VICTORIA – Located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is blessed with rich waters with the Pacific Ocean and various waterways and inlets. For those who love seafood, there is much to savour. Best of all, the produce on offer, often having been caught that morning, is certainly fresh! Being on an idyllic harbour only serves to round off the dining experience both with stunning views and the chance for a post meal walk.
At the far end of the Inner Harbour is Fisherman’s Wharf. In its heyday, it was the epicentre of the city’s fishing fleet, and despite having morphed into a tourist destination, it has done so tastefully. Juxtaposed with rather expensive private sailing vessels and unique floating homes are a number of excellent restaurants. Not surprisingly, the main focus is seafood.
The Fish Store
Located right in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Fish Store floats on its own pontoon. If it has an edge over other eateries in the city, it’s that it is licensed to purchase fish and shellfish directly from the fishermen and process on the spot. As such, you are assured of the freshest catch in town. The main jetty and walkways have plenty of seating areas, and the recent addition of a floating seating area next to the store is a relaxing place to enjoy a meal. The focus is on good food, simply prepared. The open counter concept is rather akin to a fishmonger, so you can see exactly what they have. Once you place your order and have paid, you receive an order alert device which will buzz and light on when your food is ready to collect.
Traditionalists can opt for the fish and chips, with the difference that the fish includes not just staples like halibut and cod, but also wild sockeye salmon and river sturgeon. Coming from the UK, I have had my fair share of fish and chips so decided to start with the 3 way salmon chowder. A rather luxurious ‘soup’, with both fresh salmon fillets and smoked salmon, it is especially thick from the addition of onion, potato and corn. The candied salmon which was sprinkled on the top was a new experience but the combination of the sweet and fishy worked rather well. There are numerous cup sizes but frankly I think the smaller ones are more than enough. It is more of a rich stew than a soup.
Perhaps with an eye on culinary creativity, the Fish Store has all sorts of ways of serving its fare from fish tacos to rice wraps and the pithily named ‘fishwiches’. As much as I was intrigued by the latter, I have always had a soft spot for mussels, so I opted for the Cortes mussels in garlic butter. Northern France this was not, but these mussels would win hands down. Plump, steamed to perfection, and with well seasoned stock, they were sublime. The focaccia bread which accompanies it is just what you need to mop up the last remaining juices. Staying on the bivalve theme, I ordered two dozen oysters. As a youngster, the idea of eating fresh oysters didn’t appeal in the slightest until I went to Whitstable in Kent, England; tried one and was hooked. Ordinarily, twenty four oysters would be an indulgence, but from 4 to 5pm they offer a ‘buck a shuck’ so it’s incredibly priced. There are lots of sauces to accompany them, and the zesty lemon and pickled red onion mignonettes were my favourites.
If there is a downside, this is probably not a place for families or children, unless they have particularly developed palettes. While Victoria is a safe place, it is not crime free, if you count the seagulls that swoop down to steal your meal. I lost a few exceptional oysters that way but put feelings of loss to one side given the audacity of their moves. And while not a crime, not having an alcohol licence does mean being able to sip a chilled sauvignon blanc or chardonnay with your oysters is prohibited.
1 Dallas Rd, Victoria, BC V8V 0B2
Steamship Grill & Bar
Five minutes’ walk from the Fish Store is the Steamship Grill & Bar. Situated right on the harbour just in front of the opulent parliamentary Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the Steamship Grill & bar is in an equally wondrous architectural masterpiece. The cavernous space of the restaurant is perfect for large groups where chatter and laughter is the order of the day, but perhaps not so conducive to intimate dining experiences, unless you are sat on the outside terrace. Having booked a table for eight people, we were sat quickly and promptly.
