202, mercerhall.ca
The Mill Stone features a globally-inspired all-day menu, bolstered by a rotating selection of feature dishes that focus on light and healthy fare with plant-based and gluten-free options. New this year is a nose-to-tail feature that explores the hidden gems of whole animal butchery. Sweetbreads, chicken hearts and cod tongues are some of the dishes in store. This high-energy bistro features locally-brewed beer on tap and a varied bottle list, with a focus on Canadian wines and a refined international selection. Ontario Street, 519-273-5886, themillstone.ca
Okazu 85 Downie is Stratford’s hot spot for delicious chef-inspired cuisine and is the perfect after theatre or late-night stop. Stop by for dinner to taste global fusion prepared with local inspiration, or for fresh cocktails like the Yuzu Sour or Mermaid Margarita, shaken or stirred by the fabulous staff until the early hours. Chef de cuisine Angela Murphy and Ben O’Brien spin a modern twist on dim sum and tapas featuring items like rustic-style Perth pork paté with fruit chutney; spice-rubbed pork belly with sticky rice; and potato curry with roasted cauliflower, house masala, pickled greens and lentil salad. 85 Downie Street, 519-305-8585, OkazuSnackBar.com
Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria. The street-level taverna offers rustic Italian-inspired cuisine in a contemporary setting overlooking the Avon River. The pizzeria, located in the historic cellar of the building, is known for having the best build-your-own thin crust pizza. Chef Yva Santini is celebrating her eleventh season at the 21-year-old restaurant. All of the incredible pastas are made in-house. Santini showcases simple, natural flavours of locally-sourced meats and produce in the Italian tradition, combined with a diverse list of Canadian and imported wines by the glass and bottle. There is a charming street-side patio. 70 Ontario Street, 519-273-6666, pazzo.ca
The Planet Diner, with candy-apple red upholstered booths and 50s vibe, is warm and welcoming with enthusiastic and well-informed staff. Owner Dee Christensen says, “This is where herbivores can bring their carnivore friends.” Most items on the the menu are derived from plant-based foods, with a few meat-based options. There’s just nothing like the Chick’un burger made in-house with vegan buffalo butter. Try the cashew-based banana split, bound to be a hit with die-hard ice cream lovers.118 Downie Street, 519-305-5888, theplanetdiner.com
The Prune has been a Stratford favourite since 1977. Chef de cuisine Jamie Crosby is leading the culinary team. He was formerly chef de Cuisine at The Little Inn in Bayfield, and most recently chef de partie at restaurateur Jenn Agg’s Grey Gardens in Toronto. Crosby and sous chef Mike Booth are planning on keeping the menu fluid this season by changing it daily, if necessary, to showcase the best of Perth County’s bounty as it arrives at the kitchen door. There is a prix fixe menu, offering three courses for $79.00 or four courses for $89.00 or a six-course “Carte Blanche” for $109.00. Wine pairing packages are available. 151 Albert Street, 519-271-5052, theprune.com
Raja Fine Indian Cuisine is the definitive place for authentic Northern Indian food in Stratford. Raja offers upscale Indian cuisine in sophisticated and elegant surroundings, and knowledgeable, well-trained staff. The service is white linen, deferential and friendly. Foods are prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients. The heat quotient of dishes can be adjusted to guest preferences. Raja offers milder Indian fare such as Butter Chicken, Korma, and Tikka Masala. 10 George Street West, 519-271-3271, rajastratford.ca
The Red Rabbit. “A locally sourced restaurant, run by workers, owned by workers, shared by the community,” sums up the three-year-old resto’s ethos. Jonathan Naiman is now the head chef with Sean Collins overseeing the kitchen as executive chef. Chef Collins terms the cooking at Red Rabbit as “flavour first, ingredient driven,” and his motto is, “We cook food we like to eat.” The team has crafted an evolving menu of well-executed comfort foods. The fixed price menu returns for pre-theatre dining Tuesday to Saturday, 5-7 p.m., with the “After 7” menu available from 7:30 p.m. onward Thursday to Saturday evenings. The Red Rabbit is known for Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles (available at lunch). Its secret recipe of thirteen herbs and spices, maple syrup and carrot hot sauce has made it a Stratford culinary staple. 64 Wellington Street, 519-305-6464, redrabbitresto.com
Revival House and The Belfry is Stratford’s home for live music, dining and events, and it continues to play host to many touring and local Canadian artists throughout the summer season. Chef Loreena Miller and culinary team are passionate about creating and serving foods that express the depth of Perth County’s food culture. Recent menus have revived French-Canadian style cuisine, with an added modern sensibility. Upstairs, The Belfry features a 60-seat gastro-lounge and a VIP balcony called Confession. There is a 48-seat garden terrace-oasis beside the Brunswick Street entrance. High Tea and Sunday Brunch add another layer of temptation to the offerings. 70 Brunswick Street, 519-273-3424, revival.house
Romeos Corner Café, a friendly, family-operated restaurant, features comfortable booths and tables and is within walking distance of the Festival Theatre. There is an extensive breakfast menu with omelets, skillets and a “Benvolio Benny” with mushrooms, spinach and caramelized onions. A menu of elevated comfort foods is also offered for lunch and dinner including savoury Chicken Pot Pie, Ontario grass-fed Beef Burgers and Mac N Cheese. There are some tables for outdoor dining. 584 Ontario Street, 519-272-2777
York Street Kitchen is Stratford’s quintessential sandwich shop and has been a local institution since 1989. This popular diner and takeaway offer fabulous build your own “Show Stoppers” sandwiches. Try “The Mennonite” sandwich with Bauman’s Summer Sausage, honey mustard, mayo, cheddar, corn relish, lettuce and tomato on sourdough bread. Other options include “Not Sandwiches”, “Swell Sides” and house-made “Sweets”. The YSK’s famous take-out window is perfect for your picnic in the park. New location is in the former Linleys Food Shop at 51 York Street, 519-273-7041, yorkstreetkitchen.com