By Doug O'Neil
Season after season, theater-goers make the trip up to the Stratford Festival in Ontario to get their dose of Shakespeare and other theatrical fare, but increasingly, food has been taking center stage. Our writer lifts the curtain on the local culinary scene in Stratford.
The play’s the thing,” said Hamlet, who could have been speaking of Stratford, the city of 31,000 nestled on the Avon River in southwestern Ontario, around 2 1/2 hours from Buffalo. Plays, especially those written by William Shakespeare, have long been the city’s main drawing card since the Stratford Festival launched in 1953.
For Buffalonians who delight in mad monarchs and star-crossed lovers, the Stratford Festival offers it all – along with a smattering of Gilbert & Sullivan musicals and Tony Award-winning comedies. But in the last few years, the festival’s theatrical stars have had to share the marquee. Enter stage left: a cast of dedicated local chefs, organic food producers and field-to-table restaurateurs.
“Visitors used to book their theater tickets — and then make their dinner reservations,” says Ryan O’Donnell, chef of the popular Mercer Hall Kitchen + Beer Hall + Hotel (104 Ontario St.; 1-888-816-4011; Mercerhall.ca). “Many people now fit in their theater choices after they’ve made their restaurant reservations.”
Much of the burgeoning food movement can be credited to the Stratford Chefs League, a group of food enthusiasts who share a vision of uniting chefs with farmers to promote locally grown food. Among that dedicated group is cheesemaker, farmer and restaurateur Ruth Klaasen, who’s been part of the Stratford food scene for almost
30 years. Said Klaasen: “We have the Stratford Chef School, year-round farmers markets – even a slow food market – a micro-brewery, a vodka and gin distillery right in town, plus year-round food tours. We boast at least 30 excellent restaurants and cafés which is remarkable for a town of this size.”
Now, let the food credits roll.
Much ado about dinner
There was a time when competition for a table at Rundles Restaurant (9 Cobourg St.; 519-271-6442; Rundlesrestaurant.com) had all the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy. The classic eatery, which specializes in traditional French cuisine, was one of the few options for theater-goers when it opened in 1977. Rundles has stayed on top of its game thanks to Neil Baxter, who’s been chef de cuisine since 1981. Baxter has taken periodic sabbaticals to hone his skills at Michelin-starred restaurants in France, and not long ago he completed a stint at the renowned Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen.
But there are newer kids on the block, such as Mercer Hall, which is a restaurant, hotel and beer hall combined. Chef Ryan O’Donnell has earned rave reviews for his Japanese-inspired menu. (Take my advice: order the whole fish.)
Over at Monforte on Wellington (80 Wellington St.; 519-301-7256; Monfortedairy.com), Ruth Klaasen has introduced diners to the Italian concept of an osteria, which she describes as “a place to enjoy wine and simple food.”
Her simple menu highlights foraged, seasonal, local and fermented food. Shareable dishes include her own artisanal Monforte cheeses, charcuterie, pastas, salads, soups, preserves and pickles.
For a relatively quick bite between shows, grab a seat at Downie Street Burgers (107 Downie St.; 1-519-508-5500; Downiestreetburgers.ca) and ask for a side order of maple bacon poutine to go with your burger.
Ann Swerdfager, who’s in her eleventh year as publicity director for the Stratford Festival, recommends The Restaurant at the Bruce Hotel (89 Parkview Dr.; 1-855-708-7100; Thebruce.ca): “It’s just a couple minutes’ walk from the Festival Theatre, and the main dining room offers an exceptional menu with a focus on New Canadian cuisine. I like to sit in the lounge or outdoor terrace to enjoy a helping of oysters. For a light bite before the show, I’d suggest the wood-fired pizza at Pazzo Pizzeria (70 Ontario St.; 1-519-273-6666; Pazzo.ca).”
If dates and quinces don’t tickle your fancy but chocolate, brittle and nougat do, spend an hour (at least) at the mammoth Rheo Thompson Candies (55 Albert St.; 1-888-271-6910; Rheothompson.com) or the equally decadent Chocolate Barrs (55 George Street W.; 1-519-272-2828; Chocolatebarrs.com). For baked good options, I suggest Black Angus Bakery (443 Erie St.; 519-273-2253; Blackangusrestaurant.ca), where co-owner Susan Ratz whips up delicious shortbread cookies packed with maple-syrup-candied walnuts. Funky newcomer to the scene, Kandy Cosstick of Kandy Cakes (47 York St.; 519-508-3835) bakes, sculpts, designs and decorates the wildest cakes and cupcakes imaginable.
Stratford Festival highlights
This season’s lineup (through November)
boasts 14 productions, including “Romeo & Juliet,” “Twelfth Night,” and iconic musicals such as
“Guys and Dolls” and “HMS Pinafore.”
Go to Visit Stratford (Visitstratford.ca) to purchase passports for four self-guided culinary-themed trails: Chocolate Trail, Pumpkin Trail, Bacon & Ale Trail
and the Maple Trail.
Savour Stratford Perth County hosts Saturday afternoon tastings where you can sample local foods and specialties.
$35. See details on Visit Stratford (Visitstratford.ca) or call
Business partners Ryan Stokes and Bruce Pepper envisioned their own microbrewery when they were both schoolteachers. Now that they’re out of the classroom they devote themselves full-time to crafting English Pale Ale, Porter and India Pale Ale at Black Swan Brewing (144 Downie St.; 519-814-7926; Blackswanbrewing.ca). Patrons can pull up a stool and swap notes on malt character and hop profiles while sampling a flight (which they call a “paddle”) of what’s on tap. You can find Black Swan brews at various spots around town, including the Mercer Hall tap room, which has 130 beers available.
“You Banbury Cheese.”
Elizabethans in Shakespeare’s time took cheese seriously enough to use it as an insult. Stratfordites, such as Ruth Klaasen, also take cheese seriously. As owner-operator of Monforte Dairy, Ontario’s oldest operating artisanal cheese company, she produces 30 different kinds of cheese, several of which have won awards. “It all starts with the milk,” says Klaasen, “Our local farmers bring us their milk – from their hay — and grass-fed cows, goats, sheep. No antibiotics.” You can buy Klaasen’s cheese products at her restaurant, Montforte on Wellington (see above), the Stratford Market (Agriplex building, 353 McCarthy Rd.) on Saturday mornings, and at various eateries around town. The baked camembert at Revival House (70 Brunswick St.; 519-273-3424; Revival.house) is a tasty medley of Monforte cow Camembert, figs, walnuts and honey. To witness the entire cheese-making process in action, visit Stonetown Artisan Cheese (Stonetowncheese.com) in nearby St. Mary’s where you’ll receive a warm welcome from Hans and Jolanda Weber – and their barn full of cows. Their cheese can be purchased in various Stratford shops including The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop. (Themilkywhey.ca; 118 Ontario St.; 519-814-9439).
If you’re peckish after an evening show, I can vouch for the five-cheese macaroni at Bentley’s Bar & Inn (99 Ontario St.; 1-800-0361-5322; Bentleysbarinn.com). Thankfully, I didn’t have far to walk to my bed. I stayed upstairs in one of their comfy loft rooms: the perfect end to a perfect day of noshing.
Indeed, in terms of culinary scenes, Stratford is a tough act to follow.
Take it outside
Okay, now that you’ve supped, here are some fun ways to shed a few of those calories.
• Rent a bike from Totally Spoked (www.totallyspoked.ca)
• Tour the Avon River in paddleboat or kayak. Avon Boat Rentals (avonboatrentals.ca)
• Hike the Avon Trail. For routes and scheduled hikes, visit Avon Trail (www.avontrail.ca).