Getaway to Victoria
A 48-hour gastronomic tour of the province’s capital
May 12, 2015
A half-dozen Gastown app-maker bros are selfie-ing their way across the strait, which would be annoying except 1) flights with Harbour Air are only 35 minutes long and 2) those views. Leaving at 9, I’m still in time for second breakfast when we drop into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, so I climb all of two blocks to the Gold Lounge at my hotel, the Fairmont Empress Hotel, for grill-your-own burritos, mini croissants, and that bespoke tea blend. Overlooking the parliament buildings, I consider the day’s options.
I feel ready to take on the world, or at least 6.5 kilometres of it, in the company of Kyra McLeod of The Pedaler, which owners Paul Rayman and Rosemary Lee set up in 2013 to offer bicycle tours along culinary and historical lines. We helmet up for the three-hour Hoppy Hour Ride ($89), travelling along city streets and over the still-under-construction Johnson Street Bridge (hold on!) to old-school brew pubs Spinnakers (the city’s original, from 1984) and Swans (from ’89), plus Moon Under Water (circa 2010), where owner/brewmaster Clay Potter tours us behind the scenes. Twelve tasters later, I’m ready for a little sit-down, so bike returned, I retreat to the Empress’s Bengal Lounge, where a Port Authority (Maker’s Mark, port, and bitters, all barrel-aged) and Morgan Wilson’s elevated pub fare (pork sliders, hand-cut crisps) animate the happy hour menu. (Later, it’s all G&Ts and Raj-era curries beneath the mounted tiger skin.)
For dinner (sticking to the healthy theme), I hit Foo Asian Street Food, a more rigorous version of hometown hero Noodlebox adjacent to the hotel, where Indian paneer and Thai curries sit beside octopus salad and sweet-and-sour pork belly, the heat and sweet nicely handled by a curated selection of local craft brews.
I spend Day 2 browsing through Chinatown, having a hearty omelette at Jam Cafe in the old Herald Street Café spot, and checking out the Victoria Public Market for knick-knacks and Vikram Vij’s new Sutra. Feeling adventurous I even hit up two much-discussed new cafés in industrial Rockland (a sketchy five-minute drive from downtown): Wheelies Motorcycles Café, a custom bike shop overrun for killer grilled sandwiches, rocket-fuel espresso, and housemade espresso gelato sandwiched between brownie slabs and rolled in candied pecans; and Second Crack Coffee Lab, an oh-so-serious retail space for a wholesale roaster that also happens to purvey the city’s on-trend Empire Donuts, made by Melanie Laverick for home delivery by the dozen.
Several brewery tastes later, dinner. So many options, but I elect to cab it to Stage in leafy Fernwood. Gold winner in this magazine’s Best Victoria category, this cute neighbourhood brasserie (exposed-brick walls, a worn floor of narrow wood planks) serves killer share plates (think local charcuterie, Sooke-caught trout with bacon and crème fraîche, salads of purslane and sheep sorrel) and a smart B.C.-forward wine list, including a dozen chalkboard specials by the glass.
I’m stuffed, but we have to put a nose into the recent farm-to-table rebrand of Ulla. OLO is Chinook for “hungry,” explains owner/bartender Shawn Soole, godfather of Victoria’s vibrant cocktail culture, as he mixes up digestifs for our party. Each eerily suits its recipient.
Maybe a last nightcap at tonight’s hotel, the Rialto, just a few blocks up the way. A 2009 rebuild of the storied (but deteriorated) Hotel Douglas, the Rialto now does restful boutique accommodations and a great hotel bar, Veneto Tap Lounge, as smack downtown as you could hope.
Stump gin (from Phillips Brewing down the street) in hand, we toast city founder James Douglas in the remains of his namesake hotel.