For the Festival goers this season, I thought I would share my opinions of the dining scene in Stratford and review some of the main choices.
I’ve been making yearly trips to Stratford since the late 80s and have eaten at most of the restaurants in town. Happily, the dining scene has really changed and improved since then. Back in the day, there was Bentley’s, the really pricey restaurants like Rundles and the Old Prune, and a handful of Olde English roast beef and Yorkshire pudding places.
My overall impression is that currently Stratford does has some good dining options but that because most of the decent restaurants are fully booked during high season, there is a certain amount of complacency, and a tendency for them not to make the extra effort it takes to create a really great dining experience. I don’t know how well many of the restaurants would ultimately fare in a more competitive environment. Something that particularly annoys me is that many of the more upscale restaurants serve very small portions. I’ve dined at fine restaurants all over the world and never encountered the tiny portion phenomenon anywhere else. I don’t mind paying $150 or even, on occasion, $350 for a nice meal, but I don’t like to leave hungry.
Another general observation is that most restaurants, even the upscale ones, employ local teenagers as wait staff who are typically polite and well-meaning, but lacking in knowledge and professionalism. Because the Festival is seasonal and Stratford is a small town, this is not something that one can really fault the local restaurant industry for.
Finally, if you want a table at one of the better restaurants pre-theatre, be sure to make a reservation.
In addition to my reviews, I’ve rated the restaurants on the following four point scale:
* seriously, folks, stay away!; ** don’t recommend; *** recommend with reservations; **** recommend without reservations
Bella Della: * Worst of the worst -- a truly awful dinning experience. Ate there once, in the summer of 2006 and I won’t be back. Bland lamb shank, water logged basmati rice, ice cream with freezer burn -- totally unacceptable and not cheap either.
Bentley’s. *** Eaten there numerous times over the years. Average to good quality pub food with nightly dinner specials (grilled salmon, pork loin). The menu is dated and the
selections, with the exception of the dinner specials, never seem to change. The atmosphere and seating are comfortable and cozy.
Bijou. ** Ate there once two years ago. A very unpleasant experience. First, the location: the restaurant hovers on the edge of a giant parking lot, behind the shops on Wellington street where the dumpsters and bins are kept. The location aside, the interior of the restaurant was brightly painted in cheerful colours but the seating was cramped and uncomfortable (rickety small tables and chairs packed too close together) and the open kitchen made the room hot and noisy. There are no menus at the table, just one chalk board at the back of the room. I suppose the proprietors think that printing out a nightly menu would detract from the authenticity of the bistro experience. For me, who had to get up from my table and stand in the middle of the room for several minutes just to read the chalk board, not having a menu was a big annoyance. The chalk board menu created other problems when it came to ordering. I wasn’t able to commit to memory the exact name of the wine I wanted to order, so when I asked for the merlot, the waitress, who I’m not even sure was old enough to be serving alcohol and who only knew the wines by their estate names, was dumbfounded. I had to take her up to the chalkboard and point to the wine.
Now the food. I can’t remember what I had for a starter so it must have been average to good. The main course, if you can call it that, I shall never forget. It consisted of three tiny pieces of pickerel (a very ordinary, local fish) and a small handful of diced vegetables presented in an enormous shallow bowl. It was not that the food was bad, it was just that for $24 there was so very little of it. The three pieces of pickerel were so small and thin that they could have been cooked with a blow torch and from they way the fish was brown and curled at the ends, I think it had been. I remember staring down at my plate in disbelief as I what I had been served in no way approximated a meal. I said as much to the waitress who returned my plate to the kitchen. I remember seeing the chef empty the meagre contents of the plate into a bin with a single flick of the fork. That was actually the first time I had ever sent food back in a restaurant and it was a strangely satisfying and empowering experience not to have accepted this pretentious rip-off.
Down the Street. ***1/2 I’ve been eating there since it opened. In the past, I have been disappointed by the small portions of not-terribly well prepared Asian-fusion (I remember a miso and sweet potato soup that was a watery disaster). The last two years, the food has been solid, the portions good, and the prices fairs. At under $20, the organic pork chop I had last year was excellent. The décor (alligator skinned wall-paper and leopard skin upholstery), is a bit late 80s, but in a good way. The restaurant is often crowded and the seating cramped. It seems to be one of the few restaurants with an older, more professional wait staff. Down The Street is the regular boozing haunt of the Festival actors so, unlike the rest of the town that shuts down after 10pm, there is a quite an after theatre scene.
