If you take BC Ferries from Vancouver to Nanaimo, B.C., and head west on the Pacific Rim Highway, you will climb into clouds, wind around hairpin turns and eventually emerge from the mountains some 160 kilometres later at the wild edge of Canada.
People flock to Tofino on Vancouver Island for all sorts of reasons – the surf-battered beaches, the old-growth rainforest, the whales, the winter storms, the New Age healing energies. Dining, however, has never been one of the main draws. Or at least not until recently.
Tofino's growing restaurant scene, the formation of the Tofino-Ucluelet Culinary Guild and the emergence of artisanal bakers, microbrewers, coffee roasters and chocolate makers have transformed this rugged outpost into an unlikely foodie destination at the end of a long, lovely road.
Pacific Sands Beach Resort
1421 Pacific Rim Hwy, Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-3322; pacificsands.com
In a wooden gazebo beside the beach, a fire pit roars inside a circle of picnic tables. Cantilevered about a metre above the flames, a butterflied spring salmon strapped into a split-cedar skewer has been slowly smoking for three hours. This is how the local Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations have prepared salmon for centuries. You might think the fish would end up dry and shrivelled. But it was the softest, moistest, most delectable salmon I have ever tasted. You can try it for yourself at a twice-weekly barbecue held at this idyllic Cox Bay resort every Wednesday and Saturday in July and August. Open to the public ($34 adults, $16 for children), the outdoor feast also includes roast sirloin, a massive salad buffet and desserts.
RedCan Gourmet & Artisan Pizza
700 Industrial Way, Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-2525; redcangourmet.com
Tim May was the executive chef at Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts for 13 years. That is where Qaamina Sam, a renowned guide from the Ahousaht First Nations, taught him how to cook the aforementioned half-smoked salmon. In addition to organizing the barbecues (and breakfast baskets) at Pacific Sands, his new catering company offers daily takeout meals from a weekly changing menu to enjoy on the beach or in the comfort of your hotel room. This is a great way to avoid the high-season restaurant waits, which can stretch for upwards of an hour if you don't have reservations. Call ahead for special orders and large groups.
Tofino-Ucluelet Culinary Guild
Tofino has always boasted an abundance of sustainable seafood. But the cool climate and short growing season make fresh produce a scarce commodity. Thanks to this new chefs' co-operative, locals and visitors no longer have to scrounge for sweet baby beets and peppery arugula. Founded in 2010, the non-profit guild sources farmed and foraged goods from small suppliers all over Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley. The consolidated buying power has dramatically cut shipping costs and increased the diversity of green edibles. Nearly 100 local residents have joined, using the wholesale program as a de facto CSA (community-supported agriculture). Tourists can stock their coolers at Tofino Co-op (140 First St., 250-725-3226), Beaches Grocery (1184 Pacific Rim Hwy, 250-725-2237) and Green Soul Organics (150 Fourth St., 250-725-4202).
Tofino Brewing Co.
681 Industrial Way, Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-2899; tofinobrewingco.comTake three friends, all surfer dudes with business degrees, dead-end dishwashing jobs and a taste for beer (but no brewing experience). What do you get? In Tofino, the natural fermentation is a local microbrewery. Overseen by brewmaster David Woodward, who was lured from Whistler Brew House, this new brewery's crisp and hoppy ales (no lager) can be found on tap all over town. But you can also tour the tiny facility, do a tasting and fill up a growler on-site.
Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery
600degrees.ca"You must meet Jules." I heard this refrain again and again in Tofino. After tasting this backyard baker's dense and chewy harvest rye bread, I immediately tracked the freckled-faced breadmaker down. Julie Lomenda makes naturally leavened, hand-shaped breads from a wood-fired oven at the back of her house in a cute subdivision on the other side of the highway. I encourage you to take a detour on one of the fairy-tale-named side streets to see how the locals live. But if you want to buy her olive oil bread, sourdough cinnamon buns and whole-grain scones (all made with organic stone-ground hand-milled flour), you can buy it at Beaches Grocery, Green Soul Organics and the Saturday Tofino Public Market (Village Green, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
Live to Surf Plaza
1180 Pacific Rim Hwy., Tofino, B.C.
Who needs to go into town? This is your one-stop shopping spot for lightly battered fish and chips (Wildside Grill), supremely fresh fish tacos (Tacofino), local roasted coffee (Victoria's Discovery at Tofitian Café), handcrafted chocolates (Chocolate Tofino) and all that great bread and produce discussed above (Beaches Grocery).
Spotted Bear Bistro
101 Fourth St., Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-2215; spottedbearbistro.com
The newest restaurant on the scene is, in my opinion, also the best. Owned by chef Vincent Fraissange, who honed his skills at Vancouver's Le Crocodile and Lumière, this casually elegant downtown spot features fresh local ingredients prepared with incredible technique. From beautifully tart Dungeness crab in creamy orange gelatin to tenderly smoked octopus on a bed of golden-grilled potatoes, every bite was pitch-perfect.