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CELEBRATING CAFE BRIO: New owners, same great food and hospitality

I'm happy to report that all things are fine in the restaurant universe as a new year dawns at one of my favourite local restaurants, Cafe Brio. We found a cosy table on a recent Saturday night and the place was buzzing with happy patrons, enjoying chef Sam Harris's creative menu. I posted the photos on Instagram, and as I said, we will be back soon to explore more. With so many tasty starters and snacks — think adorable mini corn dogs on a stick (they make the sausages in house), tender smoked lamb ribs with pineapple mostarda, breaded scallop "hush puppies" with spaghetti squash, a beautiful retro-inspired salad of local greens, poached pears, hazelnuts and goat cheese, or their selection of house-made charcuterie — you might never need to get to the pasta and protein-based main menu (featuring locally-raised meats, fish and other island ingredients). But all are offered in half portions, so you can graze through many of Harris' delightful dishes, too.

Bravo to the new (and old) team for their warm and seamless service!

At Cafe Brio, a half portion of beautifully seared duck breast comes with duck fat potatoes and beets in March



It’s been a year of change for local restaurants.

But diners will be happy to know that though the owners of Café Brio are retiring, the popular restaurant remains open, and in very capable new hands.

After decades as creative leaders in the city’s restaurant industry, Greg Hays and wife Silvia Marcolini are passing the Café Brio torch to new owners — chef Sam Harris and bartender Vincent Vanderheide — both with years of experience in top city establishments.

Harris has led the kitchen team at Café Brio’s kitchen since 2022, after opening a string of award-winning restaurants in Victoria, including The Courtney Room, Agrius and Boom + Batten. His menus are inspired by fresh and seasonal island ingredients, building on the traditions Hays and Marcolini established.

There are new owners at other popular dining spots, too.

After Shane Devereaux closed Sherwood, a stylish all-day café and bar across from City Hall, the owners of Wind Cries Mary reopened the restaurant as Rudi, with chef David Healey’s Euro-inspired family meals and moreish house specialties including duck confit, hand rolled gnocchi and layered potato rosti with creamy raclette sauce. There’s a great bar program, too, and a cosy new design, with a vintage rail travel vibe.

Meanwhile, when La Tacqueria closed on Fort Street, Scott Burley re-imagined the space with Serena’s Pizzeria and Hoagies, his ode to big American-style sandwiches and pizza (the kind that includes add-ons from meatballs and buffalo chicken to steak and roast beef). Tom Moore of Crust Bakery is opening his eponymous bakery café, Tombo, in the former Agrius space with former chef Grant Gard and charcuterie expert Paul van Trigt in the kitchen. And we await to hear more about the new operating partners at Sooke Harbour House — chef Melissa Craig and Andre Saint-Jacques — when they reopen the inn later this year.

We’ve lost some favourite places but these spaces live on with new owners and energy. When one door closes, another opens.

(from my March 2024 column in YAM magazine)

Don't miss the whimsical corn dog snacks at Cafe Brio - made with thier own sausage!

And, here's the feature I wrote for EAT magazine in 2022, when serendipity first led chef Sam Harris to Cafe Brio, saving the restaurant from what could have been another COVID closure. A little local history, too, as Greg Hays and Silvia Marcolini have been popular restaurant owners, local pioneers and mentors to many over several decades:





There’s an exciting new chapter unfolding at one of the city’s most established and beloved dining rooms, and it’s causing a bit of a buzz in the local restaurant world.

“I represent the old school and he represents the new wave,” says Greg Hays, long-time co-owner of Café Brio, sitting next to his new executive chef, Sam Harris.

Harris, who most recently finished a stint at the former Canoe Brewpub, is best known as the opening chef at a string of award-winning city restaurants, including Agrius, The Courtney Room and Boom + Batten. He’s mentored a lot of our best culinary talent, too, and is now takes over the kitchen that Chef Laurie Munn helmed for more than 15 years.

“So many things that Brio is about, are the same things I love,” said Harris, who was working alongside Munn in his final weeks at the restaurant this spring, when we sat down to talk about his plans.

“Farm to table, embracing urban agriculture, working with our local growers for Island food security — the old team is moving on and I have a bunch of new cooks to build on that foundation and create new things.”

Local Parry Bay lamb three ways — a nose-to-tail plate with lamb loin, neck & housemade merguez sausage.


