A bold bit of Britain by the sea and a haven for young, creative chefs and food producers, Victoria is a dining destination.
By CINDA CHAVICH
When royals Harry and Meghan first dropped out to consider their future options, they landed on Vancouver Island, on Canada’s wild west coast.
They might have heard that Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city, is “more English than the English.” Maybe it was the city’s reputation as “Portland North”, with its hip craft beer and coffee scene, that lured them to these stunning shores.
Or perhaps they came for the food. Victoria is definitely a small city that punches above its weight on the restaurant front. With its proximity to small farms, forests for foraging and ocean seafood, Victoria is a mecca for creative chefs.
“Victoria is miles ahead of many cities when it comes to farm-to-plate dining,” says Mark von Schellwitz of Restaurants Canada, the association representing restaurants and food service providers across the country.
“Victoria’s chefs have fully embraced that concept, largely because of the abundance of natural resources that surround them, from fish and shellfish to a huge amount of locally-grown produce, wild mushrooms, seaweed and other ingredients.”
While a burgeoning tech industry is bringing more young entrepreneurs to Victoria this is a tourist town, and food has become a major visitor attraction.
FROM QUAINT TO COOL
Part of the unique character of Victoria is a result of its isolation on Vancouver Island, 25 nautical miles from the much larger city of Vancouver, and a 1.5-hour ferry ride, or 30-minute flight away.
The historic Parliament Buildings and iconic Empress Hotel dominate the busy harbour front downtown, but the population of just 400,00 is also spread across the suburban Saanich Peninsula, dotted with fields of corn and U-pick blueberries, heirloom apple orchards and cideries, vineyards, farm markets and forests.
The city was named for Queen Victoria and remains true to its British roots, with many spots to take afternoon tea, and double-decker tour buses and horse-drawn carriages roaming the busy tourist zone. There may be no better place in the country for a pub crawl, complete with exceptional craft ales, bangers and mash, or designer Scotch eggs.
But Victoria is also Canada writ large, the ancestral home of the Songhees, Saanich and Sooke First Nations, with their rich history Coast Salish art and traditions of harvesting wild salmon, clams, herring roe and kelp.
So both sensibilities are engrained in Victoria’s contemporary food culture, whether it’s a perfect sausage roll from a local artisan bakery, a Salmon and Seafood chowder from a Songhees Nation food truck, or the homage to wild foraged foods and seafood on every top chef’s menu.
You’ll find sweet Fanny Bay Oysters and Salt Spring Island mussels, Dungeness crab, and, of course, wild Pacific salmon in all of its guises, from sushi to smoked salmon chowder, breakfast bennies, and raw seafood towers.
With the warmest climate in Canada, Victoria is a city of lush gardens and seaside pursuits, a magnet for tourists from around the world and retirees from across the country. CNN named it one of the 20 Top Places to Visit in 2020.
But Victoria has moved beyond its reputation for honeymooners and tweedy seniors. It’s ground zero for the country’s farm-to-table movement and booming craft brewing scene. It’s also ground zero for Canada’s Green Party, with consumers who walk the talk of buying local, organic food and biking to work to protect the planet.
While chains make up half of the restaurants in other western Canadian provinces, two-thirds of all restaurants in BC are independents. Compared with Vancouver, Victoria offers lower lease rates, property taxes and housing costs, making it a hotbed of small, chef-run operations.
“For a young ambitious chef, chances of getting into their own restaurant in Victoria, and surviving, are higher,” says von Schellwitz, “and that keeps the dream of small independent restaurants alive.”
LEADING THE LOCAL PACK
The island is a collaborative place and, since 1999, The Island Chef’s Collaborative has been forging relationships with local food producers and educating the public about buying locally. Slow Food and Slow Fish Canada trace their roots here — and BC is home to the Ocean Wise sustainable seafood certification program.
Sooke Harbour House, a small hotel near Victoria, launched the careers of many of Canada’s top chefs with the mandate of serving only local foods, many from their own gardens, and put Vancouver Island on the national culinary map. Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn followed suit, creating a coastal cuisine, inspired by its remote location, that’s led more island chefs to add gooseneck barnacles, wild mushrooms, bull kelp and spot prawns to the menu.
In Victoria, chef Peter Zambri brought those locavore ideals to his eponymous Zambri’s restaurant, showcasing island ingredients in his modern Italian cuisine.
For 20 years, Zambri and his sister Jo have inspired a new generation of city chefs with their food and wine programs. From house-made Calabrese breads and sausage for Italian-style Salsiccia pizza or fresh sardi pasta with rapini and broccoli puree, to seasonal marinated local octopus with pancetta battuto, Zambri’s embodies Victoria’s relaxed fine dining in a contemporary, carbon neutral restaurant
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
Though you won’t find big corporate expense account dining here, you will find restaurants catering to young tech types and active retirees. Breakfast is big — Victoria has been dubbed Canada’s breakfast capital — with morning queues at popular Jam Café, The Village, The Ruby and The Blue Fox every day of the week.
Victoria is a city of cool cocktail bars and gastropubs, coffee houses and bakery cafes, and counter service spots, whether it’s the inspired Middle Eastern falafel bowls and handmade pita at Superbaba, Haloumi Salad at Yalla, the Asian bun and noodle soups at Bao, or the build-your-own poke bowls at Poke Fresh.
Small and casual is the dominant style, but you’re just as likely to get local greens and wild Sockeye salmon or Albacore tuna, battered with fries or rolled up in a tortilla and served from a repurposed shipping container.
