New series: Niagara restaurant reviews

When I moved to Ontario a friend asked me if I was going to write reviews of the local restaurants like I did in Halifax. I was flattered to find out that not only do people read my blog, but they have hopes for what I might write about. I can’t remember what my response was, but I certainly haven’t reviewed any restaurants since moving here. As a form of penance (that pun doesn’t really work without ink), I’ll review some of the assortment of restaurants in Ontario’s Niagara region. I’ll focus on St. Catharines, because for the longest while it was hard to appreciate restaurants in other cities when my mode of transportation was my feet.

If you want uplifting and positive reviews that celebrate the heavenly cornucopia of food in Niagara, you can find that on other blogs. I’m planning on serving up honest reviews of what I had hoped was a culinary scene that lived up to the expectations that come from being surrounded by delicious wine and fresh produce. There will be positives but I will not sugar coat any review. I’ll save that for the awkward times when the wait staff ask “how is everything?”

I’ll be posting a review on Thursdays, just in time for weekend plans.

An amuse-bouche of Niagara’s food scene

When non-Niagara friends and family found out that my wife and I were moving there, they were excited. “Oh! Peaches and wine, you’ll love it there!” said pretty much everyone. What we didn’t expect was the juxtaposition of living in the middle of Canada’s wine country and Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe and having little access to great food and drink. It’s likely that the majority of agricultural products in Niagara is sold to big companies like Loblaw’s and shipped around North America. I’m not confident what’s happening but it seems suspicious that there aren’t many local restaurants buying fresh ingredients from local producers. Instead, restaurants purchase their ingredients from enormous distribution companies like Sysco which control where they source their products. This in turn diminishes the culinary experience, from flavour to nutrition.

There are some fantastic culinary schools in the region but there’s a concerning lack of knowledge in the kitchens. In 2014 I attended an event showcasing the best food and drink in the region. I made the rounds and chatted with the different vendors. Some knew what they were talking about while others cut corners and lacked basic understanding of the finer differences of ingredients. I asked the chef of a prominent restaurant serving duck with squash soup “what squash did you use?” His response was snappish: “I dunno… squash!” The conversation ended at that. I can only hope that when his generation retires, a more knowledgeable generation of chefs fills the gap.

There are some places that have amazing food, AG Inspired in Niagara Falls is a treat, but those spots are often priced out of accessibility for many residents. This has contributed to a two-tier culinary landscape: one catering to tourists and the wealthy and the other catering to low-income locals. The wineries often cater to the first tier, while family restaurants and dive bars cater to the second tier. This landscape is dotted with outliers that buck the trend.

Thankfully, some stalwart institutions like The Merchant Ale House and The Office Tap and Grill cater to almost anyone who wants great food and drink and new restaurants dedicated to accessible quality food are popping up. Downtown St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie are starting to see some restaurant revival and food trucks are filling the region’s empty bellies with great creations.

I’m looking forward to the excuse to revisit some of these gems to provide you, dear reader, with an up-to-date review. If you have any restaurants, coffee shops or bars you want me to check out, let me know in the comments. See you next Thursday!

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