Café Brio is a local institution, it’s quaint Mediterranean-style stucco façade and vine-covered patio a beacon of hospitality on Fort Street for 25 years. Hays and his wife Silvia Marcolini are your hosts, and both have deep roots in the local restaurant business.

The room is large yet remarkably cosy, with wide plank floors, dark walls punctuated by an eclectic art collection and high-backed booths, a welcoming and sociable space.

Hays recalls how it all started — his years at the helm of the lauded Herald Street Café in the 1990s, sparked the couple’s dream of owning their own property.

“I saw the landlords making money, and I knew that if you don’t own the dirt, you can’t make a solid living,” he says.

Their search for real estate led them to buy a building with an adjacent parking lot, and by selling the former to finance building on the latter, Café Brio was born.

Hays says not worrying about paying rent during COVID closures helped keep his business afloat.

The thing about Café Brio is that it’s fun — lively, unpretentious, friendly — yet with a serious menu, reflecting a commitment to local, seasonal ingredients.

Hays treats his customers like friends coming to dinner in his home, and you always get that vibe when this gregarious restauranteur is at the door.

The restaurant’s original opening chef in 1997 was Sean Brennan (who later opened Brasserie L’Ecole), and he was the pioneer of Brio’s farm-to-table ethos. With Munn at the helm, the restaurant expanded its program of local sourcing and in-house butchery, with an extensive charcuterie program featuring house-cured Salumi, a daily offering of wild local seafood, pasta and the popular Contorni course, featuring a selection of four seasonal vegetable preparations.

Café Brio also offers half portions of everything on their menu, a popular innovation that encourages diners to share or try multiple courses — an idea that was before its time and works perfectly with the way we like to dine today.

“The original idea was to be more full-on, authentic, regional Italian,” says Hays of Brio’s beginnings, but when the reviews and accolades began pouring in for Brennan’s rustic, Italian-inspired west coast cooking, the mold was set. Harris says he plans to build on that legacy.

“We’ll be doing everything in house — sourdough breads, fermented foods, pasta, cured meats,” says Harris, a self-described food nerd who loves to tinker with recipes. “I always want to be hitting that nostalgic note, and adding something new, playing to make a dish that 1% better.”

Island raised lamb ribs, smoked to perfection with pineapple mostarda, makes a super starter

Guests can expect some dishes to remain on the menu and others to evolve as the new team settles in, says Hays.

The classic From the Garden, From the Sea, and Pasta sections will remain, but the new team will add their own interpretations, says Harris.

“The ethos and style won’t be that different — my menus are very collaborative, with balance and different access points, to appeal to a variety of diners,” he says, contemplating dishes such as tortellini stuffed with nettles and ricotta in a mushroom broth, and nose-to-tail creations.

“We want to be using whole animals, to offer value with less popular cuts and be a little daring,” he says, adding he’ll be “salting and hanging up a lot of meat” in the café’s dedicated curing room and “by September, the charcuterie program will be adventurous.”

With Melanie Wickson behind the bar, there’s an exciting cocktail (and mocktail) program, too.

“She’s arguably the best bar tender we’ve ever had,” says Hays, noting Wickson’s spicy Fire and Ice margarita, made with her own jalapeno-infused tequila, and the house-made tinctures, syrups and garnishes that add to her inventive cocktail creations.


It may be kismet, but so many things lined up for Harris and Hays to join forces at Café Brio.

When Munn announced he would hang up his apron in April, and after losing other key staff during the pandemic, Hays says he seriously contemplated closing his restaurant for good. But business came roaring back after reopening, and so many long-time staff returned to work, he decided to advertise for a new chef.

Harris just happened to be contemplating a change, too, after Canoe Brewpub was purchased by the Calgary-based CRAFT Beer Market chain, famed for its 100+ taps and nine locations across the country.

“They know what they’re doing, and I learned a lot, but I’m not a very corporate guy, and I’m not the best fit for that role,” admits Harris.

The fact that Harris lives with his partner and young daughter just a block away from Café Brio, adds another layer of serendipity to the move.

Think of it not as a changing of the guard, but rather as a blending of generations, a melding of like minds. And with Harris, the king of city start-ups at the helm, it opens a world of opportunities for the Café Brio family.

“This restaurant has always believed what I believe — that food should be fun and adventurous and accessible,” says Harris. “It’s the reason I wanted to be here.”

Adds Hays:

“It’s pretty exciting for us — I want our legacy to continue — and this feels like a brand new start.”





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