Western Canada is home to an excellent and evolving regional cuisine that relies on local produce, farm-raised game, grass-fed beef and lamb, and fresh-caught fish and shellfish. These high-quality ingredients are matched with inventive sauces and accompaniments, often based on native berries and wild mushrooms. In attempting to capture what the French call the terroir, or the native taste of the Northwest, chefs from Edmonton and Calgary to Victoria and Vancouver are producing a delicious school of cooking with distinctive regional characteristics.
One of the hallmarks of Northwest cuisine is freshness. In places like Vancouver Island, chefs meet fishing boats to select the finest of the day's catch. The lower Fraser Valley and the interior of British Columbia are filled with small specialty farms and orchards. Visit Vancouver's Granville Island Market or stop at a roadside farmer's stand to have a look at the incredible bounty of the land.
Cooks in western Canada are also very particular about where the food comes from. Menus often tell you exactly what farm grew your asparagus, what ranch your beef was raised on, which orchard harvested your peaches, and what bay your oysters came from. To capture the distinct flavor of the Northwest -- its terroir -- means using only those products that swam in the waters or grew in or on the soil of the Northwest.
Once you've assembled your extra-fresh, locally produced foodstuffs, you need to cook them according to some kind of aesthetic. This is where Northwest cooks get inventive. While many chefs marry the region's superior meat, fish, and produce to traditional French or Italian techniques, other cooks turn elsewhere for inspiration. One popular school of Northwest cooking looks west across the Pacific to Asia. Pacific Rim or Pan-Pacific cuisine, as this style of cooking is often called, matches the North American Pacific Coast's excellent fish and seafood with the flavors of Pacific Asia. The results can be subtle -- the delicate taste of lemon grass or nori -- or intense, with lashings of red curry or wasabi. However, don't expect Pacific Rim cuisine to follow the rules of Asian cooking: One memorable meal at Calgary's Belvedere restaurant matched grilled Alberta beef tenderloin with a sauce of Japanese seaweed and reduced red wine, served with heirloom potato cakes.
Other attempts to find the authentic roots of Northwest cooking look back to frontier times or to Native American techniques. There's no better way to experience salmon than at a traditional salmon bake at a Native village -- most First Nations communities have an annual festival open to the general public -- and many restaurants replicate this method by baking salmon on a cedar plank. Several restaurants in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island specialize in full Northwest Native feasts.
Fruits of the Field & Forest -- Although there's nothing exotic about the varieties of vegetables available in western Canada, what will seem remarkable to visitors from distant urban areas is the freshness and quality of the produce here. Many fine restaurants contract directly with small, often organic, farms to make daily deliveries. Heirloom varieties -- old-fashioned strains that are often full of flavor but don't ship or keep well -- are frequently highlighted.
Fruit trees do particularly well in the hot central valleys of British Columbia, and apples, peaches, apricots, plums, and pears do more than grace the fruit basket. One of the hallmarks of Northwest cuisine is its mixing of fruit with savory meat and chicken dishes. And as long as the chef is slicing apricots to go with sautéed chicken and thyme, she might as well chop up a few hazelnuts (filberts) to toss in: These nuts thrive in the Pacific Northwest.
Berries of all kinds do well in the milder coastal regions. Cranberries grow in low-lying coastal plains. The blueberry and its wild cousin, the huckleberry, are both used in all manner of cooking, from breads to savory chutneys. In Alberta, another wild cousin, the Saskatoonberry, appears on menus to validate regional cooking aspirations. The astringent wild chokecherry, once used to make pemmican (a sort of Native American energy bar), is also finding its way into fine-dining restaurants.
Wild mushrooms grow throughout western Canada, and harvesting the chanterelles, morels, porcinis, and myriad other varieties is big business. Expect to find forest mushrooms in pasta, alongside a steak, in savory bread puddings, or braised with fish.
