The tiny town of Tofino, set amid ocean and forest wilderness, has a thriving food scene.
Tofino, an enclave on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, has long been a draw for its spectacular setting by the Pacific, with its surfer-magnet waves, and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Now, the growing number of restaurants is another reason to visit this little British Columbia town, with a population of less than 1,900. The thriving culinary scene is led by transplants who were attracted to the area’s idyllic surroundings and easygoing way of life.
Outsiders might be driving the movement, but it began when a native, Charles McDiarmid, opened the Wickaninnish Inn (wickinn.com), now a Relais & Châteaux property, and its upscale dining space, the Pointe, in 1996.
If you go
Tofino is a long day’s drive from the Seattle area, including a ferry to Vancouver Island. The last hour or so of the drive is on the narrow and winding Highway 4 that goes through mountains to Vancouver Island’s west coast.
When to go
Summer generally brings good weather (although this is a rain-bathed coast), but also crowds. Around Tofino and the nearby village of Ucluelet, campgrounds and lodges/hotels fill up and RVs lumber along the roads. September can be a less busy time to go. Just watch the weather forecast.
Exploring the national park, beaches
For a Seattle Times story on forest and beach walks around Tofino, plus other travel info, see seati.ms/1EyrGfR
The Tourism Tofino office has details on sights, accommodations and more: tourismtofino.com
— Kristin Jackson The Seattle Times
McDiarmid, 58, grew up in the area but left to attend the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and worked at luxury hotels before returning home to create a high-end tourist experience like the 75-room Wickaninnish.
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“The stunning scenery and really great ingredients were always there, but there wasn’t a nice environment to enjoy them in,” he said.
The restaurant continues to be at the top of high-end dining destinations in the area. The 85-seat space has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the water, a gas fireplace and thick wood tables made from recycled Douglas fir trees.
The 4,000-bottle wine list and frequently changing menu are also compelling. Selections rely mainly on local ingredients and might include seared albacore tuna with sweet pepper, fennel and honey water, or crisp pork belly with garlic snails in a mustard sauce.
Over the years, McDiarmid has recruited notable chefs to run the Pointe, several of whom have left to make their own local imprint. One of the latest is Nicholas Nutting, 35, a Victoria, B.C., native who left to open Wolf in the Fog last year in Tofino.
“My idea was a place where people can eat at a few times a week with food that uses the best ingredients I can find locally,” Nutting said.
Housed in a two-story former art gallery with cedar beams and windows that face the sea, the restaurant serves dishes ranging from a hamburger made with beef from a nearby farm to a seafood plate for two, which includes scallops, black cod and mixed shellfish in a saffron coconut curry, accompanied by a hunk of turmeric-flavored focaccia.
In this outdoorsy area, formal meals like these are only a small part of Tofino’s epicurean highlights. Wildside Grill, for example, is a shack in a gravel parking lot about a mile outside of the main district where customers pick up seafood bites such as halibut tacos and oyster burgers with sweet chili mayo.
Jeff Mikus, 43, a fisherman from Vancouver, B.C., who co-owns the 200-square-foot space, had sold his catch to renowned restaurants in North America for several years but was looking for a way to keep more of it closer to home. He supplies the Wickaninnish Inn, for one.
Another grab-and-go option isPicnic Charcuterie, where Ontario native Tina Windsor, 28, uses the island’s meats, edible plants and herbs. Opened last June, her long and compact deli includes a small backroom where she ages and smokes her creations, such as ham cured with a kelp stout from Tofino Brewing Co. and pancetta cured with thyme and hemlock tips.
Twice the size of her shop is the Tofino Coffee Roasting Co., an 800-square-foot cafe that Michael Farrow, 45, opened in 2013 after living in Tofino for two decades and not finding a way to get his morning caffeine fix.
“There was no one selling really good coffee so I decided to do it myself,” he said.
A one-time photographer, he invested his life savings of $35,000 into a professional roaster, hired an expert from Vancouver to teach him the craft and now sources mostly organic fair-trade beans for his four blends, including the toffee- and chocolate-tasting Old Growth Medium Dark. His idea was an instant hit: He has served at least a few hundred customers a day since he opened, he said.