The sheer number of restaurants, bars, cafés and fast-food joints in Canada is staggering, though at first sight there’s little to distinguish mainstream Canadian urban cuisine from that of any American metropolis: the shopping malls, main streets and highways are lined with pan-American food chains, trying to outdo each other with their bargains and special offers.
However, it’s easy to leave the chain restaurants behind for more interesting options, as the standard of Canadian cuisine has improved dramatically in the last few years. In the big cities there’s a plethora of ethnic and speciality restaurants; on either seaboard the availability of fresh fish and shellfish enlivens many menus, and even out in the country there’s a liberal supply of first-rate, family-run cafés and restaurants, especially in the more touristy areas. Almost every café and restaurant has a no-smoking policy.
All over Canada breakfast is taken very seriously, and with prices averaging between $7 and $15 it’s often the best-value and most filling meal of the day. Whether you go to a café, coffee shop or hotel snack bar, the breakfast menu, on offer until around 11am, is a fairly standard fry-up: eggs in various guises, ham or bacon. Whatever you order, you nearly always receive a dollop of fried potatoes, called hash browns or, sometimes, home fries. Other favourite breakfast options include English muffins or, in posher places, bran muffins, a glutinous fruitcake made with bran and sugar, and waffles or pancakes, swamped in butter with lashings of maple syrup. Also, because the breakfast/lunch division is never hard and fast, mountainous meaty sandwiches are common too.
In the big cities, look out also for specialist coffee shops, where the range of offerings verges on the bewildering. As a matter of course, coffee comes with cream or half-and-half (half-cream, half-milk) unless you specifically ask for skimmed milk. Tea, with either lemon or milk, is also drunk at breakfast, especially in the Maritimes.
Between about 11.30am and 2.30pm, many big-city restaurants offer special set menus that are generally excellent value. In Chinese and Vietnamese establishments, for example, you’ll frequently find rice and noodles, or buffets for $8–12, and many Japanese restaurants serve sushi very reasonably for under $20. Pizza is also widely available, from larger chains to family-owned restaurants and pavement stalls. Favourites with white-collar workers are café-restaurants featuring wholefoods and vegetarian meals, though few are nutritionally dogmatic, serving traditional meat dishes and sandwiches too; most have an excellent selection of daily lunch specials for under $10.
If you’re in a large city or town, choosing where to eat dinner is really just a matter of whatever takes your fancy – and is within your budget. Outside these areas, you’re more likely to end up at smaller, family-owned restaurants, cafés or bistros, where prices might be cheaper but the quality of the food is often no less impressive than what you’d find in a big city. Pubs and bars aren’t a bad place to grab a meal either, and if what they offer is not overly inventive (chicken wings, variations of burger, fish and chips) you can bet it will be filling.
You can find pretty much any type of cuisine in Canada’s larger cities, with Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver especially standing out for their choice of ethnic restaurants. Most run a dinner service starting 5–7pm and ending at around 10–11pm. Expect to pay anywhere from $12–40 for a main dish at most places, and considerably more at fancier establishments. The average cost of a dinner for two, with wine, would be roughly $60–80.
Largely swamped by the more fashionable regional European and ethnic cuisines, traditional Canadian cooking relies mainly on local game and fish, with less emphasis on vegetables and salads. In terms of price, decent meals for two without wine average between $40 and $50.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Newfoundland’s staple food has traditionally been cod fish, usually in the form of fish and chips, though with supplies dwindling, this has become more of a luxury. More common are salmon, halibut and hake, supplemented by more bizarre dishes like “cod tongues” (actually the meat in the cheek), “jiggs dinner” (salted beef and vegetables), fish and brewis (salt cod with hard bread, softened by pork fat and molasses) and seal flipper pie. The island’s restaurants rarely serve seal or moose (hunters can only sell cooked moose meat to restaurants, thereby making it almost impossible for them to serve it fresh), but many islanders join in the annual licensed shoot and, if you befriend a hunter, you may end up across the table from a hunk of either animal. Caribou meat from Labrador is far more common, often turning up in burgers, and local bakeapples (cloudberries) and partridgeberries (loganberries) are used in jams, desserts and sauces.
