As frequent visitors to Stratford, I thought it was time to share my recommendations and thoughts about some of the town's better dining choices. The Town of Stratford may have one of the highest ratios of quality food to residents anywhere on the planet. Slow food rock stars like Antony John of Soiled Reputations and Ruth Klassen of Monforte, as well as up and comers Max and Vicki Lass of Churchill farms, lead a host of sustainable, organic farmers who care about their crops and creatures, right down to caring about which chef’s plates they end up on. In addition, the presence of the Stratford Chef’s School ensures a never ending supply of exceptionally well trained hands to handle those ingredients the way they should be treated. All this means you can eat very, very well – on any budget. Of course, as in any tourist town, there is also a lot of crap. Differentiating between the two is not hard. Here is my take on the best of the best:
High End: The two top options in town are The Prune (151 Albert Street) and Rundles (9 Cobourg Street). Both Chefs, Brian Steele of the Prune and Neil Baxter of Rundles have been long time faculty at the Chef School enabling them to hand pick the most talented students to work in their kitchens. If you are looking for two high end meals in town, do try both. But if time and/or budget, is going to limit you to just one expensive meal, there is no choice other than Rundles. Chef Baxter’s cuisine is that rare kind of gastronomic experience that is actually worth travelling for, in and of itself. Force me into a choice of a front row centre stage seat at the Festival Theatre or a table at Rundles, and the restaurant will win out every time.
Chef Baxter has an absolutely uncanny ability to achieve a clarity and balance of flavours, textures and appearances that is the hallmark of truly great chefs. B.C. Side-stripe shrimp, smoked butter, marinated Provençal vegetables, and escabeche vinaigrette as well charcoal grilled veal cutlet, roasted turnip purée, smashed Jerusalem artichokes, and wilted spinach were but two standouts on a recent visit. Transport this restaurant and culinary team to Europe, and then free them from the constraints of getting the entire room fed in time to get to theatre seats on time, and you would have a Michelin 2 star restaurant that people would travel to eat at. ( Dinner $93.50 plus wine, Lunch $47.50)
Mid-Tier: I hate to double list a restaurant so early in a set of recommendations, but arguably the single best culinary value in Stratford is the Sophisto-Bistro at Rundles. What began as a necessary concession to the evaporation of American tourist dollars over the past decade has become a show case to make Chef Baxter’s cuisine accessible to those on a more limited budget. If you are not going to spring for the full Rundles experience, you’d be making a sad mistake if you don’t book into the Bistro. (Three course diner $62.50 plus wine from a carefully chosen list of reasonably priced Ontario wines)
Two relatively new entrants on the scene, Mercer Hall and Pazzos tavern have eclipsed the former leading mid-tier options of Down the Street and Bijoux (now closed). At Pazzo’s Taverna (70 Ontario Street), Chef School alumnus Yva Santini serves up authentic Italian fare that would be right at home in the old country, complete with crostini and a mozza bar. If it is an after theatre bite you are after, this is your place. (Dinner: Apps $9-$15, Mains $16-$34)
Just up Ontario Street at Mercer Hall (108 Ontario Street), another Chef school grad, Tim Larsen serves up a carnivore’s delight of locally sourced protein with a wonderful combination of tradition and modern technique. Ground and impeccably seasoned beef short rib patties are sous vided at 58 degrees, then frozen and deep fried to serve up one of the better burgers this planet earth has known. An assortment of cured meats, house smoked bacon and fantastic homemade pickles (including potatoes!) are but a few of the other hyper local ingredients that appear on the plates here. And if you jump straight into a meal without first sampling one of their cocktails made from a variety of home infused spirits, you are simply making a big mistake.
Cheap and Cheerful: Ruth Klassen, Ontario’s cheese maker extraordinaire, could not work harder to keep her new Osteria “off grid” for tourists, so that locals always have an affordable place to get a table for locally sourced and foraged ingredients. This restaurant is hidden away at 80 Wellington Street, under an artfully whitewashed Monforte sign that prevents all but the most penetrating gaze from divining the actual name. It is a delightful space furnished with entirely reclaimed materials, and includes the best secret patio in the town. Chef Phil Phillips prepares an ever changing, limited menu where the hits seriously outnumber the misses. Complemented by very reasonably priced wines, micro brews and ciders, this is a meal that will be as satisfying to your palate as your pocket book. And under no circumstances should you leave without buying some Toscano or Black Sheep from the cheese display at the door. (Apps $6-$10, Mains $12-$16)
For lunch one day, you owe it to yourself to stop by Rob Bob’s hotdog cart, conveniently located in the heart of the town, just outside Pazzo’s (66 Ontario Street – or what would be 66 Ontario Street if there was a building there instead of a fountain and parkette). There are two different guys manning this cart, but if you happen by on a day that Derek Barnes is there, you are in for a treat. What Dogmaster Barnes lacks in formal culinary education (he is one of the very few non Chef school grads on this list) he more than makes up for in enthusiasm, research and hard work. Let Derek dress your dog for you and your sausage will be graced by a variety of classic and unique homemade condiments, applied in the perfect order, with a running commentary on hot dog tradition. Have your dog “dragged through the garden” in traditional Chicago style, or have Derek add some of his fantastic homemade kimchi. The choice is yours, or Derek’s, if you want. The dogs and sausages are made to order for Rob Bob, and served on the freshest buns you may ever eat, sourced daily from the Butcher and Baker a mere hundred yards or so away from the cart. They may not serve hotdogs in heaven, but if they did, these would be the ones.
Revel Café (37 Market Place) – Here, you can begin your day complementing a decadent pastry and with a fantastic sustainably grown and ethically sourced coffee, while rubbing elbows with actors gearing up for the day’s performance at one of the theatres. The tourists may get drawn in to the more visibly located Balzacs on Ontario Street, but the locals know that Anne Campion serves the best coffees, lattes and treats that can be found in town in a wonderful space on . The pastries are made on the premises and are well worth the calories. On a hot sunny day, make sure to have one of their refreshing iced coffees, made in one of the most interesting pieces of coffee apparatus you will come across and served with a surprising and fitting ice cube.