Ten years ago, I was visiting a friend in the tiny hamlet of Shirley, and was introduced to Phil du Preez. At the time, Phil, previously an independent Internet Radio host on Salt Spring Island, was deep into his newest business adventure: a small A-frame shack on the side of the highway set under towering Douglas firs. There was a fire station nearby, and a community hall, but no other sign of a village, at least, not visible from the highway. Proud to show off his new venture, Phil unlocked the door to his unopened café, and offered us coffee and muffins and we sat, five of us, at a tiny table in the minuscule dining room just right of the cashier. His business partner, Sheena Mercer, busy in the kitchen, came out to welcome us.
At the time, it was apparent that a great deal of thought, planning and hard work had gone into creating the Shirley Delicious Café. I loved the name right away, and it was clear that the merchandising was already in place, but would such a tiny café-bakery, with so few seats, and set so far from any centre of population generate enough customers to survive?
I’m always happy to return, stopping for coffee and a bite before heading further to one of the many wonderful beaches that line the coast between Shirley and Jordan River. I don’t make the drive often, but it seems that I can’t pass without stopping. Then came COVID-19, and my journeys up Highway 14 ceased. Phil departed Shirley Delicious in 2021.
Fast forward to today. I, my husband, and an out-of-town guest are driving out for a morning stroll along French Beach, to explore the tidal pools and watch the mist breathing on and off the shore. The three of us once made the mistake of planning to stop for a late lunch on our way back from a similar stroll, arriving after Shirley Delicious’ 3 p.m. closing. Accordingly, we arose extra early and departed Esquimalt at 7 a.m. to arrive just 15 minutes after opening at 8. Since my last visit, an uninsulated lean-to style addition has more than quadrupled the available dining space, and yet, already, there are few tables unoccupied. Sheena explains that the addition was requested by the local fire chief who needed a place for coffee with his crew. Even the outdoor tables were occupied despite a rather cool morning.
We are not an eclectic lot, this morning. Each ordering the Breakkie Sandwich ($10), a mug of Shirley D Filtered Coffee ($2.75) and a Cherry, Berry with White Chocolate Chip Muffin ($4). Our coffee poured, we take a table in the new section. The clear fibreglass roof overhead, striped with golden-brown fir needles decaying in the troughs, lets in plenty of light. Rough wood walls are adorned with mostly metal sculpture art of dragons and owls and fir trees. There are paintings by local artists and, of course, Shirley Delicious T-shirts, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia. The Breakkie Sandwich is second to none, the contents flopping lazily out of the bun. Fried egg, bacon strips, lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, all set in a panini-pressed cheese bun slathered with caramelized onion mayo. Try, too, the house-made ketchup. Something like a tomato relish: zippy, refreshing, delicious. And I have not found a better muffin anywhere. These are large with top to bottom fruit and a crumbly topping. Moist and flavourful, and the perfect complement to a well-balanced good morning coffee. It’s no wonder Shirley Delicious has been topping national and international lists of where to eat in Canada.