In the Maritimes, lobster is excellent everywhere, as are mussels, oysters, clams, scallops and herring, either on their own or in a fish stew or clam chowder; best value are the lobster suppers, especially on Prince Edward Island, where you’ll get mountains of seafood for around $30. Nova Scotia is famous for its blueberries, Annapolis Valley apple pie, “fat archies” (a Cape Breton molasses cookie) and rappie pie (an Acadian dish of meat or fish and potatoes). New Brunswick is known for its fiddleheads (fern shoots) and dulse (edible seaweed).
Québec is renowned for its outstanding French-style cuisine, and pork forms a major part of the local diet, both as a spicy pâté known as creton, and in tourtière, a minced pork pie. There are also splendid thick pea and cabbage soups, beef pies (cipâte), and all sorts of ways to soak up maple syrup – trempette is bread drenched with it and topped with fresh cream. Quicker snacks include smoked meat sandwiches (the best of which can be had in Montréal), chewy Montréal-style bagels and poutine, fries covered in melted mozzarella cheese or cheese curds and gravy.
Fish is Ontario’s most distinctive offering, though the pollution of the Great Lakes has badly affected the freshwater catch. Try the whitefish, lake trout, pike and smelt, but bear in mind that these are easier to come by in the north of the province than in the south.
The west and far north
Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba are the places to try fish like the goldeye, pickerel and Arctic char, as well as pemmican (a mixture of dried meat, berries and fat) and fruit pies containing the Saskatoon berry. The Arctic regions feature caribou steak, and Alberta is also noted for its beef. BC features Pacific fish and shellfish of many different types, from cod, haddock and salmon to king crab, oysters and shrimp. Here and there, there’s also the odd aboriginal peoples’ restaurant, most conspicuously at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where the restaurant serves venison, buffalo and black-husked wild rice. Vancouver is also one of the best places in North America for Chinese and Japanese food; other ethnic cuisines are also well represented.
Canadian bars are mostly long and dimly lit counters with a few customers perched on stools or the surrounding tables and booths. Yet, despite the similarity of layout, bars vary enormously, from the male-dominated, rough-edged drinking holes concentrated in the blue-collar parts of the cities and the mining and oil towns of the North, to more fashionable city establishments that provide food, live entertainment and an inspiring range of cocktails.
The legal drinking age is 18 in Alberta, Manitoba and Québec, and 19 in the rest of the country, though it’s rare for anyone to have to show ID, except at the government-run liquor stores (closed Sun), which exercise a virtual monopoly on the sale of alcoholic beverages of all kinds direct to the public; the main exception is Québec, where beer and wine (not spirits) are sold at retail grocery stores.
Beer and wine
By and large, Canadian beers are unremarkable, designed to quench your thirst rather than satisfy your palate. Everywhere they’re served ice-cold, and light, fizzy concoctions rule the roost. The three largest Canadian brewers, Molson, Sleeman and Labatts, market a remarkably similar brew under all sorts of names. In the 1990s these companies pioneered the gimmicky ice beer concept: by lowering the temperature of beer to just below the freezing point of water and skimming the resulting layer of ice off the top, they created a brew with a higher alcohol content.
The slightly tastier beers of Great Western Brewing, one of the country’s largest regional brewers, are produced in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, while the heavily marketed Moosehead beer is produced in Saint John, New Brunswick. A welcome trend is the proliferation of independent microbreweries, whose products are sold either in a pub on the brewery premises or are available in local restaurants, bars and pubs – these remain pretty much confined to the bigger cities.
Canadian wines are fast developing an excellent reputation, particularly those from Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake region and BC’s Okanagan Valley. Imported wines from a wide range of countries are also readily available and not too pricey.