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Victoria’s Food Pioneers and Tastemakers

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Now that’s west-coast living. At Finn’s, Dungeness crab caught off the shores of Victoria is served with drawn butter and roasted potatoes. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Few people would characterize Victoria — known for its gentle beauty, relaxing atmosphere, and retiree community — as cutting edge. Yet, when it comes to food and drink in Canada, British Columbia’s pretty capital city has proven to be years ahead of other municipalities.

The most obvious example is Spinnakers, the brewpub that has been making craft beer since 1984 — about two decades before the trend took off feverishly in other parts of the country.

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Spinnakers has been pouring craft beer longer than any other brewery in Canada. The Victoria favourite now features 23 taps dispensing a variety of brews and ciders. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Pioneering owner Paul Hadfield lobbied to change a slew of legislation — both in British Columbia and at the federal level in Ottawa — in order to pave the road for micro-brewers to take on behemoth corporations like Molson and Labatt’s. He did it, he says, because he and his friends wanted to drink better beer.

On June 16, Spinnakers will celebrate its 35th anniversary as a gastropub. It started with three beers and now has 23 taps, six of which serve ciders. Rather than sit on the laurels from those initial brews, Hadfield and his team have continued to evolve. They make chocolate that pairs with their beers and lambic-style ales that are aged in barrels for one year and contain the musk of discarded riesling and shiraz grapes from wineries on Vancouver Island.

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Paul Hadfield has been influential in the development of the craft-beer industry in North American. He celebrates 35 years as the publican of Spinnakers in 2019. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The brewery is expanding its offerings to include spirits made by one of Hadfield’s daughters who has trained to be a distiller. Its enterprise is built around sustainable practices, support for farmers, and a desire to be inventive.

“It’s a lot more enjoyable for people to do something that is meaningful. If it feels like the right thing to do, you’re going to have passion for it. And it’s fun, and should be that way,” says Hadfield, who credits “pig-headed determination” for launching Spinnakers at a time when market conditions did not favour him.

More Victoria Dining: Courtney Room Shines

Hadfield, an architect by trade, designed North America’s first purpose-built brewery at the foot of a residential area about two kilometres from Victoria’s downtown. Spinnakers is in a two-storey Victorian-style building with wraparound patios and an open kitchen that serves very good pub fare from ingredients all sourced on Vancouver Island. It’s a treat to visit in every way — and it’s not alone in the city.

The celebration of the island’s food and the do-it-yourself mentality exists beyond Spinnakers in Victoria’s other places to drink and dine.

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Rob Cassels brings sophistication and fun to his menu at Saveur, a French-inspired bistro that’s among the best places to eat in Victoria. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

At Saveur, chef and owner Rob Cassels converted a former boot factory into a fine-dining restaurant that showcases his talents and how he matches them with Vancouver Island ingredients. It took him three years to complete the renovations and open a stellar restaurant near Victoria’s Chinatown. Saveur serves a five-course tasting menu for dinner ($95), along with a la carte options and a brunch service that is clearly under the radar in Victoria. In a city where some restaurants focused on brunch have lineups out the door, Saveur should be more talked about. The white chocolate and lavender scones are enough to make you a frequent patron. Guests can purchase them to go by the dozen or half-dozen. 

The brunch menu features classics like Huevos Rancheros ($18) and a variety of Eggs Benedict ($17-$24), along with Asian-inspired choices like a Korean-style pork-belly sandwich ($18). The Egg “McDuckin” sandwich ($18) features duck bacon and duck confit and an assortment of divine accompaniments (such as thyme-orange marmalade mayo). With its brilliance and creativity, Saveur is easily among the must-dine destinations in British Columbia, not just Victoria.

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Chicken liver parfait and bresaola are some of the housemade delights served at Cafe Brio. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The same is true for Cafe Brio, where chef Laurence Munn brings Italian-style rustic cuisine up a notch with a charcuterie program that includes his own in-house protocol. Everything but the menu’s cheese options are made by Munn and his team, including the cranberry crackers that arrive with the charcuterie plates. The meats include a luscious chicken liver parfait crafted with brandy and port, and pepper-cured bresaola that includes rosemary and juniper.

Cleverly, the items on the Cafe Brio menu can be ordered in half portions, enticing guests to sample the cured meats, pâtés and terrines along with their entree choices. The restaurant also benefits from the bounty of fish on the Pacific coast. Halibut, Albacore tuna and salmon are among some of the options that will tempt a visitor.

If seafood is your mission when on the west coast, Finn’s needs to be on your list. The 300-seat establishment is in one of Victoria’s most historic buildings on Wharf Street, directly across from Bastion Square and its famed farmers’ market. Finn’s serves oysters, Dungeness crab and prawns, along with numerous other specialties, including steaks, pork chops and pizzas.

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Finn’s Seafood Restaurant resides in a circa 1882 building that belonged to “the Father of Victoria”, shipping magnate Roderick Finlayson. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

The restaurant’s setting is among the best in Victoria, overlooking the Inner Harbour with a pair of patios on the outside and a classic interior reminiscent of a New York steakhouse. The large operation, which launched in 2017, is staffed by a kitchen with a smart and generous apprenticeship program that sends four of its workers to college for culinary training each year. Finn’s pays the tuition for the aspiring chefs who give a four-year commitment to the restaurant, where their training continues under kitchen leaders with Red Seal designation. 

Finn’s program is another example of Victoria restaurateurs keeping community in mind as they grow their operations. Whether its a policy that benefits young workers, or a dedication to flavourful craft beer, or a devotion to farmers, Victoria’s restaurant scene is rich with ideas for others in Canada to take notice of and potentially follow.

MORE ABOUT VISITING VICTORIA

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Big and immaculate, the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe faces the Inner Harbour and has a stunning patio set along a waterfront trail. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Where to Stay: The Victoria Delta Ocean Pointe Resort is a splendid hotel loaded with amenities. Many of its rooms gaze onto the Inner Harbour and, as its name suggests, it provides an escape from urban lifestyle. Set away from downtown, the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort is still only a short walk to Victoria’s attractions. For those who would rather travel by car, the property offers complimentary shuttle drop-off and pick-up service within a 10-minute drive. The property is a seven-minute walk along the water to Spinnakers and is also within walking distance of Saveur (10 minutes), Finn’s (10 minutes) and Cafe Brio (20 minutes). Room Rates: A recent search of the property’s website showed a starting rate of $370 per night for a July weekend.

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.