A quarter of a century ago, Rod Butters was a driving force that helped to transform a remote outpost into one of Canada’s most exciting places to dine. Butters was the executive chef at the Wickaninnish Inn when it first achieved Relais & Chateaux designation, a status that vaulted the property and its far-flung location, Tofino, to international notoriety. Tofino and the venerable Wick have remained stars of Canadian culinary tourism, even though Butters moved on to the Okanagan Valley in 2001.
Whereas Tofino was a gastronomic blank slate, Kelowna was a city with a large population and established tastes, which tended to lean toward mass-market options versus fine-dining choices. Butters had work to do. Steadfastly, he turned out one contemporary plate after another and helped to transform British Columbia’s primary hub for viticulture into a place for food connoisseurs as well. Now, with restaurants at wineries serving outstanding food and culinary culture in the city growing, Butters and other chefs are finding more and more locals and visitors eager for sophisticated menus.
“When I came here and started Fresco’s 21 years ago, I felt very, very alone and couldn’t figure out why because if you can open something at the end of world, like Tofino, and make it work you would think it could happen here easily, given all of the produce that’s around here, but it took time,” says Butters, the author of the best-selling “Okanagan Table” cookbook. “Several other chefs started to come in over time. I think they looked at what we did and realized there was a market for high-quality food, and it made sense because of the wine scene. Now, it is night and day from what it was in 2001. The quality of everything we have here has gone up by a lot.”
Along with RauDZ, a reincarnation of his first restaurant, Fresco’s, Butters has operated multiple beloved places in the area and more recently has launched the Okanagan Table, which was meant to be a commissary kitchen for his establishments when it opened in 2019. It has since become a location for cooking classes. Every Wednesday evening, guests spend three hours in the gleaming space and learn to make dishes with Okanagan ingredients and then savour them with wine from the region. It’s the kind of experience foodies crave and it’s also one you’d expect in a culinary destination.
What’s more surprising is to find the quality of ethnic flavours within a short walk of the Okanagan Table’s front door. The one you’ll want to speed to is El Taquero, a marvellous little shop with humble origins and devotion to linking local ingredients with authentic Mexican recipes.
Like Butters, chef and owner Israel (Izzy) Camarillo is a pioneer. When he launched in 2015 his was the only true Mexican taqueria in Kelowna. Others have opened up because of his success in serving traditional flavours from his home country. And, like Butters, he faced the task of educating his clientele whose palates had been accustomed to commercialized versions of “Mexican” food.
“I remember constantly talking to everybody to explain that not everything in Mexican food is fried or cooked in a certain way they expect. That kind of food is Tex Mex, really; it’s not Mexican. I started to say, ‘Try it. Just try it. Let me tell my story the way I want to and then if you don’t like it, that’s fine,’” he says about the early days of El Taquero. “People started to understand what we are trying to do. We wanted to get that interaction going with the food and the culture. Now they look forward to when we try something new on the menu. It took a long time to get here.”
The recipes are from Camarillo’s mother, who also works at the small eatery across from the city’s relaxing waterfront and marina on Lake Okanagan. As more Mexican restaurants launch in Kelowna, Camarillo welcomes the competition. He says it helps to grow the food culture in the city and to expand people’s tastes and understanding of Mexican food. “It also allows me to explore my own style, which is more non-traditional than what we are doing here, so I get to try some new recipes, knowing others are serving something similar to that traditional style,” he says.
A few blocks away, another ethnic location, Thai Terrace, has a built a base of regulars who come for patio tables overlooking the water and flavours that send you to Phuket. Among the popular favourites is the Moneybag, a dumpling appetizer that is formed to resemble a purse. It’s tied shut with a string of green onion and when you either unknot it or bite into the treat you find treasures of minced chicken and spice. Traditional Khao soi, a yellow curry soup with chicken that’s topped with crisp noodles, is a delicious and earthy delight. The restaurant is run by an immigrant family from Thailand who have broadened the tastes of Kelowna without compromising the authenticity of their heritage’s recipes.
For a more evocative sense of place and a heritage moment for the city, head to BNA Brewing, where a historic building that was once home to a tobacco processing facility has been resurrected as a massive and fun-filled craft brewery. BNA hits the mark with casual, well-done food that’s a match for its brews. And the entertainment options are immense. The second floor features arcade games and a multi-lane bowling alley that is a magnet for families and party groups.
Several of the outstanding restaurants in Kelowna can be experienced on an outing with Okanagan Foodie Tours, which owner Nancy Quinton debuted in 2015. The tours cost $95 (or $125 with five alcoholic beverages) and have five or six stops each. Before Quinton’s operations, there was no tours in the city and a small list of restaurants to include. These days, even though the pandemic caused some places to shutter, there remains a good number of excellent restaurants. So much so, Quinton is expanding her tours to provide a focus on specific parts of the city or certain styles of cuisine, a clear indication dining is trending up in the heart of the province.
Must-try Winery Restaurants
Modest Butcher at Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery: A gorgeous building overlooking Lake Okanagan is home to one of the more exceptional restaurants in British Columbia as well as the winery that may have the most approachable collection of wines in the region. The Modest Butcher launched in 2020 and delivers outstanding steaks, which are often served with sauces featuring wines from the property. Far from an intimidating or stuffy restaurant, the Modest Butcher focuses on menu items that would fit in a casual restaurant but with exceptional flavours and ingredients. The food suits winemaker Jeff Hundertmark’s offerings. Hundertmark takes advantage of Mt. Boucherie’s many vineyard properties spread from Kelowna south to the Similkameen Valley, known for its Alsatian-style white wines and high heat that can accommodate full-bodied reds. Mt. Boucherie has multiple labels and a dizzying number of wines, ranging from dependable, single-grape varietals of Chardonnay and Riesling to unique, geeky choices like PTG, a short form of “passetoutgrains”, a French winemaking term that loosely translates to “throw all the grapes in.” The Mt. Boucherie PTG includes gamay noir, pinot noir, and pinot gris.
Home Block at CedarCreek Winery: On the east side of the lake is CedarCreek Winery, part of the Mark Anthony Group of that is headed by billionaire entrepreneur Anthony von Mandl. At the winery’s fabulous flagship restaurant, Home Block, chef Neil Taylor, formerly of Vancouver’s acclaimed Espana, brings Iberian flavours to the Okanagan Valley. The kitchen features a fire-cooking set up that delivers satiating choices such as roasted sweet potatoes and crispy squid. Home Block’s menu matches CedarCreek’s array of pinot noirs and elegant white wines. It’s a must-try for foodies and wine aficionados alike.
A CedarCreek sommelier pairs each item on the restaurant’s menu with a vintage from the winery. Home Block is in an elegant space that would fit in downtown Vancouver with ease and shine. It is another indication of the Okanagan’s culinary scene continuing to level up.
Where to Stay in Kelowna
Launched in July 2020, the Hyatt Place Kelowna is a three-star property that goes the distance to deliver above its category class. It includes a complimentary shuttle to Kelowna International Airport and recently launched a bike-share program where guests can use, for free, one of six e-bikes to tour the city. The hotel’s restaurant, The Placery, will also customize a picnic backpack for guests upon request. It’s part of an effort to deliver high-quality service at a moderate cost that will help Kelowna attract more conferences and leisure travellers. The Placery is headed by a recent immigrant from Morocco with experience cooking at five-star hotels in Europe and the Middle East.
The Hyatt Place brand is growing fast in Canada with nine properties launched in recent years and another 15 in the pipeline. The Kelowna location features 161 rooms, underground parking, a pool, and attractive lobby-level lounge area. It will launch an exterior patio for relaxation and possibly some dining options this summer.