In Vancouver, where several thousand eateries represent almost every cuisine on the planet, deciding what to eat is as important as deciding what to see and do. Vancouverites are a health-conscious lot, so light, organic, and vegetarian meals are easy to find, and every restaurant and even most pubs ban smoking indoors and out. Good coffee is everywhere—downtown you'll never have to walk more than half a block for a cup of high-test cappuccino.
On-the-go dining, served from mobile trucks, is a fun new phenomenon and street eats are so good that many locals choose them over sit-down restaurants, especially when they're short on time. Neighborhood pubs, both in and outside cities, are another good bet for casual meals. Many have a separate restaurant section where you can take kids.
In Victoria and on Vancouver Island, the farm-to-fork ethos is particularly strong, in part because the island’s bounty is so accessible. Many chefs work directly with organic farmers when they are creating their distinctive regional dishes. You'll be pleased to find that in addition to top-draw destinations such as Whistler, you'll discover excellent food even in the most out-of-the-way places in the province.
Dining in British Columbia is affordable due to Canada's low dollar. To be sure, high-end entrées, especially where seafood is involved, can top C$45, but C$20 to C$25 is more the norm. Bargains abound: the densest cluster of cheap eats in Vancouver is along Denman Street in the West End. Another budget option is to check out the lunch specials at any of the small Asian restaurants lining the streets in both Vancouver and Victoria. They serve healthy hot meals for about the same cost as a take-out burger and fries. But beware: alcohol is pricey in BC. A bottle of wine can easily double your bill.
Meals and Mealtimes
Despite dwindling stocks, wild Pacific salmon—fresh, smoked, dried, candied, barbecued, or grilled on an alder wood plank in the First Nations fashion—remains British Columbia's signature dish. Other local delicacies served at BC's upmarket restaurants include Fanny Bay or Long Beach oysters and Salt Spring Island lamb. Another homegrown treat is the Nanaimo Bar. Once a Christmas bake-sale standard, this chocolate-and-icing concoction has made its way to trendy city cafés.
Most upscale restaurants in Vancouver, Victoria, and Whistler observe standard North American mealtimes: 5:30 to 9 pm or so for dinner, roughly noon to 2 pm if open for lunch. Casual places like pubs typically serve food all afternoon and into the evening. Restaurants that stay open late (meaning midnight or 1 am) usually morph into bars after about 9 pm, but the kitchen stays open. In Vancouver, the West End and Kitsilano have the most late-night choices. In Victoria, pubs and a couple of jazz clubs are your best bet.
Credit cards are widely accepted, but a few smaller restaurants accept only cash. Discover Cards are little known in Canada, and many restaurants outside of Vancouver do not accept American Express.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places, it's expected. In British Columbia, smart casual dress is acceptable everywhere.
At the hottest restaurants in Vancouver, Victoria, and Whistler, you need to make reservations at least two weeks in advance, perhaps more if you want to dine between 7 and 9 pm, or on a Friday or Saturday night. On weeknights or outside of the peak tourist season, you can usually secure a table by calling the same day.
If you want to dine, but not sleep, at one of BC's better-known country inns, such as the Sooke Harbour House or the Wickaninnish Inn, make your reservation as far ahead as possible. Six months ahead is not unreasonable. Guests staying at these inns are given first choice for dining reservations, which means that space for nonguests is limited. Remember to call the restaurant should you need to cancel your reservation—it's only courteous.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Though little known outside the province, British Columbia wines have beaten those from many more established regions in international competitions. A tasting tour of BC's Okanagan wine region is a scenic way to experience some of these vintages, many of which are made in smallish batches and rarely find their way into liquor stores.
British Columbians are also choosy about their beer, brewing and drinking (per capita) more microbrewed ales and lagers than anyone else in the country. You’ll find a daunting selection of oddly named brews, because many cottage breweries produce only enough for their local pubs. It's always worth asking what's on draft.
Although the Okanagan is the hot spot for wines, good wineries are popping up all over Vancouver Island, alongside cottage breweries and distilleries. There is also a growing number of them in and around Vancouver.