Afternoon tea at Victoria’s Fairmont Empress Hotel has been a celebrated tradition since 1908. In recent years, it had also become the city’s toughest dining reservation, especially during the peak summer season when some 400 people a day raised their pinkies in the grand lobby lounge.
COVID-19 turned those teacups topsy-turvy, but not necessarily for the worse.
After being forced to close completely for the first time in its 112-year history, the Empress reopened on June 26 and the community breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Even Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry was spotted having drinks at the hotel’s Q Bar soon after it reopened – which is about as comforting as it gets for an industry in peril.
As with other Victoria restaurants that are succeeding, the hotel has put a strong emphasis on serving locals (Sunday roasts for takeout) and is making the most of its outdoor spaces (a new Saturday Lunch on the Lawn offers picnic packs under bright-yellow umbrellas sponsored by Veuve Clicquot).
Tea service has resumed on weekends. And as tourists return, guests without reservations are again being turned away. But now those coveted reservations can be secured about 10 days ahead instead of the usual three months out.
And for people who still don’t feel comfortable dining indoors no matter how palatial the setting, there is also Tea To Go – a delightful new offering that includes iced tea and the entire array of finger sandwiches, all beautifully packaged in sturdy boxes that prevent the dainty pastries from getting crushed.
“Do less, but do it well and do not cut corners. That’s the advice I give to every business that I talk to,” says Empress general manager Indu Brar.
It’s not surprising to see Canada’s Castle on the Coast bounce back.
“The Empress will always be a shining beacon for Victoria,” says local hospitality consultant Shawn Soole, who was host of a daily podcast during the darkest days of the pandemic that was required listening for industry leaders across the country.
“But the old ways are gone,” Mr. Soole says. “Victoria used to be tourist-driven, now it’s local-driven. The restaurants and bars that jumped on e-commerce are doing well. The ones that have always treated tourism as the cream in their business, not the milk, and have carved out a niche for themselves, those are the real testament to Victoria’s resilience.”
It’s definitely not all sunshine and Champagne in the Garden City. A stroll down Government Street, only steps away from the Empress, can be downright depressing.
Mayor Lisa Helps was one of the first to press the provincial government for fast-tracked liquor licences for expanded patios, and city council quickly turned the main tourist drag into a pedestrian-priority zone.
But on weekdays, with government offices closed and tourism down 40 per cent, those hot-pink picnic tables and red-plastic Muskoka chairs sit mostly empty. Buskers strum their guitars on lonely street corners, serenading the few quiet bars that remain open (many downtown establishments only operate on weekends). Down by the harbour, waterfront patios stop seating customers well before sunset.
Promising signs of outdoor life are tucked away like insider secrets that must be searched out rather than stumbled across.
At Pagliacci’s Restaurant, a long tradition of free live music has spilled outside for happy hour. Tables lining both sides of Broad Street, now completely closed to cars, are covered with bright orange umbrellas while jazz trios and klezmer folk bands swing and shimmy down the centre. The outdoor setting isn’t that much different than Government Street only a block away. But perhaps because it’s concentrated and slightly removed, the vibe feels far more festive, especially from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., when almost everything on the menu (cocktails, wine, beer and snacks) is only $3 to $8.
Further out, in Victoria’s historic Market Square, the inner courtyard has been revitalized with an open-air beer garden filled with plants, picnic tables and strings of fairy lights.
Whistle Buoy Brewing, which already had a small patio, expanded into a larger picnic spot that allows customers to bring their own food or order vegetarian fare from nearby Green Cuisine. On the upper level, Café Mexico added a few outdoor tables to its previously unused balcony space. And the Drake Eatery & Craft Beer Parlour rolled out a new space on the ground level with a separate tap list, QR-ordering food delivery from its regular kitchen and almost enough tables (all safely marked into physically distanced zones) to compensate for its lost indoor seating.
“On a sunny Saturday afternoon, it’s pretty nice out here,” says co-owner Mike Spence, noting that they still rarely reach capacity and are having trouble advertising some of their regular events.
On July 25, they held an annual “function” with Four Winds Brewing Co. Café Mexico provided the tacos. And the City of Victoria sent a local band to perform a pop-up concert without telling any of the tenants. But they couldn’t sell tickets in advance or post about it on Facebook.
“The health inspector was here right away and said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re doing an event.’”
Although the beer garden has been helpful, Mr. Spence and his partner Lee worry about what will happen come fall when dining moves back indoors.
Nowhere, one of enRoute’s top 10 new Canadian restaurants for 2019, has been full since it reopened on May 29. Mind you, the nightly changing, 10-course tasting menu – eclectic, intensely local and playful with its mini portions of buttery Humboldt squid noodles and 100-per-cent wagyu hotdogs – is a tremendous bargain at only $69.
A long, leisurely tasting menu is a hard pitch these days, especially in a small restaurant. After taking out the bar, Nowhere was left with 16 seats, now divided into five tables separated by nine-foot-tall plywood partitions.
But the restaurant is doing so well, sales are the same as they were pre-COVID and owner Clark Deutscher says he’ll probably never go back to an à-la-carte menu again.
“Our customer base has always been local. Our sales are typically higher in winter than summer. We aren’t dependent on tourism and that’s probably why we’re doing okay, or at least better than the places on Wharf Street, which are not looking too great.”
As with other cities, Victoria’s residential neighbourhoods are faring better than the downtown core. And the further you travel, the more vibrant the scene.
Hive Eatery, a popular burger joint on the outskirts of Cook Street Village, doubled its regular sales when reopening for takeout in May.
In Fernwood, the new owner of Stage Wine Bar actually credits COVID for saving his restaurant.
After taking over the popular neighbourhood restaurant last summer, David Listhaeghe and chef Ivan Litland tried pushing the menu in a more formal direction.
“We weren’t really connecting with the community. When COVID hit, we turned the dining room into a provisions shop and started selling house-made bacon and preserves. It grew and grew and got this real French feel with everyone stopping by for a chat. Now we know all our neighbours and they’re coming back for a sit-down dinner or bar snacks or to just grab a bottle of wine off the shelf.”
Perhaps the best sign of success is when a restaurant owner can take a vacation at the height of summer in the middle of a pandemic.
Castro Boateng, Yam magazine’s chef of the year for 2019, was on Hornby Island with his family when I visited House of Boateng earlier this month. But the newly expanded sidewalk patio at his casual Langford restaurant was bustling as the smoky scent of spicy jerk chicken being slowly grilled over charcoal and rum-soaked wood chips filled the air.
“That jerk chicken makes the construction guys really happy,” the chef later said by phone. (He credits his Japanese sous-chef for taking the superbly sticky jollof rice, which goes with the daily lunch feature, to the next level.)
Before opening the restaurant in this fast-developing commuter city two years ago, Mr. Boateng was a well-established catering chef. That business has taken a huge hit, but thanks to the patio and decent take-and-bake sales, the café is operating at 70 per cent.
“This pandemic has shown how important it is to have community around you. Our sales are down, but the community has really rallied around us,” Mr. Boateng said.
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