Where to eat and drink in Vancouver Island’s biggest city and on rest of the island

Photo by Deddeda Stemler

Remember when you were a kid, and you discovered that cool, hidden spot where you could hang out in secret, and it was all yours? Then you told a friend, and they told a friend, and so on, until it was not-so-secret anymore?

Vancouver Island is a bit like that, except for food. Call me greedy, but I’ve stumbled across a great Canadian culinary secret, and I’d like it to stay that way. While neighbours Vancouver and Seattle hog column inches, islanders seem quite content with their near non-status as a fine-dining destination. It’s hard not to indulge in this deliciously smug brand of satisfaction—but it’s just that good. And when you find yourself here, deep in warm conversation in a busy pub, or deep in quiet joy after a main course, you’ll be struck by how little you’re thinking of the mainland at all.

Victoria

With more restaurants per capita than any other Canadian city, second only to San Francisco on the continent, highlighting Victoria’s must-hit eats is no small feat. If you’re short on time, just remember there are three things that Victoria does best: breakfast, beer and just about everything else, particularly locally sourced cuisine.

For breakfast, go downtown to Jam, Shine, or Mo:Lé. Weekends are busy, but wait times are quick and worthwhile. Dedicate your time at Jam to your once (or twice) yearly sugar-bomb—your eggs whites and green teas will still be at home when you get back home. Jam’s daily chalkboard offerings are good enough to bank on, but if you’re one who likes to go in with a breakfast game plan, the fried oatmeal with lemon curd or brioche French toast with caramelized bananas must be considered.

Going to Shine? Get a benny. If you think humanity may have peaked with hollandaise, you can’t beat the classic benny with rich smoked ham; otherwise, let your freak flag fly, try the B-Ry, served on cornbread with avocado and bacon, or the Rabbie Burns, with whisky-caramelized onions and black pudding. For light and refreshing, that is if you can resist their pesto hash browns, Mo:Lé makes a mean smoked salmon scramble.

Do dare to venture out of downtown, veggie omelets at Bubby’s Kitchen in Cook Street Village or sandwiches and scones at Parsonage Café in Fernwood are worth the short trek.

If you like beer, lucky you! Victoria’s pubs are unparalleled. Spinnaker’s is a crowd-pleaser with vast seating across two floors, attractive harbour views and a beer menu featuring over a dozen year-round brews, made right in-house. Order the dark and hoppy Northwest Ale with a bowl of warm seafood chowder as you contemplate again why it is that you don’t live here.

With over ten inner-city craft breweries, you’ll fare fine at the multitude of cozy, English-style pubs that dot the capital. But for something special don’t skip the Garrick’s Head, The Guild, Swan’s or the Fernwood Inn. For beer selection, it’s Garrick’s Head. With 55 taps, it’s best to lay yourself at the mercy of the cheerful, beer-addled bartenders: they know what they like, which is why they offer the best, small-batch beers from the island and beyond. It’s got gastropub grub with plenty of veggie options worth boasting about.

For a little less rowdy, do this at The Guild. For pure atmosphere, it’s Swan’s. Grab a table in the streetside sunroom and while the day away with a halibut burger and in-house IPA. If you’re there long enough, there’s live music every night. For cozy, find the Fernwood Inn. For even cozier, Christie’s Carriage House is just a few blocks walk from there.

From food-trucks to fine-dining, you’ve got your work cut out for you too. If you’re on the run, the caramel chicken with Vietnamese ginger at Foo Asian Street Food will plant you in your heels for a few ecstatic minutes. Or seek out one of two Hernande’z Cocina locations for black bean tacos—bring cash and leave cilantro-haters at home. The chicken katsu sandwich at Relish is the perfect alibi for pretending you weren’t there just for their mind-melting brownies. Taste buds that demand a swift kick in the keister should seek out authentic Indonesian take-out Ayo Eat. For cod and chips, don’t bother going anywhere but Red Fish, Blue Fish.

If you’re not in a rush, good – how very islander of you. You’ll of course know then that a visit to Brasserie L’École is in order, and you’ll start with french onion soup, then the steak frites, and finish with a French 75. The pizze funghi at Prima Strada may have you momentarily forgetting your first name, while Rebar’s salted caramel tart will have you forgetting you had a care in the world. For fresh-shucked oysters, do Ferris’s. Make sure to ask for extra sherry mignonette. Small plates and wine, try Stage and their fried haloumi. Small plates and something stiffer, try Veneto and their rye, mescal, white-chocolate chili cocktail.

The show-stopping tuna don more than makes up for the criminally short opening hours at Uchida. For the best local ingredients the island has to offer, head Ulla or Café Brio and point your finger blindly at anything on the menu.

Up-island

It’s the capital, not the centre of the universe – venturing north of Victoria reaps great rewards. A feast for the soul and the senses is a short day-trip or overnight stay away. Tofino’s reputation as a knockout precedes it. For food as fresh and homegrown as the coastal ocean breeze, gimme Shelter, and their Thai-inspired Cortes Island mussels, or pan-seared salmon hooked only a couple kilometers away. Locals will undoubtedly steer you towards Sobo for spicy fish tacos and a side of polenta fries – heed their advice.

If you find yourself in quaint little Courtenay, look at your watch – if there’s a number on it, head to Atlas Café. Breakfast, lunch or dinner will wow, and bully for you if they happen to be serving their blackberry bison bourguignon. And not just a clever name, at Locals you’ll be amongst locals eating locally-sourced everything, like Comox Valley Muscovy duck, with orange and fennel.

For a bit of Britain, tuck into pub grub and pints at the Crow and Gate in Nanaimo. Or call ahead for a table at tiny Nest Bistro – the mushroom and brie tart is worth rubbing elbows with the freakishly-friendly locals.

If you fancy yourself a bit of a honey-dripper, Hudson’s on First in Duncan is pure romance, and their almond parfait is sex on a plate.

Amusé on the Vineyard, deep within the Cowichan Valley is worthy of the trip out west alone. If it’s sunny, bless your stars and bask in the vineyard-view patio.

Newlywed and nearly dead? Yup, that’s exactly what these islanders want you to think. Or not. With a belly full of world-class food and drink, and a heart full of homegrown hospitality, once you’re here, you might find you’re too content to really care what anyone thinks.

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