I had not been to Stratford, Ont., for a few years and this time I was surprised by some great food, chocolate (in a realm of its own) and a marvelous transportation option. Getting there was a breeze. You can hop on a $29 bus from downtown Toronto as long as you have purchased a theatre ticket. So relaxing!
After the two-hour bus ride, which picked me up at 10 a.m. from in front of the InterContinental Hotel, it was time for lunch. The (Old) Prune was located in the historic downtown in a lovely old house that has been remodeled. Casual yet sophisticated, they offered locally inspired cuisine and the newest addition, Bar 151 offered creative cocktails.
I sampled a number of dishes including garden radishes with wasabi butter and sea salt, mussels escabeche, and foie gras & chicken liver mousse (restaurant owner Shelley Windsor’s favorite. “I almost gave myself gout, I ate so much one year,” she confided.)
The main plate was spring pea ravioli with morel mushrooms, white sesame and wild leeks. So fresh! Dessert was a delicate chevre cheesecake with macerated rhubarb and fennel. Shelley Windsor, from Cornerbrooke, Newfoundland, and her husband Bill, moved to Stratford 18 years ago from New Brunswick. “We had an opportunity to go to Vancouver or Stratford. We chose lifestyle over career,” says Shelley. But career has taken off, too, and they now own numerous restaurants in town including Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. It’s also interesting to point out that the Stratford Chef School, renown for education some of the country’s best chefs, started off in the Prune kitchen.
My group, a number of journalists and local Stratford tourism reps, boarded a bus to get to our next destination. It was supplied via Meet Stratford Road Trips. The company offers lots of options to explore the surrounding countryside but we focused on in-town attractions – Gallery Stratford and Stratford Perth Museum. Gallery Stratford is one of Ontario’s longest operating public art galleries, open since 1967. Contemporary exhibitions focus on regional and Canadian art. Located in the former pump house, its a five minute walk from Stratford Festival Theatre and the Avon River. The gallery is open seven days a week, making it a pleasant stop before a matinee. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.
At Stratford Perth Museum, I walked through the front door and pop phenom Justin Bieber popped out to meet me. Well, his cardboard cutout, that is. The Steps to Stardom exhibit (which runs until November) chronicles the Stratford native’s journey to the top of the charts, starting with busking in front of the Avon Theatre to raise money for a trip to Disney World with his mom. “The exhibit opened last February and lineups started at 6 a.m. People came from all around the world including Paris, Berlin, and Australia. The Belieber Community is really strong online. They took shots, tagged them, and the exhibit grew,” notes Kelly McIntosh, the museum’s administrative co-ordinator.
If you want to be in the heart of the action, there are a couple of downtown boutique hotels to chose from including Bentley’s Lofts, bi-level loft suites, or the Mercer Hotel, with Jacuzzi tubs and faux fireplaces. Both are close to restaurants, shops and all four theatres. I stayed in the Mercer Hotel and loved being able to pop downstairs to shop on Ontario Street’s many unique boutiques.
One dinner to remember was at The Common with Chef Tim Otsuki, a Stratford Chefs School alumnus. The menu was a fustion of Asian, Caribbean and North American dishes featuring many local ingredients. My meal in a bowl was a green Thai curry that had subtle flavours of lemongrass and just the right nip of hot spice.
At the Stratford Chefs School Open Kitchen you can take a one-off cooking class and our group opted for a champagne breakfast. Latkes with smoked trout, French omelette, and puffed pastry with rhubarb and strawberries was a decadent way to start the day. My biggest takeaway was learning how to make a French omelette. Now I need to practice at home! Thankfully, chef Eli Silverthorne was an excellent and patient instructor.
The sweetest part of my adventure was a visit to Rheo Thompson Candies. Traditional recipes dating back to the 1930s have made this spot a favourite for locals and visitors alike. The Mint Smoothies were to die for — I especially liked the dark chocolate version with a dark chocolate peppermint center. The company is 50 years old and was bought from original candymaker Rheo Thompson in 1992 by Christine and Mark Steed. Christine was born and raised in Stratford and is adamant about keeping her customers happy. “We don’t monkey with the traditional recipes Rheo Thompson used, especially the Mint Smoothies which we are famous for.” They also make around 150 other confections including pecan patties, humbugs and fruit jellies. Plus, now you can get Mint Smoothie coffee, ice cream and liqueur.
A working man’s kind of place, Jobsite Brewery, is also very family friendly and served great wood oven pizza. Opened last August , the location used to be a lumberyard and inspired the name. The two owners are also agricultural construction dudes (need a manure pit installed?) and converted the site into a brewery in a scant two months. Phil Buhler and Dave Oldenberger view beer production similar to construction. “We love producing a product and seeing people enjoy,” explains Buhler. A cute touch was the different coloured construction nails you use to pick out the beers for a flight. My favourite brew was the Impact IPA with delighful grapefruit notes.
Junction 56 Distillery is the place to go for creative spirits. Along with vodka, gin and whiskey, they make a Fireshine liqueur with cinnamon, the Rheo Thompson Mint Smoothie liqueur and a rhubarb gin. Owner Mike Heisz worked at Blackberry as an engineer but got tired of making lists of people to lay off. “I wanted to work for myself,” he says noting that now he uses an iPhone. The distillery opened in 2015 and now offers 15 products, five of which are available in the LCBO – vodka, gin, black raspberry gin, Rheo Thompson’s Mint Smoothie (soon to come) and Moonshine.
Being a chocoholic, I couldn’t resist doing Stratford’s Chocolate Trail. For $30 you get six vouchers to trade for delicious treats in various shops. At the MacLeod’s Scottish Shop I scooped some chocolate chip shortbread, at Buzz Stop a quarter-pound bag of Bavarian Chocolate Coffee, at Rheo Thompson four Mint Smoothies, at Olive Your Favourites an aged dark chocolate Balsamic vinegar, at revel coffee cafe a mocha coffee/steamed milk concoction, and at Treasures a jar of Nith Valley Apiary’s cocoa honey. Chocolate heaven!
Dinner my last night was a Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell is an afficiando of Japanese fusion cuisine and some of the small plates I dug into included Karaage fried chicken pieces, crispy tuna sushi roll, pulled pork toastada with spicy BBQ sauce and a Spider Dog 2.0 with flaming chorizo sausage, Desserts are pretty amazing here, too.
Theatre is what Stratford is really known for, and that night I witnessed a performance of Billy Elliot at the Festival Theatre. It was top-notch and the actors received a standing ovation.
As I climbed on the 11 p.m. bus, that picked me up right at the theatre, I looked forward an easy trip home. But that night the Raptors became NBA champions. Many downtown streets were closed for the jubilant crowds, so the driver dropped us off at Islington subway station. No complaints from me, the subway was still running and I avoided traffic jams.
Stratford is a dining delight, a cultural treasure and beautiful, to boot. Definitely worth the two-hour drive from Toronto. Especially when taking the special Stratford bus!