That’s where leading Chef Kunal Ghose got his start — one of the opening partners in Red Fish, Blue Fish, a now iconic takeout spot that’s still serving Ocean Wise certified seafood on the wharf, from fried oyster sandwiches to salmon tempura and chips.
The former Top Chef Canada contestant built on that success with the Indo-Canadian Fishhook, still a hot spot for fish curries and pakoras, made with sustainable BC fish.
Victoria’s restaurant scene is all about independent operators and creative concepts.
Whether it’s Chorizo and Co., a tiny tapas bar inspired by a family’s secret sausage recipe, or the artisan bakers at Fol Epi, who grind their own fresh flour daily, there’s an air of self-sufficiency in the food business.
Other notable chef-driven restaurants include Castro Boateng’s House of Boateng, with it’s local and foraged ingredients infused with the chef’s African heritage; Chef Rob Cassel’s French-inspired contemporary cuisine at Saveur; and Agrius, Fol Epi bakery's farm-to-table restaurant.
Unlike larger cities, you don’t see many chains or restaurant groups in Victoria, though Vancouver’s Top Table Group, owners of the upscale Blue Water Café and CinCin, recently announced a new project here. Vancouver chef Kristian Eligh is at the helm of the yet unnamed restaurant, noting that recent growth in Victoria’s IT and finance sectors makes it “timely to launch our philosophy of elevated but approachable dining.”
In that vein, 2019 saw the opening of Boom + Batten, a stylish waterfront dining space overlooking the new Victoria International Marina. Purpose built — with spaces for a casual bakery café, stylish bar and contemporary dining room — the restaurant is a microcosm of Victoria’s favourite things, from fresh bread, breakfast and wood-fired pizza to craft beer, cocktails and farm-to-table dining.
“It’s a once in a lifetime chance to be part of a project like this, in such a stellar location,” chef Sam Harris said when he opened the restaurant.
“We believe Victoria is ready for a big, serious restaurant, showcasing all of our beautiful island products.”
Harris has recently moved on to re-imagine the menu at Cafe Brio, one of the city's original locovore restaurants and still a staple for casual fine dining.
Harris arrived on the west coast 15 years ago and says Victoria’s food scene has “definitely evolved, with a lot of new ideas and boutique concepts now hitting the mainstream.” He was also at the helm of two of the city’s other top restaurants, Agrius and The Courtney Room, when they landed on enRoute magazine’s prestigious national Top 10 list in recent years.
And like many chefs, Harris is smitten with the island’s relaxed lifestyle and access to local ingredients.
“It’s a magical place – people come here and fall in love with the natural surroundings,” he says, “and then they connect with the food and wine, the ingredients from the farms, the fishermen, the butchers. It’s that second adventure, the clear visual of how close everything is, that convinces all this really is a small foodie paradise.”
MORE VICTORIA TASTES TO TRY:
With its British roots, Victoria is steeped in the traditions of tea. There are many spots to take a classic sandwich-and-scone afternoon tea, from the posh Fairmont Empress Hotel to a twee neighborhood tea room. But you can also have a flight of rare imported teas with a local tea master, dive into the topic of making maccha, or order an innovative tea-infused cocktail.
“Tea is now a North American phenomenon, but we were well ahead of the curve here,” says Daniela Cubelic, the tea master behind Victoria’s Silk Road Tea. “We have a strong British population, so a strong afternoon tea culture, but a real interest in Asian culture, too, with the oldest Chinatown in Canada.”
An afternoon G&T is also a popular Victoria pastime, thanks to the boom in craft distillers creating unique local gins.
But the biggest news may be the deep purple Empress 1908 Gin, created to celebrate the centennial of the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel. Infused with blue butterfly pea flowers, used in one of the hotel’s popular teas, it was the first blue gin in the world. And though there have been copycats since, the amethyst Empress Gin is now poured at New York’s Plaza Hotel and The American Bar in London.
EAT THE FUTURE
When top Victoria chefs gathered to cook at a recent charity event dubbed EAT the Future to support the BC Hospitality Foundation, organizer Chef Sam Harris challenged them to tackle the issue of food sustainability in their dishes. It’s a topic that is at the forefront of many restaurant menus here, where fresh, locally-sourced, organic ingredients and Ocean Wise certified fish is the mantra.
“I invited the chefs who really inspire me,” Harris, of the six culinary teams working out of the Boom + Batten kitchen. “We wanted to look ahead to see what we want food to be.”
That may mean Victorians will see more locally-farmed smoked sturgeon and caviar, cricket powder pasta, or food waste reducing puffed mushroom crackers with fermented radish pesto. Chef Peter Zambri served roasted local rabbit with wild white chanterelles, pine mushrooms and bitter dandelion greens, showcasing the island’s wild bounty. And Harris himself paired BC Lois Lake steelhead with crispy rice to illustrate how fish can be sustainably farmed in land-based tanks.
Tender ribbons of bull kelp fronds were the base for chef Rob Cassels’ dish of oysters and chanterelles with sunchoke puree, another example of how eating wild edibles will shape future dining on the island. Chef Kristian Eligh featured sustainable BC seafood with his sablefish cheek and Salt Spring Island mussels in an elevated mulligatawny.
OLO chef Brad Holmes took farm-to-table into another realm with a quenelle of creamy carrot sorbet alongside his own organic carrots and radicchio, dotted with tahini and sunflower puree, highlighting a future where vegetables take a leading role in our diets.
But the buzz of the night was the entomophagy course from chefs Chris Klassen and Brian Tesolin of The Courtney Room, their handmade cavatelli pasta infused with cricket powder and sprinkled with the crunchy little insects.