At not quite 10 a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning in August, the crowds congregate on the sidewalk of this unassuming Richmond, B.C., strip mall before Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant even opens its doors. The restaurant has won accolades for its upscale dim sum. Judging by how quickly the large space fills once staff let us in, Chef Tony is a local favourite as well.
The server helps our group negotiate the menu, pointing out the most popular – and, for me, the vegetarian – dishes. Before I can finish my first cup of green tea, the food starts to arrive: warm, flaky mushroom tarts; truffle-topped siu mai, or pork dumplings; crispy triangles of deep-fried tofu; rice noodles with hoisin and peanut sauces; tender-crisp bok choy cooked with ginger and garlic; and my favourite dim sum dish, steamed "molten lava" buns filled with runny, salty-sweet egg custard. The spread rivals any I enjoyed while visiting Hong Kong earlier this year, and I'm starting to believe the hyperbole. Perhaps Richmond really does have the world's best Chinese food.
I'd long wanted to sample the restaurants of this island municipality across the bridge from Vancouver. A once-sleepy flatland covered in farms, it's now B.C.'s fourth-largest city, with close to half of its 200,000-odd residents of Chinese origin, and significant cultural diversity beyond that. The city is home to some 800 restaurants, half of them Asian and 200 of them located along the three-block strip of Alexandra Road known as "Food Street."
The sheer volume meant choosing where to eat after Chef Tony was a daunting proposition, but the workload was lightened immeasurably by the existence of the brand-new Dumpling Trail, which officially launched in late August. The curated list of restaurants serving diverse styles of dumplings – not just hailing from China, but from elsewhere in Asia, too – is designed to give visitors an entry point into the city's restaurant scene.
Starting with 15 stops, the digital map will expand to about 30 by the end of the year, accompanied by information in print and online on the types of dumpling you can find and which restaurants specialize in that variety. "A lot of people see the brochure and their eyes light up," says Lesley Chang, communications manager at Tourism Richmond. "They say, 'I gotta go do this.'"
Her team created the trail to meet demand from travellers like me, food-lovers on a time budget who might be visiting Vancouver and are likely to hop over to Richmond for a meal or a food crawl – but want to be saved the effort of poring over online reviews to find the perfect destination. Rather than a food tour with group and guide, the Dumpling Trail is designed to be DIY so that smartphone-equipped visitors can make choices on the fly, be it a feast at a single restaurant or a sampling from four or five.
Dumplings were chosen as the feature dish, Chang says, because they're accessible to tourists less familiar with Asian cuisines – yet showcase the diversity of what Richmond's restaurants have to offer. In fact, Chang adds, some initial feedback is that people have been surprised by how different all the dumplings are. "A lot of people think a dumpling is a dumpling, but that's not always the case," she says. "Dim sum dumplings are very different from dessert dumplings."
Such self-guided food tours aren't new, but their breadth seems to be a growing trend. Thanks to the proliferation of tech-savvy travellers who make last-minute decisions on their trip itineraries, Web-based guides (often promoted via social media and search channels to targeted audiences) are more popular than ever. Combine that with a culture that's obsessed not just with food, but with everything authentic, local and craft, and you've got the perfect recipe for destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and small businesses to build out themed food trails that lure visitors to expand their food and drink horizons by sampling regional offerings.
"People love the flexibility," says Lindsay Young, food tourism developer for the Toronto-based Culinary Tourism Alliance (CTA). "They don't have to do as much research, and they can visit at their leisure." Not only do most travellers have to dine out, but they're more and more frequently making meals a key part of their travel experiences. According to 2011 research from Destination Canada, roughly half of potential inbound travellers from key markets such as Britain, France and the United States find brewery and winery tastings an appealing part of travel, for example, with close to 70 per cent interested in dining at restaurants using local ingredients.
The CTA likes to use the word "co-opetition" – that's "co-operative competition" – as the reasoning behind similar businesses banding together to promote their commonalities. Travellers might not go out of their way to visit one brewery, Young notes as an example, but will make the trip for a cluster of four. Food trails can be the impetus for tourists' trips to a destination, or an additional activity they enjoy while visiting for other purposes. Young cites the Chocolate and the Bacon & Ale trails in Stratford, Ont., as examples of the latter, designed to add an extra element to the itineraries of those in town for the theatre – and get them exploring more of the town, too.
