What To Do (And Eat) on a Weekend in Victoria
Summer’s whale cruises and garden tours make way for winter’s bounty of distilleries, wineries and restaurants: this is your foodie guide to Victoria.
October 26, 2016
Come November, Victoria’s Inner Harbour calms, the cruise ships leave for warmer ports and locals once again outnumber tourists in the city. “Low season” creeps into the province’s capital and yet it’s this exodus that should serve as your summons: after-hours entertainment shifts to indulging in rich meals and generous glasses of wine, and locavore restaurants, wineries, breweries and distilleries emerge as destinations in their own right. For the foodie set, there couldn’t be a better time to unwind.
Flee the car snake winding from the ferry terminal down the Patricia Bay Highway and take exit 31 into Sidney. Victoria Distillers’ waterfront distillery and cocktail lounge opened here in May, offering daily tours and tastings of its bitters and spirits. Gin vehemently remains a signature: the distillers halve the amount of juniper typically used, allowing notes of citrus and other botanicals to shine, and for cocktails to gain new complexity. To wit: an old fashioned prepared with proprietary orange bitters and six-month-aged Oaken Gin.
The multi-million-dollar refurbishment of the Fairmont Empress dining rooms and lounge—and the shuttering of its beloved, if threadbare, Bengal Lounge—is the biggest news to hit the local eating and drinking scene in recent memory. (Change is generally frowned upon in Victoria, a belief that explains the city’s fustiness and, in equal measure, its charm.) The heavy tapestries and draperies have been removed, revealing detailed walnut-stained panelling, while new jewel-toned furnishings are inspired by colours in the hotel’s china pattern. Tuck into a brightly flavoured octopus poke served with greens grown on the hotel’s rooftop garden. Dressed in an Asian-inspired sauce of soy and red-wine vinegar, it’s a clear standout. If you’ve missed the so-called “golden hour” on the veranda, the time when the sun dips low in the harbour and bathes the front of the hotel and its grounds in warm light, take your after-dinner drinks out there anyway, cosseted by heaters and blankets. There’s a separate, more casual menu served, including charcuterie from Oak Bay’s prized delicatessen, Whole Beast Artisan Salumeria, which staff bring out on boards made from trees recently felled on the grounds.
Olo is now open for brunch and like its more formal predecessor, Ulla, is a veritable crash course on Island producers. Meats are sourced primarily from Parry Bay Sheep Farm and Stillmeadow Farm, both based in Metchosin; vegetables hail from Ragley Farm, a century-old organic farm in Sooke, and Littlest Acre in Saanich. Executive chef and owner Brad Holmes works the season’s bounty into an eclectic offering of global dishes, such as shakshuka, a spicy North African baked-egg dish, and a Swiss-style rÖsti with house-smoked bacon, fried eggs, charred bread, tomato relish and shaved vegetables.
Take Highway 1 up into the Malahat Highlands toward Shawnigan Lake, where skinned-knee trunks of arbutus trees stretch over the highway’s shoulder and the land falls into the Saanich Inlet. Bracing views from Split Rock Lookout are worth a pit stop, even in autumnal fog. In about 45 minutes, you’re on Unsworth Vineyards’ doorstep. Daily tastings are hosted in a small wood-and-stone room for $5, or free with the purchase of any bottle. Try the 2015 Sauvignette, a rich, fruit-forward white made from a hybrid grape that thrives in the Cowichan Valley. A slim selection of local foodstuffs sold in the shop (teas from Teafarm, chocolates by Wild Sweets) makes quick work of souvenir shopping. This is an island economy; support for fellow producers runs deep.
