Words and photos by Chris Istace, Canadian Travel Writer
From the seaside vistas and craggy mountain tops to the lush fertile valleys that lie below, the Cowichan Valley is a natural wonderland. The only thing more diverse than the outdoors in this scenic region would be the dining options available to meet even the savviest gastronome.
The Cowichan Valley has adopted the reference as “Canada’s New Provence”. It is easy to see this reference when you consider what it has to offer. The Mediterranean climate and mild winters, the artisanal farms and sprawling vineyards, the coastal influences and unique landscape.
What this then creates is a region that has a network of farmers, markets, brewers, wineries, cafes, bistros and restaurants all working together. They know each other by name and work hard to help each other out. With the small community culture everyone takes that extra bit of care into what they do, they care about what they are producing and the end result is a superior food experience for you the visitor.
You will find restaurants serving locally produced wines and meats. The pub down on the corner will have the local craft brewery on tap. The cozy café on the street will use the local bakeries to produce their treats that accompany your locally roasted coffee.
When you dine in the Cowichan Valley you often experience more than just the establishment you are visiting. You are experiencing the partnership of a culinary culture that is working behind the scenes to keep the Cowichan reputation growing stronger each season.
We have put together a list of 7 different dining establishments reaching out to all the corners of the Cowichan Valley. These dining choices offer you the opportunity to have a simple lunch and coffee to a fine dining experience for that special occasion.
Farm Table Inn
6755 Cowichan lake Road, Lake Cowichan
Nestled alongside the highway on the way to Lake Cowichan this countryside farm is home to a charming Restaurant and Bed & Breakfast. The owners are passionate about their commitment to sourcing out local ingredients for their dishes and serving local jams, jellies, craft beer and wines from right here in the Valley. The Farmhouse where the dining room is located provides a quiet and relaxing getaway from our busy daily lives.
Currently open during weekends for supper on Friday and Saturday plus an extravagant Sunday Brunch. The brunch is a carefully selected range of traditional favorites, charcuterie board and even Dim Sum. Be sure to try the in house created sausage that is made with local organic raised meat. We recommend the Dim Sum as a must try.
Owl’s Nest Bakery & Bistro
9752 Willow Street, Chemainus
Located amongst the world renowned murals and artisanal shops & galleries of Chemainus is a charming little café that is sure to satisfy. The Owl’s Nest Bistro & Bakery is brought to you by a delightful husband and wife team. They moved back to the island to create a fine dining experience in a relaxed bistro setting after years in the big city culinary world.
This experience and honing of their craft is evident in brunch dishes like the Holy Cowichan Bowl or the savory Breakfast Panini. Don’t forget to sample the fresh baking all created in house and the locally roasted Drumroaster coffee. The menu offers several gluten free choices. We recommend the Holy Cowichan Bowl as a must try signature dish.
2915 Cameron Taggart Road, Mill Bay
After a short drive in the countryside between Cobble Hill and Mill Bay you will find yourself turning down a picturesque winding road amongst the forest canopy. As you come to the destination, a charming and rustic heritage property that is the home of Unsworth Vineyards opens before you. Making your way into the 1900’s restored farmhouse you are greeted with an inviting sense of sophistication and refinement. The space is a mix of the carefully preserved farmhouse to the addition of a beautiful room surrounded in a gallery of windows that open to the vineyard in the summer months.
The menu is, as stated by Unwsorth, “…delicious and interesting choices that deliver the essence of casual meets elegant vineyard dining”. We would suggest enjoying a tapas style meal selecting several small plates to share. Choices such as the Venison Loin and Mediterranean salad enjoyed with the 2014 Symphony red wine is sure to please. For dessert the Passionfruit Baked Alaska is a must try.
When you are finished in the restaurant be sure to walk across the yard to experience the Tasting Room. Sample the carefully selected wines blended and prepared from the vineyard to the finished product out of their winery.
Fox and Hounds
11 High Street, Ladysmith
Ever since opening their doors in 2014, Fox and Hounds has become the first choice for many wanting a traditional pub experience. Carefully crafted to replicate a traditional Tudor style British pub, this restaurant achieved that in winning fashion. Located in the hillside town of Ladysmith this family friendly pub offers food and drink selections that are sure to be to your liking.
Not just sticking to the British pub look the menu follows suit in homage to traditional favorites. Ploughman’s plate, Bangers & Mash, Fish & Chips and then our favorite the Meat Pies. We highly recommend the seafood pie topped with puff pastry and the Cornish Cider. If you aren’t a cider drinker then enjoy any of the 16 other specially imported European beers.
Rock Cod Café
1759 Cowichan Bay Road, Cowichan Bay
When one comes to the west coast they often want to experience fresh caught local fish from the region. We would suggest the family friendly Rock Cod Café as a terrific choice for fresh seafood. Located alongside the marina and shores of the ocean in the charming Maritime town of Cowichan Bay you will find this family friendly cafe.
Rock Cod Café prides itself on strictly following the OceanWise and Marine Stewardship Council in their seafood dish offerings. The Vancouver Aquarium has helped restaurants select seafood that is sustainable, well managed and protects natural habitats. As Rock Cod Café states “From Boat to Table, Everyone Wins”
In addition to it’s wide selection of seafood, the staff and cooks have worked hard to create an extensive Celiac friendly menu that rivals their regular menu.
When you visit Rock Cod Café, we recommend trying the fish and chips as they proudly share that it is what has put them on the map. They are so well known that they even appeared on the Food Network’s popular show, You Gotta Eat Here.
Duncan Garage Café & Bakery
330 Duncan Street, Duncan
The heart of the Cowichan Valley to most would be considered to be Duncan “The City of Totems”. Sitting directly across from some of the most iconic totems of the city is the Historic Duncan Garage. This beautifully restored building was constructed in 1913 and was home to the longest running garage at 65yrs in the province of BC’s records.
Keeping the history alive with the name Duncan Garage, the service is no longer cars but rather a warm and inviting community center. Open 7 days a week this location is home to a whole food market, organic coffee bar, organic bakery, vegetarian cafe and even a bookstore.
When visiting, the ever-popular Rice Bowl is sure to hit the spot with it’s heaping proportions if you are looking for a filling lunch. Paired with a unique warm drink you won’t find at the chain stores, the warm Tumeric Ginger Elixer with steamed soymilk is a memorable choice. For a special treat to finish your visit, the Cinnamon buns would be our must try selection.
740 Handy Road, Mill Bay
When a lifetime of construction and building bridges dots your past but you decide to build a Bistro, interesting things are sure to transpire. In 2010 the entire Mill Bay marina was wiped out by a massive storm and huge waves. It was shortly after that a group of local businessmen got together and rebuilt a stunning new Marina along the waterfront. Part of the rebuilding project included the Bridgeman’s Bistro sitting at the end of the pier high above the water below. Stunning views of the Bay and Saanich Inlet are seen in every direction.
Once inside the Bistro, the bridge and beam inspired décor and craftsmanship is seen all around from big steel girders to timber posts and industrial fixtures. The look and feel supports the message they share on their website. “We pay homage to the blue collar sensibility of the bridge worker, hard working, adventurous, risk takers who love a full belly and a good drink”.
The menu consists of simple classic style meals but with a focus on bringing the local farms and ocean to your plate. The meatloaf club is a mouthwatering delight with rich flavors and hearty proportions. Pair it with the local Merridale cider on tap or any of the other local Vancouver Island Craft beers on tap.