Ten years ago, it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in downtown St. John’s. At least, that’s what the locals say. Thanks to Newfoundland’s recent economic boom, driven primarily by the oil and gas industry, that is certainly no longer the case. It’s hard to walk for a block on Water Street, the city’s main drag, without hitting a slick café.
Booming coffee culture is just one example of how drastically St. John’s has changed over the past decade; across the city, there’s a newfound sense of urban cosmopolitanism that seems to have everyone a bit gobsmacked.
Young entrepreneurs born on the Rock, many of whom left for the mainland long ago, are returning home armed with the knowledge that there is an increasing market for the finer things in life. From clothing stores to restaurants, art galleries and specialty boutiques, this city sports an enviable array of stores and services.
Plus, in a region where foraging and nose-to-tail eating are the historical norm and not just a culinary trend, chefs and hunters are stepping up their game in delicious fashion, combining traditional ingredients such as cod tongues, scrunchions (fried, cubed pork back fat), wild rabbit and moose with modern plating and techniques.
St. John’s still has all the charms – spectacular vistas, whale watching, history and friendly locals spinning old foolishness – you’ve been led to expect. But when the whales aren’t jumping or the fog has you down, here are some of the best ways to explore this newly optimistic city from end to end, particularly before the snow starts falling.
This restaurant, which opened to much acclaim in 2010, has a well-deserved and hard-won reputation for stellar, consistent food and charming service. Run by a pair of Jeremys – Bonia, the sommelier, and Charles, the executive chef – it’s not unusual to find the dining room packed on a Wednesday night. Come for the snow crab linguine, but stay for the astounding array of top-shelf bourbon. 95 Water St., raymondsrestaurant.com
Urchin Art Materials and Papery
This charming storefront stocks an impressive array of paints, brushes and papers to supply the bustling St. John’s art industry. For those less creatively inclined, this eco-conscious store also stocks handmade paper from Montreal’s Papeterie St. Armand, an army of trendy notebooks, and Cavallini wrapping papers so beautiful they should be framed. 197 Water St., urchingreen.ca
Started as a side project by Anna Hellqvist, a Swedish biologist and transplant who sold her products through word-of-mouth when she first arrived in St. John’s, Tval is a line of soaps, lotions and mysterious potions derived from all-natural ingredients. All their products, most of which smell good enough to eat, are made in the back of the shop in an open workroom. 280 Water St., tvalskincare.com
Opened by chefs and real-life lovebirds Shaun Hussey and Michelle LeBlanc, Chinched is steadily garnering a fanbase for its rotating menu of fresh, imaginative dishes. In local slang, “chinched” means “to stow, stuff or pack tightly; to be full,” and that’s how you’re going to leave after a round of small plates downstairs at the bar or settling in for the long haul in the upstairs 43-seat dining room. 7 Queen St., chinchedbistro.com
Well-dressed women in the city are intimately familiar with this boutique, which stocks both vintage and contemporary clothing, much of which has been locally tailored and is one-of-a-kind. From deconstructed blazers to bedazzled mini-dresses, it carries gems from Betsey Johnson, Chanel, Diane Von Furstenberg and, at one visit, a floor-length gown from the sold-out Roberto Cavalli for H&M line. Get in line, gals. 183B Duckworth St., modelcitizens.ca
Opened by Frank Fagan and his husband David in June, Junk stocks sartorially conscious threads from international labels including Diesel, Fred Perry and True Religion, along with an enviable collection of gorgeous – and useful – housewares imported from around the world. 302 Water St., 709-758-586
Fixed Coffee & Baking
With a steady stream of good-looking regulars, men in beards and girls in thick-framed glasses, this airy corner café and eatery is a surprisingly cozy place to grab a coffee, a booth and a newspaper and settle in for the morning. They carry inky Vancouver-roasted 49th Parallel beans and are known for their eclectic evening offerings. Noodle dinners! Pop-ups! Taco nights! 183 Duckworth St., fixedcoffee.com
WHERE TO STAY:
Blue on Water
This 11-room boutique hotel is located directly above a popular restaurant of the same name (you’ll have to go to the bar to get your room key). The rooms are spacious – some have huge freestanding bathtubs that can handily fit two plus bubbles – brick-lined and remarkably quiet given their central location and street-facing views. From $159 a night. 319 Water St., blueonwater.com
The Chef’s Inn
Owned by chef Todd Perrin and managed by his salt-of-the-earth parents Wanda and Bill, this four-room bed and breakfast is in a renovated 1893 rowhouse a short walk away from downtown. The breakfast buffet features Wanda’s freshly baked goodies, and views of the harbour from the top floor are magnificent. From $140 a night. 29 Gower St., thechefsinn.ca
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article featured Post Espresso Bar. In fact, Post closed in September.
The Chef's Inn is in a renovated 1893 rowhouse, not 1983 as stated in an earlier version.