Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — How does a hotel that has stood above much of its competition for years advance its guest experience? For Victoria’s Magnolia Hotel & Spa, one of Canada’s leading boutique accommodations, the missing ingredient was determined to be control of its on-site restaurant.
While most hotels opt to have their food services provided by restaurateurs who lease out the space, Magnolia wanted to improve upon the level of consistency it offered throughout its property. So when the opportunity came to take full control of the restaurant operations, it launched a renovation and re-branding exercise that resulted in the Courtney Room, an elegant, Parisian-style eatery that is a match for the Magnolia’s warm ambience. The move allows Magnolia to become a Relais & Chateaux-esque property where the high quality of the rooms and spa is complemented by a dining component that provides visitors with a deeper sense of place.
The restaurant — designed by the same team that conceptualized the hotel’s interior two decades ago — launched in May after a round-the-clock overhaul that took only four months. It features white walls and eye-catching artwork as well as a long, attractive bar where oysters and Chablis can be savoured. The wine list has 20 by-the-glass choices, including a number of outstanding selections from France.
The decision to focus on the cuisine of France was made by executive chef Sam Harris, says Magnolia general manager Bill Lewis. At Agrius Restaurant, Harris established himself as one of Victoria’s leading culinary talents. When Magnolia recruited him to launch the Courtney Room it gave the chef the freedom to create the menu he wanted. Harris applies his affection for charcuterie to create distinct dishes. The best of them are the housemade sausages prepared with locally sourced meats. Harris also brings his charcuterie skills to seafood, cutting cured scallops into thin slices that appear like carpaccio.
Notably, the restaurant includes two dining experiences — a casual lower-level brasserie with a large menu ideal for sharing or nibbling and an intimate second-level fine-dining space where patrons can order the chef’s tasting menu. Although the two rooms share much of the same menu, the dining room includes some decadent a-la-carte options like the Beef Tenderloin Oscar with Dungeness crab and béarnaise sauce ($58).
The Courtney Room adds to Magnolia’s customer-oriented choices that it has keenly developed during the years. When you visit, be sure to locate the hotel’s inventive curated bicycle maps. The themed bike maps are a hallmark representation of what a terrific hotel will do for customers. They include routes that cater to guests’ interests. One map tailored for coffee lovers features some of Victoria’s best cafes, another has stops for craft-beer fans who want to sip along the way, and others provide self-guided tours of neighbourhoods that include stops selected by Magnolia’s team.
“We wanted to provide more of a personalized service because we had guests who asked if there were bikes to use during their visit with us. So we first bought helmets and locks and the bikes themselves, and then we developed these bike maps,” Lewis explains. “It all happened quite organically. We have discussions about the maps and what places should be included on them and we have people on our team who are passionate about one area or the other, so it’s a project that’s been great fun to develop. It’s also helped us give our customers another way to enjoy their time here, which is always the goal.”
Whether it’s with its amenities or its facilities or now with its hotel-operated restaurant, the Magnolia has proven it’s not only worth a first visit but a second, third, or more. In a city with no shortage of quality places to stay that’s a powerful testament to this award-winning hotel’s level of achievement.
More About Magnolia Hotel & Spa
Address: 623 Courtenay Street, Victoria, BC (see map below)
Room Rates: The nightly rates for the remainder of summer start at roughly $339 per night. Check the hotel’s booking engine for more details.
More Victoria Food Highlights
Dobosala and Fish Hook Spice Things Up: Executive chef Kunal Ghose has been the culinary mind behind two of Victoria’s most beloved eateries — the taco stand Red Fish, Blue Fish at the Inner Harbour and FishHook, which serves Bengali-style curries. Earlier this year, FishHook launched a second location on the waterfront that has been doing brisk business and further solidifying Ghose’s stature.
A few blocks away is Dobosala, a diner-style restaurant (dubbed a “cantina” and “ride thru” because cyclists can pick up there orders from a take-out window) ideal for lunch or late-night snacks. Its menu is a creative mix of Indian and Mexican flavours, all of them meticulously prepared by Ghose to show how the spice profile of the recipes from those two nations can harmoniously blend in one plate. Tacones ($7 each) include pulled beef braised in tikka masala while larger items such as Pling Pling (a $13 serving of crispy duck and pork samosa dumplings accompanied by salsa verde and a chili-date chutney) demonstrate Ghose’s creativity.
Travellers are always searching for low-cost meal options that are still able to show the culture of the place they’re visiting. Ghose has again delivered a must-try restaurant that is preparing dishes with flavour combinations hard to find anywhere else. To his credit, he also does so while using fully compostable dishware and cutlery, and employing other environmentally conscious practices in his operations.
(Disclosure: My business partner in a company unrelated to Vacay.ca owns the space on Swift Street’s Mermaid Wharf that FishHook leases.)
Indigenous Flavours Shine with Kitchens of Distinction: Chef Shirley Lang has been championing Indigenous foods and recipes for years. Her company, Kitchens of Distinction, provides food tours of Vancouver Island as well as private cooking classes using ingredients from British Columbia’s Capital Region. Lang’s cooking focuses on her specialties of Moroccan cuisine and Indigenous recipes. She is also an expert on the city’s restaurant scene, making her an excellent resource for her clients who are visiting Victoria.
“I think the culinary world is exploding in Victoria,” Lang says, pointing to new teaching facilities such as Camosun College’s Classroom Restaurant as reasons for an increase in expertise. “I was the only Aboriginal chef around here for many years. Now we have all these young people who are highly trained and extremely talented. I feel our restaurants are only going to get better and better.”