Vancouver is among the liveliest food cities in the world, and Vancouver Island, just a short ferry ride away, also has a thriving culinary scene. Their locations give them access to the rich fisheries of the area, and seafood and shellfish feature on almost every menu. Two of Canada’s leading wine regions — the Okanagan and Cowichan valleys — are close by. Here are four restaurants that we particularly liked.
Helmed by acclaimed chef David Hawksworth (of Hawksworth Restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia), Nightingale serves Mediterranean-inspired shared plates. Discreetly located behind a heritage façade that was preserved when a 19th-century brownstone was superseded by the 35-story MNP Tower, the dining room features double-height ceilings and walls of windows that flood the space with natural light. Aesop’s Fable “The Hawk and the Nightingale” was the inspiration for the restaurant’s name, and this story is echoed by iridescent origami birds hung in gilded cages. The menu highlights contemporary takes on regional classics with global inflections. We started with a refreshing ceviche of kanpachi (Hawaiian yellowtail) with lime, mezcal, avocado and habanero. My entrée of grilled arctic char served with lemon-braised potatoes and smoked roe was exceptional. We paired our mains with roasted cauliflower with sunflower seeds in a guajillo-and-charred-lemon dressing, one of several roasted-vegetable sides on offer. Many diners around us opted for the restaurant’s renowned pizzas. Though some may consider Nightingale to be little more than a casual alternative to the formal Hawksworth Restaurant, I found its lively ambiance and vibrant cuisine to be more in tune with the character of Vancouver itself.
1017 West Hastings Street. Tel. (604) 695-9500
Before boarding the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, dine at this picturesque waterfront restaurant overlooking the marina on Granville Island. Close relationships with purveyors in the area ensure that the seafood served here is perfectly fresh; also the fruits and vegetables are locally grown. Our maple-walnut prawns were juicy and sweet under a light tempura crust and came with a cool yuzu mayo on the side. The market seafood section on the menu details the texture and flavor that each fish offers and specifies a recommended length of cooking. The halibut was listed as “firm, lean, large white flakes, best cooked medium.” My delicious Pacific Northwest scallops (“firm, sweet briny flavour, best cooked rare”) were simply grilled and accompanied by garlic roasted potatoes, plus seasonal vegetables, including squash and kale. Though the Vancouver Fish Company is conveniently located near the Granville Island Public Market, it has somehow escaped the attention of most tourists. The chefs are considering the possibility of expanding their enterprise to include a cannery.
The Vancouver Fish Company Restaurant & Bar
1517 Anderson Street. Tel. (604) 559-3474
Set in Coal Harbour above the marina, Cardero’s is the ideal lunch choice for those meandering through Stanley Park and along its seawall. (Many travelers opt to dine at the nearby LIFT Bar Grill in front of The Westin Bayshore hotel, but it has become a crowded tourist destination.) We wanted to find a restaurant serving regional seafood specialties rather than one prioritizing specialty cocktails. Cardero’s offers spectacular mountain and water views as well as an interesting menu. From outside, the structure of reclaimed corrugated metal and wood appears almost industrial. But the interior has a charming nautical décor, with exposed wooden beams and leather booths. The atmosphere is casual, and the clientele includes a high proportion of locals who know the staff by name. Though the restaurant is famous for its cedar-plank salmon dish enlivened with brown sugar and soy sauce, we opted for the sesame-crusted albacore tuna served rare and drizzled with a wasabi soy sauce, as well as the fresh halibut set atop a whiskey-mustard-butter sauce and paired with wok-fried rice and seasonal vegetables. Both were exceptional. Do not expect fancy fare with culinary foams or fluid gels, but rather incredibly fresh seafood that has been skillfully prepared.
1583 Coal Harbour Quay. Tel. (604) 669-7666
Butchart Gardens comprises 135 acres of floral displays in Brentwood Bay and has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada. Located in the original residence of the Butchart family, the Dining Room is an intimate restaurant that overlooks the owners’ private garden and the Italian Garden. This is the most popular venue on the island for afternoon tea, aside from the formal high tea served at the Fairmont Empress in downtown Victoria. We, however, came for dinner served on the conservatory-like terrace. Most ingredients are sourced from the property and the remainder from area farms. The seasonally inspired menus change regularly. Though the tomato bisque starter sounded prosaic, when accompanied by a fennel seed beignet and basil crema, it proved to be exceptionally flavorful. Among the main courses, the Peace River lamb shoulder accompanied by a cauliflower-and-Parmesan risotto was outstanding. Note that the admission fee to the gardens must be paid in order to dine at the restaurant.
The Dining Room at the Butchart Gardens
800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay. Tel. (250) 652-8222