Jonny Harris' guide to eating well in small towns across Canada
The host of CBC’s Still Standing on the cross-country dining renaissance
As host of Still Standing, Jonny Harris has travelled across the country many times over, visiting some of the most interesting out-of-the-way towns in Canada. And no matter how out-of-way the town, he seems to find some interesting and unique eating options. We sat down and asked him for his tips for finding great meals in small towns.
In Still Standing, you travel around the country through all these small places that you've never been to before and that a lot of people have never heard of. But you still always seem to find really interesting and unique places to eat. How do you guys do that?
There's a bit of scouting that goes on. We have a story producer for every town we go to who goes a couple of weeks before we do and they suss out who we're going to talk to and fine tune the story that we're going try and tell. And, of course, for the rest of us they are also on a recon mission to find the best places to eat, the best places to go for a beer after work.
So you have to look around, and when you see a place you do a little surveillance, go inside, take in the atmosphere of the place, engage with the people. Usually you can get a good idea if it's the kind of place you want to eat in.
What are some of the great things about eating in small towns?
One good thing is that the towns we visit are usually so small that they won't have a Tim Horton's or a Subway so you're definitely going to eat local.
In Haida Gwaii, we visited one woman named Roberta Olson for an episode of Still Standing. She runs a spot called Keenawaii's Kitchen out of her home, and she taught us all about traditional foraging and hunting. You have a meal and it'll have softshell crab, various takes on kelp and seaweed, and you learn that this was food that was literally gathered off the beach. And I said to this woman: "You know, I'm living in Toronto and I can't go gather food of the shore of lake Ontario." And she said to me totally seriously, "Well, where do you gather your food?" Well, I gather it at the grocery store. I don't have any choice!
Locally sourced foods can be great, but do you ever run into problems with eating locally? As in, maybe local sources are not very plentiful?
There were some really nice places to eat up in Churchill, Manitoba, but you go into the grocery store and it's pretty slim pickings and up north very expensive for fresh produce.
When you go into the Dancing Bear Restaurant, you think it looks like a bit of an upscale restaurant. But the railroad was down at the time, so nothing was getting in and the mark-up on everything — never mind fresh vegetables — was absolutely through the roof.
I ordered a salad. But I had gone to the grocery store and I thought there was no way they'd come out with a decent salad. But they had a greenhouse nearby and they grow their own vegetables! I did not expect to find such a nice restaurant there and did not expect fresh produce. But they brought out an incredible salad: blueberries, salad, arugula, they grew it in the greenhouse out back! Really nice.
Arugula and blueberries and local produce all sound great. But on Still Standing a lot of the food segments are about old standards and town favourites. I'm thinking of the hot dog stand in Bulkley Valley, British Columbia, or the "pound in the mound" burger challenge in Pilot Mound, Manitoba.
Oh, those old standards are always there. I often try to look for something a little more healthy, but every now and then, you've got to indulge. Like when you're in Quebec, people are like, "Oh the poutine here is the best in the world!" A lot of people make that claim. And you have to investigate.
Like in Mattawa, Ontario. You've got Turcotte's chip stand and this is the fourth generation it's been in business and it has outlived most businesses in Mattawa. It's a really cool young couple and this guy's mom passed it on to him. She was known as the town counsellor, everyone would come have a poutine and unload their problems. A real institution.
How do you feel eating/dining has changed over the past 30 years?
The folks that are are moving into management now are doing some really cool things in really neat places, places where you might think, "Jeez, making a go of it here might be a bit of a risk", but a lot of them seem to be doing really well. There's a resurgence of small privately-owned interesting places to eat. I've seen them just popping up all over the country.
Even the smallest town will have a nice new café. It's classic to find a young couple maybe hipster couple who moved in from the city. In Eganville in the Ottawa Valley, for example, you have Engine House Coffee. They're a young couple from Toronto and they wanted to get out of it get out of the city, and they set up a great little roaster.
Do you see that reflected in your home province of Newfoundland?
You know Newfoundland's not as poor as it used to be and you can really see it changing. In St. John's there's Raymond's and Mallard Cottage. So St. John's has a few rock star restaurants that have put it on the map recently. It's new and inventive and a bit more creative than it was 20 or 30 years ago, everything's a bit more healthy than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
When we went to Bell Island in Newfoundland, we met a guy who turned an old convent into a hotel and restaurant called the Grand Wabana Inn and the food there might have been the best ever that we've had. Obviously the hip thing is to do an interesting twist on local fare, you know, so you might take Jiggs dinner or fish and brewis and do something with it.
Sorry, "Jiggs dinner"?
It's funny, I try to explain salt meat to other Canadians and they're a bit baffled by it.
In Newfoundland traditionally on Sundays you'd have a Jiggs dinner or some would call it a boiled dinner. It's a lot of boiled vegetables and salt meat which is very big in Newfoundland. Salt meat is a just a big chunk of beef that's been salted beyond the point of reason and you need to boil it for hours and hours and hours, and you throw the water out because it's too salty and start again with fresh water which draws the salt out, and even then it's unbelievably salty, but so tasty. And then you do some of your vegetables in that water so they get sort of the pot liquor and… it's a lot of salt.
What is one difference between a big city dining experience and one in the small towns?
I guess any good business is eager to please its customers, but you really do feel that in small towns, there's a personal investment. In a lot of these places the guy or gal setting the food down in front of you might own the place. And they're making a go of a new business and you really feel like they're invested in it from the beginning to the end.
At Family Fisheries in Campobello, we could just tell tell that the woman who was laying the plate in front of you; she had ordered those lobsters, she had bought them locally, she had cooked them. I think that's the difference. The person is not there for a night's salary plus tips, they're really hoping that you'll tell your friends that you had lobster at their place.
Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.