Dine Out and Around fill local mouths and aim to please, but will both fests impress the crowd?
If there’s something almost everyone loves doing, it’s eating. And this season’s dining festivals offered province-wide are enough to sink any foodie deep into a sea of culinary pleasure.
Starting Friday, Feb. 17, Dine Around & Stay in Town Victoria will roast the city until March 16. During the festival, 54 participating restaurants are lowering their usual prices to offer three-course menus at $20, $30 or $40 price points, and 14 establishments will offer celiac-friendly menus. Meanwhile, participating hotels are offering one-night room rates dropped to $69, $79, $99 and $129. The move, now in its ninth year in Victoria, is an opportunity for visitors and locals to take a leap in exploring all the treats of the city that often seems too costly to fit the budget.
In impatient anticipation of the upcoming fest, I decided to take a jaunt over the ferry to Vancouver on Feb. 2 to see the last weekend of big-sister festival Dine Out Vancouver, and find out how Van has been orchestrating its feasting fair for the last 10 years. The results leave Victoria with a masterful act to follow.
This spring, Dine Out pulled over 232 restaurants and 43 hotels on board for a celebration that lasted from Jan. 20 to Feb. 5. With three-course menus priced at $18, $28, $38, and hotels lined up at $78, $108 and $138, it’s a rare opportunity to spoil yourself with the richest experiences for often less than half the regular price. Tourism Vancouver themed the festival (which also included 17 days of market tours, cooking classes, demos and events) “eat, stay, play.” And — flashing marketing strategies aside — that we did.
“We set quite a few records during this year’s Dine Out, and the festival was extremely well received by the public and our industry partners,” says Rick Antonson, Tourism Vancouver’s president and CEO. “We’re well on the way to achieving our goal of turning Dine Out Vancouver into one of the world’s foremost culinary festivals.”
All in the mix
Our first evening in Van found myself and my friend Lana touring the Denman and Robson area, where our senses were overwhelmed with flashing restaurant selections and pungent smells. We decided on one understated Italian nook, Cusco, when a member of the staff popped out to say hello and hand us a business card as we eyeballed the menu from outside. While we had made no reservation, Cusco was participating in the Dine Out experience, and we launched into our first tastes at the $28 price point.
The food was extraordinary: Italian wedding soup decorated with a thick basil sprig, red lobster ravioli, crème brûlée and peach-flavoured Prosecco. During dinner, Lana and I discussed our thoughts on Victoria’s variation in food culture. Could it be that B.C.’s rich food culture rooted itself in Vancouver’s metropolitan environment, while its vast arts and cultural medley had sprouted in Victoria? Maybe not. Cusco placed a strong prominence on returning guests. Living in a tourist town like Victoria, there’s a general acceptance that each restaurant may only have one chance to earn that great impression. Here, however, there was a comfortable preference given to those who had clearly been to the restaurant before and, while I appreciated the loyalties, newbies (such as myself) were left waiting, often too long.
That service would be remedied by lunch the next day, however, when we appeared for our reservation at Vancouver’s relatively new Dunn’s Famous. The location marks the first of the chain to travel this far west from Montreal, and has been met with huge success from the lower price-point crowd that craves big portions, bigger TVs and a relaxed atmosphere to catch the game.
Lana and I were no match for Dunn’s Dine Out menu which, for just $18, loaded us with delights like Matzo ball soup, Montréal smoked-meat sandwiches, five-day-made cheesecake and some of the spiciest pickled Caesars ever tasted. Dunn’s also offered a unique, and memorable, culinary delight: beer-battered pickles that any guest would be wise to order.
As our afternoon unfolded (and our stomachs did their best to digest), we headed over to 4th Street in the Kitsilano area, where our dinner reservation at Refuel waited for us hours later. We strolled through the shops, scored new haircuts, purchased fine wine and even made a stop on glorious Kits Beach with the brilliant sun and persistent clouds providing a dynamic backdrop to our adventures. By the time we were walking upright again, it was time for dinner.
A touch of home
Refuel is the closest to Island-brand foodie experience I’ve had in Vancouver. The restaurant lives by principals surrounding (real) locally grown meat and produce, seasonal menu selections, full vegetarian and vegan options, even a prominent and catchy non-alcoholic drink menu (along with flare-bartending alcohol options). While every Islander is used to hearing the “green” and “sustainable” buzzwords thrown around to attract conscientious guests, Vancouver prides itself on oft-exotic and masterful culinary arts. While the sustainable movement has in no way passed the city by, it was surprisingly refreshing — or perhaps just familiar — to walk into an establishment that makes caring about its locale the top priority.
