Victoria may be best known for high tea at the Empress, its proximity to the Butchart Gardens and for having one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America (second only to San Francisco’s), but while everyone was dismissing it as predictable, the British Columbia city got funky. Its compact, walkable downtown core is home to plenty of local artisans doing their own thing, from screen printing to letterpress, first-flush tea to cold-pressed olive oil. Chalk it up to the small population, a dedication to supporting locals and the space that comes from slowing down to island time.
Canada uses the Westminster system of government that, among other quirks, recognizes the Queen of England as the head of state. As the capital of the province, Victoria is host to the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, which were designed in the late 1800s by architect Francis Rattenbury. The Parliamentary Dining Room (wapo.st/parliamentary , 501 Belleville St., 250-387-3959) is one of the city’s better-kept secrets, where white tablecloths and old-school service offer a more upscale experience than the prices might imply. Approach from the ground-level Mowat Entrance, bring photo ID and be prepared for airport-style security. The dining room is closed on weekends and its hours depend on the legislature’s schedule, so it’s best to call ahead and make reservations. After breakfast — which can feature practically anything, including plain old toast or sirloin and eggs — take in a free tour of the buildings, which apparently are haunted by Rattenbury’s ghost.
Between its British roots and access to impeccable seafood, it’s natural that Victoria should have top-notch fish and chips. Open from mid-February through November, Red Fish Blue Fish (redfish-bluefish.com, 1006 Wharf St., 250-298-6877) occupies a converted shipping container on the dock of Victoria’s Inner Harbor, just north of the seaplane terminal. Fish and chips come in your choice of halibut, cod or salmon in crispy beer batter, and the tacones (hand-rolled tacos) and fish chowder are excellent. It is a zero-waste spot, and all of its offerings are certified by Ocean Wise, the Canadian standard for sustainable seafood. At peak lunch hour (roughly 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), wait times can run from 30 to 60 minutes; there’s little shelter, so be sure to dress for the weather. Not surprisingly, the shack is also immensely popular with local birds. Despite their protests, you should not feed them.
Victoria’s small-town feel gets even cozier when it comes to the food community, where tightknit connections between restaurants and food producers come naturally and support for culinary experiments can border on religious. In 2009, Cliff Leir opened his bakery Fol Epi, where he stone-grinds heritage Red Fife wheat — purchased directly from farmers on the Canadian prairies — and transforms it into gorgeous breads and pastries in a wood-fired oven. In 2015, he opened a second location, as well as Agrius Restaurant (agriusrestaurant.com, 732 Yates St., 778-265-6312), in downtown Victoria. Agrius bills itself as an organic restaurant, but that doesn’t do justice to the big ideas behind the business, which Leir sees as a collection of like-minded people nourishing their community. It all sounds very hippie-dippie, but the food is polished, the service smart and the space contemporary. The only problem? The constantly changing menu means little chance to revisit a dish — but such is the price for such vibrant taste memories. Reservations strongly recommended.Breakfast, lunch and dinner New Orleans, La.; Durham, N.C.; Geneva, Switzerland