The menu is not surprisingly heavily skewed towards seafood, though there are concessions to meat-eaters with burgers and various ‘surf and turf’ options. For vegetarians, the menu is somewhat limited. I started with a very satisfying whiskey crab soup which was garnished with chives and crème fraiche. With appetisers at around $15, I shared the crab cakes and coconut prawns with a friend. The crab cakes were of a reasonable size though I wasn’t a great fan of the cauliflower puree which accompanied it, and the coconut prawns worked very well and the mango sauce provided just the right level of sweetness to offset the prawns.
While others opted for steaks and some pastas, I gave the blackened pacific snapper a go. A delicate fish, it was wasn’t overcooked and remained firm and the salsa verde added just the right amount of piquant flavour. With main courses at around $35, this can be a potentially expensive meal, especially with a bottle of wine, though the wine list is comprehensive and does have some reasonably priced local wines. Despite other reviews noting patchy service, the meal went smoothly with all the courses coming out in a timely manner, and various requests seemed to be met with suitable savoir faire.
The bathrooms are located on the second floor, which does prove to be a little bit of a trek, though it does afford an opportunity to see some of this historic building. By the time we had finished the restaurant was packed out, so it certainly has a loyal following, but underlined the need to make a reservation in advance and perhaps indicate where you want to sit. The tables near the windows do provide some wonderful vistas and the terrace is ideal for dinner for two, with those tables in the middle of the restaurant being well suited to large groups. The desserts include a lot of cheesecakes, ice cream and various chocolate based confections, but being suitably full, I decided to forgo them in preference for a restorative latte.
470 Belleville St, Victoria, BC V8E 1W9
+1 (778) 433-6736
Harbour House Restaurant
The landscape of most cities’ culinary scenes are often awash with restaurant chains and fast food outlets. Finding a truly old school restaurant can be a challenge, but Victoria has one such treasure in the form of Harbour House Restaurant. Nestled on a side street (Oswego Street), it has been in operation for over 30 years which makes it one of the oldest in the city. Sitting on Quadra Park, it is a minute’s walk from the harbour and horse drawn carriages ply their trade outside. While other restaurants have succumbed to modern or minimalist make overs, the Harbour House Restaurant retains a charming if somewhat retro feel. Light wood paneling, paisley carpeting, pastel coloured walls, napkins and table clothes (think peach, avocado and lemon) all make for a slightly 1980s look.
That said, it is charming, warm and welcoming and feels like the sort of place your parents would take you to for special occasions, and now that you are grown up, you truly appreciate. Having spotted seating outside, the moment we arrived we asked to be sat at the small balcony area. Small enough for a couple of tables, we had the area to ourselves and were able to enjoy the last rays of the summer sunshine and watch the world go by. As a rather ‘grown up’ restaurant, the menu has a few classics such as lobster bisque, escargots and Chateaubriand. And for those who prefer meat to fish, the ‘from the grill’ section has a comprehensive selection. However, given its close proximity to the harbour, it is the fish and seafood that stands out.
I started with the lobster bisque, which was not as creamy as others I have had, but I liked it for being so and it was well seasoned and had plenty of flavour. The mussels in white wine was perfect. Good sized mussels with a slightly tart wine sauce which offset the natural sweetness of the shallots and mussels. The main course of filet of sole was simple but elegant, and I ordered some mixed buttered vegetables to go with it. The only downside to being outside was that there being no licence for alcohol, I had to forgo a glass but the ambiance and light of dusk more than made up for it. So far, all the food was competent, fresh, and well flavoured but not fine dining in the modern sense. This is not an experimental or boundary pushing establishment. The chocolate mousse was velvety and rich, and rounded off the meal perfectly.
In keeping with its positioning, the menu is on the more expensive side. Starters are typically around $15, with main courses ranging from $20-$40. The things that will add up quickly are the side servings, beverages, coffees and desserts. Having said that, for a romantic dinner, soaking up the local atmosphere and experiencing classic dining, this is a winner.
607 Oswego St, Victoria, BC V8V 4W9
+1 (250) 386-1244
Editor’s Note – Please refer to the individual restaurant websites for detailed opening hours, menus as well as directions and parking facilities.
text James Tulley