Inside Canada’s unexpected foodie scenes

In her new book “Where We Ate: A Field Guide to Canada’s Restaurants, Past and Present” (out June 6), Gabby Peyton digs into the historic and cultural influence of 150 restaurants that have changed the way Canadians eat. It’s an interesting exploration that strays from the same old standards we’ve often used to define our cuisine.

“Canadian food is so multi-faceted; there are so many different layers to it. For a long time, people were really focused on putting it in some kind of rubric or defining the iconic dishes and that’s it. (While) doing research for the book, I realized there’s really no definition, and does there even need to be one?” says Peyton.

An archival photo of the Rex Hotel in Welland, Ont., a family-run Italian restaurant established in 1915.

There is a tendency for Canadian food to be defined through English or French dishes, Peyton says, but in her view the foods that define us now are adaptations of food from other parts of the world that have shifted to our tastes. “I’d say that a butter chicken roti — an amazing amalgamation of Caribbean and Indian influences — is a much more iconic Toronto dish than peameal bacon, for example.”

"Where We Ate," by Gabby Peyton, Appetite by Random House, 312 pages, $36.

Here, Peyton shares some favourite finds from researching her book (alongside some gems she couldn’t fit in), so you can delve into a few of Canada’s more unexpected foodie scenes and spots.

Italian food in Niagara region, Ont.

“An influx of Italians to the Niagara region, who came to build the Welland Canal more than a century ago, led to a wealth of Italian eateries. You’ve got places like the Rex Hotel in Welland, which started as an ice cream shop in 1915, then went on to become an Italian restaurant. It was one of the first places in Canada to serve pizza as anti-Italian sentiment in Canada shifted. Although the restaurant was originally called the Napoli and (the name) was changed during the Second World War because of racism that Italian-Canadians faced at that time.”

Filipino fare in Winnipeg

”When Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee opened their first Canadian restaurant, they sited it in Winnipeg because since the ’80s there has been a huge number of Filipino immigrants moving to the city and spurring the growth of a dynamic food scene. Grassmere Family Restaurant, in West St. Paul just north of the city, was taken over by a Filipino family in 2004 and has recently become a hip, Instagram-friendly brunch spot, thanks to the family’s sons adding dishes such as bright purple ube pancakes and tocino fries with sweet pork, pico de gallo and garlic sour cream, topped with an egg. Winnipeg hosts the Manitoba Filipino Street Festival each June, too, so it’s a great destination to explore this new influence on Canadian food.”

Secret standouts in New Brunswick

“New Brunswick as a foodie province often gets overlooked, but it’s home to some truly unique and amazing restaurants. Take Old Bavarian in Sussex: When you come across it in the middle of nowhere, it’s like you’ve stumbled across a little chalet in the Alps. It’s owned by a German family who immigrated with their 11 kids in the ’70s, and all the veggies and meat served there come from their farm. The 11th Mile in Fredericton is just incredible, and then you’ve got Les Brumes du Coude, almost hidden away in Moncton’s Aberdeen Cultural Centre, which has the most amazing beef tartare — I had to put the recipe in the book.”

Banh mi in Calgary

“When you think of iconic Albertan food, you automatically think steak, and I have some of those steak houses in the book, but it’s the banh mi scene in Calgary that fascinates me. Bánh Mì Thi-Thi was the first Vietnamese sub shop to open in 1991, and now there are tons of them, and it’s really competitive as to who serves the best banh mi in the city. There’s even a drive-through sub shop now, To Me Vietnamese Sub.”

The original poutine in Quebec

“People often associate poutine with Montreal, but it was invented in Drummondville, which is pretty much halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. You can go there and eat at Le Roy Jucep, one of the two competing restaurants that claim to have invented poutine, in the late ’50s, as a way to deal with a dairy surplus at the time. They had to do something with all those extra cheese curds. Be sure to stop at one of the food stands, called casse-croûtes, selling the dish at the side of the road when travelling in Quebec for an authentic experience.”


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