Meats & Seafood -- Easily the most iconic of the Northwest's staples is the Pacific salmon. For thousands of years, the Native people have followed the cycles of the salmon, netting or spearing the fish, then smoking and preserving it for later use. The delicious and abundant salmon became the mainstay of settlers and early European residents as well. Although salmon fishing is now highly restricted and some salmon species are endangered, salmon is still very available and easily the most popular fish in the region. Expect to find a salmon dish on practically every fine-dining menu in the Northwest.
However, there are other fish in the sea. The fisheries along Vancouver Island and the Pacific Coast are rich in bottom fish like sole, flounder, and halibut, which grow to enormous size here. Fresh-caught rock and black cod (also called sablefish) are also delectable, and the Pacific has plentiful tuna, especially ahi and albacore.
Although shellfish and seafood are abundant in the Pacific, it is only recently that many of the varieties have appeared on the dinner table. Oysters grow in a number of bays on Vancouver Island, and while wild mussels blanket the length of the coast, only a few sea farms grow mussels commercially. Fanny Bay, north of Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, is noted for both its oysters and its mussels. Another Northwest shellfish delicacy is the razor clam, a long, thin bivalve with a nutty and rich flavor. Shrimp of all sizes thrive off the coast of British Columbia, and one of the clichés of Northwest cooking is the unstinting use of local shrimp on nearly everything, from pizza to polenta. Local squid and octopus are beginning to appear on menus, while sea urchin -- abundant along the coast -- is harvested mostly for export to Japan, though it does appear in high-end sushi restaurants.
Both British Columbia and Alberta have excellent ranch-raised beef and lamb. Steaks are a staple throughout the region, as is prime rib. You'll see lamb on menus more often in western Canada than in many areas of the United States. Game meats are increasingly popular, especially in restaurants dedicated to Northwest cuisine. Buffalo and venison are offered frequently enough to no longer seem unusual, and farm-raised pheasant is easily available. You'll look harder to find meats like caribou or elk, however. Savor it when you can.
Fruits of the Vineyards -- British Columbia wines remain one of western Canada's greatest secrets. Scarcely anyone outside of the region has ever heard of these wines, yet many are delicious and, while not exactly cheap, still less expensive than comparable wines from California. There are wineries on Vancouver and Saturna islands and in the Fraser Valley, but the real center of British Columbia's winemaking is the Okanagan Valley. In this hot and arid climate, noble grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay thrive when irrigated. You'll also find more unusual varietals, like Ehrenfelser and Marechal Foch. More than 100 wineries are currently producing wine in the Okanagan Valley; when combined with excellent restaurants in Kelowna and Penticton, this region becomes a great vacation choice for the serious gastronome.
Dining in Restaurants -- Canadians enjoy eating out, and you'll find excellent restaurants throughout British Columbia and Alberta. Many of the establishments recommended in this guide serve Northwest regional cuisine, the qualities of which are outlined above.
However, there is also a wealth of other kinds of restaurants available. If you're a meat eater, it's worth visiting a traditional steakhouse in Calgary or Edmonton. In many smaller centers, Greek restaurants double as the local steakhouse. Don't be surprised when you see a sign for, say, Zorba's Steakhouse; both the steaks and the souvlaki will probably be excellent.
Vancouver is one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, and the selection of restaurants is mind-boggling. You'll find some of the best Chinese food this side of Hong Kong, as well as the cooking of Russia, Mongolia, Ghana, and Sri Lanka, along with every other country and ethnic group in between.
Several Canadian chain restaurants are handy to know about. White Spot restaurants serve basic but good-quality North American cooking. Often open 24 hours, these are great places for an eggs-and-hash-browns breakfast. Tim Horton's is the place to go for coffee and doughnuts, plus light snacks. Earl's serves a wide menu and frequently has a lively bar scene. Expect grilled ribs and chicken, steaks, and gourmet burgers. The Keg is another western Canadian favorite, and is a bit more sedate than Earl's, with more of a steakhouse atmosphere.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.