With Refuel’s Dine Out menu in full swing on the second-to-last day of Vancouver’s festival, we were treated to a romantic array of delights. We sampled the bartender’s new and unnamed margarita creation (an elderflower twist on the old classic), then splurged our taste buds with Refuel’s wine parings for each course. The starters offered a pound of fresh steamed clams, or a breathtaking variety of local salad and veggie creations. For the mains, we wooed our mouths with succulent roast pork and B.C. Salmon, though it was a hard choice between the other offerings, all paired with seasonal veggie sides and elegant sauces. For dessert, we were thrilled with a homemade version of a peanut buster parfait — peanut butter drizzle, ice cream, chocolate shell and a whole lot of yum.
One of the most notable advancements of Refuel is the way it treats its guests: as though each person (return or first-timer) is a good friend. We watched as our host, the wait staff, the blue-jeaned bartender himself, even the head chef herself, buzzed around the crowd making small talk, checking on orders and taking a genuine interest in each guest. By the time we’d finished dessert, we’d watched the kitchen create dozens of flamboyant meals, while learning a little bit about everyone’s background.
We capped off our evening with a tour of downtown Vancouver, and the sights and sounds of Gastown’s bar scene, and Hastings’ strip. With only a block separating high-class debutants and people with torn mittens scrambling to survive, Vancouver may as well be two countries squashed into one. It wasn’t long before Lana and I found ourselves back at our hotel room, grateful for the local stay.
Located just on the corner of Robson and Denman, the Times Square Suites jumped on board Dine Out with rooms offered at the $108 price point. The hotel hosts an option of short and longer-term stays, and have been a popular choice for Vancouverites and visitors who want a rest at the epicenter of Van’s shopping district.
The suites themselves are outfitted much like apartments, with full-use kitchens, furniture for relaxing and hosting, pull-out couches, even spare dens or desks for people who want that at-home feeling away from home. Times Square has hosted conferences, dining events and even weddings. The selling point is a rooftop garden, complete with year-round range BBQ, pick-able fruit and veggie planters and a striking view of Coal Harbour — and the location leaves only steps to English Bay, Stanley Park. Despite the busy streets below, the suites offered a restful and relaxing reprieve from our downtown adventures.
Dining not just a walk in the park
A lazy morning at the suites with kitchen-brewed coffee soon yawned into our next and last reserved Dine Out experience: lunch at Stanley Park’s infamous restaurant. Make no mistake, however — despite The Teahouse’s casual name, this is not the location for casual park-goers to pop in for a quick bite.
With an air of prestige similar to the Victoria Empress’ Bengal Lounge, The Teahouse serves as fine dining for the well-dressed Sunday church crowd, or an apt spot to host a wedding; in fact, one was going on when we arrived. Unfortunately, after a weekend of high-heeled boots, pea coats and makeup to blend with the Vancouver crowd, Lana and I entered the restaurant relaxed in jeans and walking shoes, ready to take on Stanley Park. This proved to be a mistake.
When it came to menu, the choices were rich with pleasant adjustments to conservative standards, like the smoked salmon eggs benny we both ordered. Paired with mimosas, the meal offered a simpler flavour profile than much of what we had sampled previously that weekend. What stood out about The Teahouse for me, however, was not its culinary masteries: it was the increasing noise level as brunch time wore on and the vaulted glass room began to fill.
The stunning view of the park and surrounding water was a delight to enjoy with the meal, but slow jazz began blending with screaming toddlers (uncomfortable in their frilly skirts), and a high level of chatter that made it impossible to be heard. The mood was topped, however, with the grey-haired waiter kept popping by our table to tell us “We’re fine here” and would then leave before we could comment or place our order. He seemed to smile (or sneer) at our choice in clothing, the visible age gap between us and the other more conservative patrons, or perhaps the level of noise. While the food and drink went down easy, the experience turned out to be a more stressful than relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
With digestion upon us again, we rounded out our weekend of face stuffing with a gentle drive through Stanley Park, and a tour of the Vancouver Aquarium — two of the hundreds of worthwhile attractions to pick from on our visitors’ list. For Islanders who want a trip to another land without leaving the region, the aquarium (and the restaurants, for that matter) offer an exotic but accessible tour of the senses all year round.
Now back in our Island oasis, I can only hope Victoria will prove it has what it takes to throw a monumental following act when it comes to not just entertainment, but its own brand of Island feats — and fine service to boot.