5 Places To Dine in the West Coast's Coolest Surf Town
After a way-too-early two-hour drive from Seattle to catch a three-hour ferry ride, followed by another five long hours on the road, I arrived at Tofino, British Columbia, and staggered out of the car, feeling slightly woozy. The cure? A short walk on the beach, soaking up the gorgeous scenery and watching wetsuit-clad surfers catch perfect waves, and I was madly in love this remote spot at the northwest edge of Vancouver Island. And that was before being blown away by some of the best meals I've eaten in 2016. Tofino offers the West Coast's most intriguing destination dining.
Not Exactly a Secret Anymore
Tofino enthusiastically embraced its status of surfing mecca after being named the No. 1 place to surf on the West Coast by Outside magazine, a bit of a shocker considering its way northern latitude. And that's exactly its appeal to surfers, young and old. "There are always waves," says Charles McDiarmid, managing director of Wickaninnish Inn, where every room enjoys a spectacular view of the sea. His family bought land along the beach in the 1950s "before there was even a road." And after years working in the hotel business, Charles convinced his family to build the ground-breaking hotel. It opened in 1996, with a second building added in 2003.
Besides the incredible beachfront location and the long list of thoughtful amenities, the Inn's big draw is its innovative restaurant, The Pointe. Executive chef Warren Barr takes the locavore mission seriously, serving super fresh caught salmon, black cod, and halibut. Yes, it's all on the splurge side of most travel budgets, but it's easy to overlook that when taking entering a dining room where every seat has an amazing view.
Taking Farm-To-Fork to the Next Level
Diners just might spot chefs foraging seaweed on the rocks within view of the spectacular dining room, and this is certainly the first menu on the planet to creatively feature Japanese knot weed, an invasive plant that's been known to take down buildings. Surprise! It tastes citrusy when charred on the grill and served under lovely slices of aged Kobe beef carpaccio. So unusual and so super delicious.
Resort restaurants with this kind of knockout vista -- yes, those are seals swimming around the rocks below and fishing vessels in the distance -- can easily put it into cruise control when it comes to feeding guests, but The Pointe's kitchen crew cooks like it's in downtown Vancouver. Among the inspired highlights was first-of-the-season asparagus served with an olive oil poached duck egg yolk and a sublime roasted ling cod, line-caught that morning. It wore a fragrant herb crust and was perched on a bed of spring veggies. Such fresh, vibrant flavors and, bonus points: because it's not heavy, you'll save room for dessert. I skipped the sweets and went for the cheese including a semi-soft, washed rind cheese made from unpasteurized cow's milk called Baluchon Meule from Fromagerie FX Pichet in Quebec that was the creamiest cheese I've ever tried. I want to eat this every day for the rest of my life, but it's tough to find in the States.
The next morning, I stopped for brunch at Wildside Grill, a casual take-out place with outdoor seating under towering pines. There are mouthwatering burgers and burritos and a gumbo described as a kind of chowder. Because it's owned by a local fisherman, I had to try the signature fish and chips. The batter was fried golden and extra crunchy, surrounding the thick fillet of cod. But the fries stole the show. Hear that thunk-thunk-thunk coming from the kitchen? They're hand-cut constantly throughout the day. Thick sticks of russet potatoes with the skin on that taste like French fry heaven: fluffy inside, crispy on the outside. This place gets slammed during regular meal hours, so plan accordingly.
Just south of Tofino, Pacific Rim Park offers lots of options for exploring. I took a mile-long wooden path to Schooner Cove through an ancient cedar rain forest, walking for miles seeing just a few others. Peering into tide pools and scrambling up rocks and climbing the stairs back to the parking lot and I was was hungry again. It was a good thing I had a reservation at the much-talked-about, often-awarded Wolf in the Fog in the absolutely adorable village of Tofino. On a Friday evening, the comfortable dining room was jammed with big groups, passing plates, family-style and two-tops, romantically sharing bites, man-bun wearing surfers sipping drinks at the bar. It felt like the best kind of party, almost too casual considering the upscale quality of the food.
Chef-owner Nicholas Nutting is dedicated to capturing the special sense of place, which means seaweed salad (so gorgeous, and surprisingly fresh tasting), foraged morels on meltingly tender gnocchi and a pickled herring starter that spoke to my Nordic roots, whispering: Why don't you eat more of this fabulous fish? That over-looked oily specimen beloved by cultures around the globe definitely deserves its moment. It's not nearly as strong as mackerel and has off-the-hook Omega-3s. Plus, it's so pretty when paired with sliced radishes and veggies quick-pickled just long enough to impart a subtle flavor, not so long that it blasts away the fresh taste.
I'm a sucker for halibut and it was the evening's special that truly was a reminder of how wonderful springtime can be if you love to eat. The ultra-fresh fish wore a golden sear, artistically contrasted by tender greens, fiddlehead ferns, radishes, and herb oil. Just stunning seasonal cooking, paired by the staff with excellent wines from B.C.'s Okanagan Valley.
For those who prefer turf to surf, there's also a big, juicy burger regulars won't let the chef take off the menu and large plates including something called the Block Party. Fried chicken, ribs, and collard greens are definitely worth celebrating on this collection of Southern comfort food classics.
My weekend visit was over way too quickly, but before heading down the road, I picked up a couple of treats for the 10-hour trip: Incredible candied salmon from Dockside Smoked Fish Store and some luscious pastries at Common Loaf Bake Shop. I was already planning a return trip, hungry to try more. Next time, though, I think I'll fly.
If You Go
Lodging: A member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux boutique hotel group, the Wickaninnish Inn deftly caters to those craving creature comforts like soaking tubs, plush robes, custom bottled cocktails in the mini-bar, with each room enjoying a knock-out ocean view. A deluxe room at The Wick during is around $450 a night during the high summer season and reservations can be challenging to secure, so plan ahead. Other accommodation options range from cabins, hostels, and campgrounds, as well as cozy bed and breakfasts.
Dining: For a town of around 2,000, there are a whole lot of places wanting to feed you, ranging from coffee and tea shops, grab-and-go places, and road trip-worthy fine dining.
Activities: Bring your own surfboard, or rent from one of the surf shops in Tofino. All offer lessons for every skill level. There are also Hot Springs Cove just north of the town, accessible only by boat or float plane. Pack a picnic to this ruggedly breathtaking spot and know that bathing suits are optional. Sea kayaking tours is another great way to experience the area.