Bring your appetite: There’s some good eating to be had here. Vancouver especially has become one of the world’s top dining destinations, while Victoria has carved out a niche for its DIY farm-to-table esthetic. This region doesn’t have the centuries of history that, say, French or Chinese cuisine does, but what it does have is a bounty of terrific local ingredients, a vibrant multicultural community, and a batch of passionate, creative, and highly skilled chefs who are cooking up a cuisine that is uniquely of its place. Here are just a few things you’ll want to taste while you’re here.
Farm, Sea & Field-to-Table
“The 100 Mile Diet” was written here and Greenpeace was created here, so it shouldn’t come as surprise that chefs take the whole local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable thing pretty seriously. Luckily, they have some great ingredients to choose from. There is, of course, the exceptional local seafood, from the finny salmon, tuna, and halibut to the crustaceans and shellfish including oysters, scallops, mussels, Dungeness crab, and, above all, sweet, buttery spot prawns, which come into a brief but luxurious season each May. With its rich, fertile soil and mild climate, this is also a terrific region for produce, especially sweet berries, tender greens, and, from the mountainous area around Pemberton, creamy potatoes. There’s a lively foraging culture, too, and in spring and fall, chefs will often find boxes of wild mushrooms showing up at their back doors.
Today’s West Coast cuisine is wildly flavorful and innovative, but 2 decades ago, you wouldn’t have found much more than simple fried fish or grilled steak on a menu. What changed it all? Two generations of passionate chefs. It started with a handful of gents who are still going strong: Hidekazu Tojo, who invented the California roll and introduced Vancouver to sushi; Umberto Menghi, who taught the city that real Italian food didn’t come smothered in melted cheese; Vikram Vij, who proved that Indian food didn’t mean curry in a hurry, and that it could pair perfectly well with good wine; and John Bishop, who was among the first, along with Sinclair Philip of Sooke Harbour House, to define what we now think of as West Coast cuisine. Since they came on the scene, they’ve passed on the whisk to a legion of creative chefs such as David Hawksworth, Rob Feenie, Andrea Carlson, and countless others.
Better practice your chopstick skills. Chances are you’ll be sitting down to a bowl of noodles, a plate of sushi, baskets of dim sum, or who knows, perhaps even a whole 10-course Cantonese banquet. With its huge Asian population, it’s no surprise that Vancouver has absorbed many of that vast continent’s culinary traditions. Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Southeast Asian flavors abound, not just in ethnic eateries, but across menus of all sorts. Be prepared to enjoy their sweet, salty, sour, and hot mix of tastes.
Victoria especially is famous for its lively pub culture, a legacy from its British and Scottish heritage. Today the best pubs serve terrific casual food, such as fish and chips, charcuterie, and burgers, along with craft ales and usually a respectable wine list. The atmosphere will always be casual and friendly, and the bill affordable.
Drink It In
Be sure to try a British Columbia wine with your meal. B.C. wines are exceptional, and this is likely the only place you’ll get to try them—supply tends to be small, and local demand is big. The main wine region is the Okanagan Valley, and the best wines are cooler climate varietals, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir. That said, you can find some powerhouse red blends from the South Okanagan. Expect to pay for them, though; land is expensive, and that drives up the prices of the wine, too.
Also check out the terrific selection of craft beers. A new brewery seems to be opening here every week or so, and you’ll find everything from the lightest of lagers to the chocolatiest of porters on tap somewhere. B.C. also has a lively artisanal distilling scene—the Okanagan Spirits Taboo absinthe, Victoria gin, and Pemberton Distillery Schramm potato vodka are just a few of the spirits that must be sampled. And be sure to have a cocktail—both cities have an exceptional craft cocktail scene.
What to Eat & Drink
Before you go home, you must try these 10 dishes and drinks:
Vancouver Cocktail: A recently rediscovered classic from the 1950s that you’ll find on the city’s top cocktail lists, especially at the grand hotel bars (gin, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, orange bitters).
Fraser Valley Duck Poutine: The city has gone crazy for poutine, a Quebecois dish of French fries, melted cheese curds, and gravy that is much, much better than it sounds. Edible at the Market on Granville Island serves an especially luxurious version topped with duck confit and fried eggs.
Thomas Haas Sparkle Cookies: Thomas Haas has been named 1 of the top 10 pastry chefs in North America and everything at his tiny shop in North Vancouver is sweetly perfect. But it’s his humble sparkle cookies—chocolate dusted with sugar—that keep people coming back.
Fish and Chips: This dish is as quintessential to life in Victoria life as a ticket on the BC Ferries. There are many, many places that do it well, but Red Fish Blue Fish, the Guild, and Steamship Grill are among the best. Best bet: Crispy fried local halibut when it’s in season.
Seafood Chowder: Forage in Vancouver makes their version with cream, spot prawns, and quail eggs. The BC Ferries’ simple tomato-based clam chowder is legendary. And Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub in Victoria makes a version that is decadently creamy and loaded with seafood. A West Coast must.
Bone Luge: Take a roasted, cracked marrow bone, raise it to your lips, then shoot a tot of sherry down its length, scooping up every little bit of silky, salty marrow as it makes its way to your ecstatic taste buds. That’s the bone luge, a delicious if undignified must at Wildebeest in Vancouver.
KFC: Not the Colonel’s fried chicken, but the Korean Fried Cauliflower at Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver. It’s one of the bar snacks in the swish little cocktail lounge: chunks of cauliflower tossed in spicy hot sauce then flash fried until crispy and caramelized.
Xiao Long Bao: These tender Shanghainese pork or crab dumplings form a delicate broth inside the wrapper as they steam. Try them at Shanghai River in Richmond or at Dinesty on Robson Street in Vancouver.
Salted Caramel Gelato: The creamy, frozen treats from Bella Gelateria near the Vancouver Convention Center were voted the best gelato in the world by the Italians, the people who invented it. You cannot go wrong with any of the flavors, but the salted caramel is especially divine.
Okanagan Valley Riesling or Pinot Noir: There are many exceptional wines being produced in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, but two varietals that seem to have consistent success are the delicate dry Rieslings and bright Pinot Noirs. Try the Tantalus Riesling, named by critic Jancis Robinson one of the best in the world, and the Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Noir from one of the province’s oldest family-owned vineyards.