Fellini’s. ** Ate there once, five years ago. The food and atmosphere were very much like those of a mid-priced chain restaurant: bland, bland, bland. If you’re looking for a restaurant that even remotely approximates an authentic Italian dining experience, this is not the place for you.
Foster’s Inn ** ½ Cozy, stylish bistro. I’ve eaten there a number of times over the years and had some good meals and some bad meals. Good meals include lamb shank and pork and spatzle. Bad meals include overly salted bisque, indifferent steak and a charred hamburger (it was black) that the waitress insisted had to be served that way because health regulations stipulated that ground beef be cooked to a certain temperature (that was the second time I’ve sent food back). The prices are right, the portions good, and I do like the décor and ambience but after the hamburger experience, I don’t think I’ll be going back.
Keystone Alley Café– **** I’ve eaten there many, many times. It is the one fine dining restaurant in Stratford that I think actually offers value for money. The chef is not trying to push the envelope in terms of flavours or creativity; everything on the menu you’ve probably had before but it will be delicious, well prepared and there will be plenty of it. The menu is quite unfocused (sushi, duck liver parfait, and lamb curry all coexist on the same page), which seems to be the result of the chef trying to appeal to a very general market. Generally, I stick with the Western dishes, and have always enjoyed the lamb and beef main courses. The chef uses edible flowers as garnishes – very pretty on summer’s day. I’ve never been terribly impressed by the wine selection, but great wine at good prices is not something one usually encounters in Canadian restaurants. One thing I dislike is the interior of the restaurant which, with its brocade banquets in soothing beige, reminds me of a Howard Johnson’s. There is, however, a lovely, covered patio with ample seating where I always request a table. Typically, the wait staff are young but well trained. All in all, the Keystone it is the most reliable fine dining restaurant in Stratford – you probably won’t be wowed by the chef’s creativity but you won’t be leaving disappointed and hungry.
Pazzo Ristorante – *** I’ve dined here frequently since it has opened. The atmosphere is a more elegant and upscale than the other bistro-style restaurants I’ve reviewed. The cheaper house wines, which I typically order, are really very good, sometimes excellent for the money and the pairings always pleasing. I find the quality of the food to be very good, more refined and inventive than the Keystone, but the portions are often questionable. A standard three course meal at a restaurant that doesn’t offer an elaborate tasting menu of multiple courses should be enough but sometimes at Pazzo’s it isn’t. I generally stick with the heavier, richer items like veal and duck. The meat is always perfectly prepared and the sauce delicious but on one infamous occasion, a single fingerling potato cut into three pieces and a couple of asparagus spears were all that accompanied the main. Still, the portions are more considerable than what passes for a main course at Bijou, the prices similar and ambiance much more agreeable. I keep going back because other than Keystone there aren’t any better fine dining options. Pazzo would be my hands down favourite if it wasn’t for the portion issue. The service is generally of a higher standard than other Stratford restaurants.
Pazzo Pizzeria **** really good thin crust pizzas and simple rustic pastas served in a cellar. I generally don’t like hanging out underground, but the thick brick walls and interesting architectural details have won me over. A great retreat from the heat and smog of a typical summer’s day in southern Ontario. No portion issues here. Good value for money.
Old Prune – ** Ate there once, maybe a dozen years ago before the mid-range bistro-style restaurants came on the scene. It was a long time ago but I remember it wasn’t a good experience. The atmosphere was uptight, the food fussy, the portions tiny and the wine list ridiculously over priced. I've heard similar complaints from other Festival goes. I haven’t been back since.
Raja Fine Indian Cuisine -- **** Delicious Indian food served in two refined dining rooms. The dishes (lamb korma, mattar paneer) are typical fare, but really tasty and better than average in terms of flavour and presentation. No issues with portions, prices or service. I loved the gleaming marble floors and tasteful decor. I’m looking forward to going back this year.
Westover Inn. **** The location and restaurant are beautiful and well worth the 20 minute scenic drive to St. Mary’s. I’ve eaten there once with a large group. The food was good, but not spectacular, on par with the Keystone but the menu is more focused. The portions were sufficient and the prices, for the four course prix fixe, were fair. The restaurant occupies the front room of a hundred year old mansion situated on lush grounds – gorgeous! It would be my choice for a romantic evening out if you don’t have to rush back to Stratford for an evening performance.