At neighbouring Merridale Estate Cidery, a tasting room, farm store and cheery yellow restaurant showcase the output from the surrounding orchards. The traditional craft cider is modelled on the English style; dry and balanced, it calls out for ploughman’s lunch-style accompaniments. You could follow the highway back the way you came, but instead hop the ferry from Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay. Crossings are every 70 minutes and cost $35—cash only!—for a vehicle and two adults. This lands you a mere 10-minute drive from Roost Farm Bakery and Vineyard Bistro, a local institution serving stick-to-the-ribs comfort food, like two-handed sandwiches served on breads made with wheat milled on the premises, creamy daily soups and an assortment of old-fashioned squares, cinnamon buns, blondies and fruit pies (spot the cyclists fresh off the Lochside Trail lining up at the counter, seeking calories). Order the meatloaf sandwich prepared with house-made barbecue sauce; finish with a Hello Dolly dessert square so dense with pecans, coconut and chocolate you can’t jam a fork through.
A 15-minute-ish drive away, Church and State Wines beckons. Today, the winery is a major player both here and in the Okanagan town of Oliver, where most of their grapes are grown. If you want wine made exclusively with local fruit, opt for the pinot gris. Aspiring chefs take note: the winery occasionally hosts popular cooking classes with Dan Hayes of the London Chef, a past Western Living Foodie of the Year winner.
Back in downtown Victoria by dinnertime, stymied by choice, head to the Fort Common. The squat black tile-and-brick building wraps around an old carriage-yard-turned-communal-courtyard and is home to several of the city’s best casual restaurants, including Chorizo and Co., Fishhook, La Taquisa and, most recently, the Livet, the second act of Graham Meckling of Stage Wine Bar fame (watch this space).
Choose Be Love, an upscale vegan restaurant with a frequently changing seasonal menu (seeing a pattern here?). There’s an organic wine list, with many bottles available by the glass, including Lock and Worth’s sauvignon blanc. The menu lends itself well to sharing. If it’s on offer, order the meze platter of Mediterranean standards recast (the perfectly firm dolmades stuffed with cashew “cheeze” were delicious) and a plate of cauliflower “wings.” Delicately spiced, they come with a cashew-and-dill dipping sauce so good you can slather it on anything. Generous portions and inventive dishes make up for occasionally spotty service.
Cap off the weekend with brunch at Agrius, where a stylish 40-seat room with beautiful lighting and a 20-seat patio is the backdrop to yet another locally sourced—though this time French-influenced—menu. Feeling West Coast? Order the salmon cake with poached eggs. Served under a blanket of hollandaise and surrounded by fresh greens and tomatoes, it is perfection—though there’s a case to be made for the eggs Reuben with strips of house-made brisket on a base of dense rye bread.
Exit through Fol Epi, their sister bakery, and pick up a fresh loaf of said rye, a jar of organic grainy mustard and a bag of the house espresso, which is a custom blend by Caffe Fantastico. There’s just enough time to visit Phillips Brewing and Malting Co. before your ferry reso. Tastings are by donation (and for a rotating monthly charity) and there’s always a mix of limited releases and old favourites, all recommended. (But the Short Wave Pale Ale will go best with the rye bread.)
Getting to Victoria
White Spot burger combos or sweeping aerial views? Your necessary voyage across the Strait of Georgia is not without options—and we’ve assembled a per-minute breakdown to help you choose.
The original sea bus comes with orca sightings sometimes, but if you’re willing to line up/pay those movie-theatre prices, there’s at least a hot lunch. Reservations are basically essential these days—an extra $15 to $22, but sailing waits are slow torture.
Where: Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay
Total: $73.65 ($0.78/minute)
Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Quick transport with a stunning coastal tour and gutsy water landing—what’s not to love? (So long as it’s decent weather—strong stomachs are required for some bumpy days.)
Where: Catch it at YVR or Vancouver Harbour to get to Victoria Harbour
Total: From YVR: $160 ($5.30/minute); from Van Harbour: $207 ($6.90/minute)
Time: 30 minutes
Don’t let the heli-factor fool you: this beauty offers intimate flights for groups of up to 23—plus it’s just plain badass. Eat your heart out Bachelorette James Bond!
Where: Vancouver Harbour to Victoria Harbour
Total: $159 to $299 ($4.54/minute to $8.54/minute)
Time: 35 minutes