With so much emphasis on tradition in downtown Victoria—from the Parliament Buildings steeped in history to the Fairmont Empress Hotel steeped in Earl Grey tea—it’s easy to forget that change happens here, too. For example, the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson opened last fall, and this summer will be the first opportunity many out-of-towners will have to check it out.
The Granville Island–style covered food market is located in the heart of the city, in the old Hudson’s Bay Company building across from City Hall at 1701 Douglas Street. It’s a great example of the growing number of culinary businesses and restaurants downtown aimed squarely at locals rather than tourists. Many of these are just far enough off the beaten track to remain under the visitor radar, yet they’re within a short walk of the tourist sights.
On a recent trip, I was surprised to see how much downtown Victoria is starting to resemble downtown Vancouver—shiny new steel-and-glass condos seem to have materialized everywhere. According to the website of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, the years 2001 to 2006 saw a 17-percent population growth downtown compared to just two percent citywide. Since 2000, 18 new residential developments have been built downtown.
Walking around the city centre, I noticed colourful DVBA-sponsored posters on parking meters extolling the virtues of urban living. “I love living downtown and so does my dog,” reads one. “I love when the chef owns the restaurant,” reads another. Clearly, as in Vancouver, good restaurants are one of the selling points for living away from the chain-ridden suburbs.
For visitors—who generally stay downtown—more independent food shops aimed at urban dwellers can only be a good thing. After flipping through food writer Don Genova’s new book, Food Artisans of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands (Touchwood), a guide to the region’s best food and food products, I headed to Fort Street. Even though the strip between Blanshard and Cook streets is just blocks from touristy, cobblestone Government Street, I hadn’t ventured there in decades and recalled it being pretty much a dead zone.
That was before Choux Choux Charcuterie moved in at 830 Fort Street. According to Genova, the European-style deli opened in 2005, “filling an empty hole in the middle of the city’s Antique Row”, and he writes that it was immediately overwhelmed with eager patrons. When I stepped inside, I could see why: the lovely shop looks like it’s straight out of France, with glass cases stocked with house-made pâtés, smoked and cured meats, and artisanal cheeses. Blocks away, the Little Cheese Shop is equally charming in the location that used to house Hilary’s Cheese. Lauren Van Der Haegen bought the place in June 2013 and added lunch options like gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.
With shops like these, Fort Street is now a pleasant place to pick up a picnic to take to Beacon Hill Park or the Dallas Road seaside. In fact, next door to the cheese shop is Panier, a new store that focuses on full-service picnics that you order in advance. Then there’s Chorizo and Co. at 807 Fort Street, which opened two years ago. The stylish deli has Spanish wines by the glass and a tapas menu that changes weekly.
After perusing Genova’s other recommendations, I headed to Zambri’s, an Italian restaurant that’s a Victoria institution. Genova writes that Zambri’s has long been his favourite Italian restaurant anywhere in B.C.—high praise from someone who not only is of Italian heritage, but also studied food culture in Italy at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. The restaurant didn’t disappoint: the spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino was perfect in its simplicity with high-quality olive oil, garlic, and peppers.
Even though Zambri’s has been open since 1999, I’d never been there—perhaps because until recently it was located at the back of a strip mall. Four years ago, the restaurant relocated a few blocks away to the sparkling new Atrium building at 800 Yates Street. The open, airy office building breathes in natural light and is now a mini culinary hub itself, housing a bright coffee shop and a swish kitchen store and cooking school called Cook Culture.
The following day when I visited the new public market, general manager Maryanne Carmack confirmed what I’d observed. “There are more independent food businesses downtown, and people are embracing them,” she noted, showing me around the 1,800-square-foot main floor of the market. Upstairs, the old Bay is now condos, and the market backs onto a development site with a just-completed rental tower and other residences in the works.
The idea for the market came from the Victoria Downtown Public Market Society, which previously operated seasonal markets in Market Square. Carmack said the market was conceived as a year-round hub for locals. “We want to be a one-stop shop,” she said, a place where people can pick up their daily provisions. “We’re not reinventing anything, just going back to the old way,” she added, noting that this is the first major public market to open in the city in over 50 years.
On the Saturday I visited, the place was bustling. Thirteen storefronts, which are open every day except Monday, line the perimeter and include a butcher, a baker, and a dry-goods grocer. At the centre, temporary vendors sell local produce, jam, artisanal chocolate, and more. Off to one side, chefs were giving cooking demonstrations in the community kitchen, which is rented out as a commissary during the week. On Wednesdays, a farmers market takes over the street behind the building.
Why Wednesday rather than Saturday? Part of the reason, Carmack said, is that the market didn’t want to compete with other independent farmers markets that operate around the city on Saturdays. But it was also to help create that buy-local lifestyle and sense of community among nearby residents and office workers. “Why not come downtown on a Wednesday, grab a fresh baguette and salad greens, and then do it again on Saturday?” she asked.
While the market is geared to locals, there’s plenty to entice visitors. That’s because much of what’s on sale is unique to Vancouver Island. Island Spice Trade, for example, sells smoked sea salt from the Pacific Ocean. Salt Spring Island Cheese runs its only store outside of that Gulf Island, selling a wide range of its Bries and chèvres as well as cheese plates and goat’s milk gelato to enjoy on-site.
In fact, most of the permanent tenants have small eating areas where you can enjoy their prepared food. There’s Sutra, for example, a Vikram Vij operation similar to Rangoli that offers craft beer on tap from Victoria’s Hoyne Brewing Co. Cowichan Bay Seafood fries up B.C. halibut and chips and ladles out sustainable seafood chowder, while Roast hand-carves meaty sandwiches. The Victoria Pie Company operates under the bold banner Make Friends With Pie, while the Damn Fine Cake Company slices its gorgeous layer cakes for shoppers to sit down and tuck into with a cup of tea.
It’s a different kind of tea-and-sweets break than at the Empress, but one that gives you a ringside seat for the city’s evolving food scene.