I booked a trip to Thunder Bay and excitedly shared my travel plans with friends and family. Eager to receive their collective joy about my latest Canadian adventure, I awaited to hear their suggestions, tips and advice about what to see and where to eat. What I got instead were dumbfounded looks with a dash of bewilderment — similar grimaces you’d expect to see on someone’s face if snow fell mid-summer. Confused looks gave way to head-scratching questions such as: “Why Thunder Bay? What’s there? What will you eat?”
It’s true, Thunder Bay’s rugged, rough-around-the-edges reputation continues to dominate many people’s perception of the Northern Ontario city that’s far closer to Minnesota than Toronto. But Thunder Bay has updated itself during these first two decades of the 21st century and the new version of the city is one that is far more sophisticated than you might expect. Thanks to a new generation of passionate people working and creating together, the Lakehead has evolved, transforming into a desirable destination and a foodie haven that locals take great pride in and travellers have pleasantly discovered. The city features award-winning chefs, regional producers, international flavours, culinary events, and nationally recognized local craft brewers. In other words, this ain’t your grandpa’s Thunder Bay.
Many believe the city’s emerging food scene started in the late 1990s. At that time, Jacob and Margaret Schep’s Thunder Oak Cheese Farm, Ontario’s first Gouda cheese farm, was gaining recognition locally and abroad. In 2002, it won the Dairy Farmers of Canada Grand Prix award for Best Firm Cheese. Closer to the city, Bistro One opened its doors 20 years ago and from the start has offered food and drink that reflected seasonal ingredients and local producers. Two years earlier, Bob Stewart and Tom Pazianos debuted Caribou Restaurant and Wine Bar in 1999 and from the outset focused on a diverse menu, ranging from steaks and wood-fired pizza to tostadas and avocado tartare. Its wine list has earned the “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence” every year since 2002.
If it wasn’t for this tight-knit, supportive community of visionaries who were willing to take risks and encourage residents to evolve their tastes, Thunder Bay’s food movement would have been stunted. Instead, during the past 10 years, the farming community has grown stronger, emphasizing the importance of local, seasonal, and farm-to-table ingredients and techniques, while a growing population of professionals, hungry for refined dining choices have moved in. Chefs and restaurateurs who have worked in larger cities have returned home to Thunder Bay, and as a result, a plethora of culinary pioneers have opened up shop. Their efforts have transformed the traditional “meat-and-potatoes” town into a city with such a vibrant culinary scene it now has its own Restaurant District.
At Tomlin, a newer restaurant, owner/chef Steve Simpson prides himself in supporting regional and seasonal agriculture. Diner-friendly charcuterie boards are among the popular menu items. Near to the revamped waterfront, Bight is a lovely casual restaurant that offers perfect views of the marina while its exceptional fare is inspired by local farms.
As a consequence of the culinary movement, Thunder Bay has become home to a growing number of businesses devoted to food and drink. Among them, Heartbeat Hot Sauce, a company born out of a hobby at home. Launched in 2015, word-of-mouth spread quickly about the spicy upstart as owners Nancy Shaw and Al Bourbouhakis created a series of bold, balanced, healthy, and unique sauces that contain no thickening agents or chemical preservatives. Produced, bottled, and packaged in Thunder Bay, Heartbeat received international notoriety when it was featured on YouTube’s “Hot Ones Series” and was listed as a top hot sauce by CNN. If you’re having one of Heartbeat’s products you may wish to wash it down with something cold from Sleeping Giant Brewing Company. Opened in 2012, Sleeping Giant has also garnered a reputation for quality, earning numerous brewing industry awards, including a gold medal at the Ontario Brewing Awards for its Grassroots Lager. The water for its craft beers is sourced from Lake Superior and the grain is locally malted.
To understand the depth of Thunder Bay’s food culture, you need to travel to where it all starts — the farms.
Plenty of homegrown farms in and around Thunder Bay have been providing fruits, veggies, meats, and even pasta for decades. Belluz Farms features three generations of farmers who’ve worked the same land since 1946, growing everything from strawberries, carrots, and beets to cucumbers, zucchini, and greenhouse plants. Meanwhile, Tarrymore Farms has operated since 1970, and while its primary products are beef and free-run eggs, market demand has allowed its owners to expand. These days, they also grow everything from cabbage to beans. Big Lake Pasta is only a few years old but thanks to traditional pasta-making techniques, and an assortment of delicious small-batch dry and stuffed pasta using all natural ingredients, including Western Canadian durum semolina, it’s been a big hit in the community.
Finally, Roots to Harvest is an organization made up of “punks growing food”. It offers engaging and interactive workshops and cooking classes to young people, who in turn learn to respect the land, and understand the importance of sustainability and creating connections with the community. Products include honey, flowers, kale, and Swiss chard. They are sold everywhere in the city, including local restaurants and at the Thunder Bay farmers’ market.
In Thunder Bay, the love of quality food is not only making dining more delicious, it’s creating opportunities that previously didn’t exist. That’s a very healthy change for a city that has managed to tastefully redefine itself.