When in Nanaimo, eat a Nanaimo bar

“Wow!” I said, “I should have ordered the French toast!” My gaze followed the waitress, who was walking by with three plates, each one loaded with thick pieces of French toast and garnished with nuts, bananas, and sultanas. I’d fallen in love with the cozy, colorful atmosphere at the Blue Fox in Victoria, British Columbia, and I was in love with the food before I had a bite.

My breakfast special that morning came with pan-fried red potatoes, thick-cut whole-grain toast, and homemade raspberry jam. Barry had the same, with the addition of two large sausages, not those tiny pinky-sized things you find in the freezer case. Most remarkable was that the menu said the eggs were free range. I’d almost forgotten that when my fork hit the yolk, and out came deep, satisfying orange, not yellow. Real eggs, from happy Canadian chickens.

Barry at the Blue Fox Art at the Blue Fox Salt and pepper at the Blue Fox

For me, that breakfast was the best of all the meals we ate in restaurants during our recent 6-day visit to Vancouver Island. We were traveling in our van on a fairly tight budget — ferry fares alone were over $120. It was too cold, rainy, and windy to cook on our propane stove on a picnic table, so we planned to eat one meal each day at a restaurant and have sandwiches and snacks in the van the rest of the time.

One way we keep our restaurant budget down is by eating at small ethnic restaurants. They usually provide flavorful food at lower prices. During this trip, we used that tactic, trying Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian restaurants in Victoria. The results were mixed — the Indian and Middle Eastern places were forgettable.

The most memorable thing about Ocean Garden, the Chinese restaurant on the corner of Fisgard and Government streets, was the waitress. She knew just enough English to place an item in front of the customer and say, “Enjoy-your-meal!” And she didn’t just say it once: When she placed the soup, she said, “Enjoy-your-meal!” This was followed by the rice — “Enjoy-your-meal!” and each entree — “Enjoy-your-meal!” and even the tea and water. She did, however, know not to say it when she gave us the check with its ubiquitous fortune cookies. Sadly, I did not enjoy my meal as much as I would have liked, because the Kung Po Scallops turned out to be Kung Po Celery (my least favorite vegetable), and I had to search for both the scallops and the peanuts.

Giving up on our usual ethnic choices, we turned to Canadian restaurants and had some wonderful meals, including the Blue Fox breakfast and a dinner at Suzy’s, on Gabriola Island.

The folks at these two restaurants know how to serve tea. They bring you a small pot, a cup or mug, some milk or cream, sugar, and, most importantly, a spoon for stirring it. It adds a gentle ritual to the meal, or it can be an event in itself. It’s a far cry from the U.S., where you often get a stained coffee mug with a tea bag dangling over the side, and if you ask for sugar or milk, they never think to give you a spoon. Canadians are civilized tea-drinkers, although they also have their share of Starbucks.

Of course, Starbucks cannot compete with that Canadian favorite, Tim Horton’s. One evening, in Nanaimo, we were cold and needed something warm to drink. We walked to Tim’s, hoping for a Nanaimo bar and a warm place to hang out. Evidently, everyone else in Nanaimo had the same idea.

I couldn’t believe how busy a donut shop could be at 9 pm on a Tuesday evening. We sat in the corner, sipping our hot chocolate, surrounded by tables full of people sharing conversations in mellow Canadian accents. Everyone seemed laid-back, relaxed, just enjoying the company of their friends. It was hard to believe it was a fast-food restaurant.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Nanaimo, head to Tim Horton’s for a Nanaimo bar. It’s what the Nanaimans do.
Since I missed out on the French toast at the Blue Fox, I did the next best thing. I came home and invented a gourmet French toast recipe, with bananas and nuts and dried fruit. Now, if I could only reproduce that wonderful Canadian atmosphere!