"Craft-beer-tasting rooms offer you a connection to community," says Paul Kamon, whose multiple roles in B.C.'s tourism industry include lead administrator and tourism consultant for the brand-new B.C. Ale Trail, which launched on Oct. 15. "As a traveller, it's one of those great opportunities to connect with locals."
A joint project between Destination B.C., regional DMOs and small businesses, the Ale Trail is an obvious fit for a province where a growing inventory of microbreweries has soared past the century mark. Still a work in progress – a Vancouver trail is noticeably absent – the website currently includes seven one- to three-day itineraries scattered across the southern regions of the province.
Visitors to Vancouver might take a day trip to nearby Port Moody, for example, which will soon be a mere SkyTrain ride away. The Ale Trail suggests kayaking and exploring public art as well as dropping in at the town's local-focused restaurants and four craft breweries. The site also includes a search tool that lets you find breweries by various features: family-friendly, say, or offering of-the-moment sour beer – all to help visitors craft a custom experience quickly and easily.
"The way people find information now is radically different than in the past," Kamon says, noting that the Ale Trail is designed not just for out-of-province visitors, but for B.C. residents looking to get to know their own backyard a little better. "Ultimately, that's the reward," he says, "getting people out and exploring."
As for the Dumpling Trail, I soon discover one of its weaknesses: It's a challenge to order just one thing from an extensive menu. Su Hang, for instance, is known for its Shanghainese cuisine, including steamed, boiled and soup dumplings. We order steamed vegetarian crescents with ornately crimped edges, presented in perfect symmetry in a pretty bamboo steamer, but can't resist another savoury dish too, a mound of cooked spinach and bean curd eaten sandwiched in squares of flaky, sesame-topped pastry.
By the time squares of white, wobbly coconut jelly arrive at the table, I'm flagging. The 10-minute walk to 4 Stones Vegetarian Cuisine isn't nearly long enough to build up more of an appetite, but I rally myself to sample their pan-fried gyoza, and sweet, chewy mock-meat Kung Pao Chicken, slightly tongue-numbing thanks to Szechuan pepper. I'm so stuffed that I'm secretly thankful that Xi'An Cuisine in the Richmond Public Market, known for its hand-pulled noodles, turns out to be closed. Chang tells me that she's heard of one visiting group managing to hit six spots on the Dumpling Trail before retiring, but I can't imagine getting that far without exploding. So in that worst of travel writer clichés, I vow to return. But next time, I'll bring reinforcements.
Culinary trails to try
- The Nova Scotia Seafood Trail is so extensive, you’ll need to narrow your focus. Take cooking classes, enjoy community lobster suppers, or sample bowl after bowl of chowder until you find your favourite. Combine with the Good Cheer Trail to get to know the province’s craft cideries, distilleries, breweries and wineries; both offer passports (printed or virtual) that let you earn gifts and contest entries. novascotiaculinarytrails.com
- Earn your way to a “Je bois local” T-shirt as you sample the craft beers of Quebec City and region with the help of the I Drink Local map by tour company Broue-Tours, available in print or online. broue-tours.ca
- No matter where you are in Quebec, you’ll find some members of La Route des fromages fins, which showcases the province’s numerous cheese producers. Pick a region, download its map and choose your own cheese-tasting adventure. routedesfromages.com
- Satisfy your sweet tooth and then some on not one but two butter-tart trails in Ontario. The Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Tour includes some 50 bakeries whose offerings run the gamut from plain and classic to pecan-studded and even gluten-free. West of the GTA, Butter Tarts and Buggies in Minto, Southgate and Wellington North encompasses not just baked goods, but the horse and buggy culture of the local Mennonite community. buttertarttour.ca, buttertartsandbuggies.com
- The Dumpling Trail in Richmond, B.C., includes a growing list of restaurants vetted for their English-speaking staff and easy access from the SkyTrain. (Consider a visit on your next layover at YVR.) Find Japanese gyoza, Shanghainese xiao long bao or dim sum staple siu mai – all on an easy train ride from downtown Vancouver. dumplingtrail.com
- The BC Ale Trail helps travellers make a dent in the province’s “118 and counting” microbreweries. Select your route by travel method (biking, walking or driving), create your own to-visit list or click through by region for an introductory video and sample itinerary. bcaletrail.ca