Niagara Falls might be known for one of the most beautiful natural sights in the world, but in recent years, it's come into its own in terms of other pleasures — and no, we're not talking about the casinos and, ahem, other attractions.
The rich agricultural landscape surrounding Niagara Falls has lent itself to a serious restaurant boom, which is no surprise to anyone who has spent time at one of the approximately six dozen vineyards in the region, many of which have dining rooms of their own.
The culinary scene in the area is so packed, it's even generating its own interest, something Kimberley Gunning, who runs Niagara Culinary Tours with her husband Steven Lovelace, is more than happy to oblige. The couple runs tours throughout the year, visiting at least four restaurants on each one and providing historical and cultural context for the area.
"Our mission is always to find that next best place that has great food, a good vibe and totally delivers in service," she tells The Huffington Post Canada. "We drive by vineyards and orchards every day on our way to work, and we can't believe how lucky we are."
Joanne Deall, a transplanted Torontonian who runs Highbrook Bed and Breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake with her partner, Ken, as well as Niagarafied, a lifestyle blog about her experiences in the area, points to the "local love" as the region's biggest strength.
"People here are huge supporters of buying local foods, products, and supporting local restaurants," she tells The Huffington Post Canada. "Several are embracing the farm-to-table concept, and we also have a lot of great food trucks, like The Yellow Pear, that make some amazing food too."
Gunning has seen an increasing number of pop-up meal options, whether they're in vineyards for a limited time, or weekly supper markets that join local food vendors with wine and craft beer makers to let them experiment with new ideas.
"Seriously we have to pinch ourselves sometimes because it is a far cry from when we moved here and missed Toronto so much," she notes, having relocated to her hometown in 1993. "We just attended a pop up dinner recently and had an absolutely mind-blowing experience. Imagine a rutabaga baked in mud on a fire!"
Check out these Niagara experts' picks on the best places to eat in the region — and don't forget to add your own!
Oban Inn" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 160 Front St., Niagara-on-the-Lake Type of food: Modern takes on local ingredients Type of price: Appetizers and salads $12 to $18; mains $24 to $39 Known for: "Chef Jason Dobbie is a quiet rock star of a chef, one of those innovative but unassuming chefs," says Kimberley Gunning of Niagara Culinary Tours. "The raw steak and greens is a must and he does a wonderful vegan soba noodle dish. Perry Johnson, their manager, is the best host in NOTL hands down... a consummate entertainer and professional. This team is what Niagara is all about!"
Kitchen 76 at Two Sisters Vineyards" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 240 John Street East, Niagara-on-the-Lake Type of food: Italian Type of price: Appetizers $8 to $24; pasta and pizza $21 to $26; mains $29 to $40 Known for: "Excellent food, excellent wine, beautiful decor and atmosphere," says Joanne Deall, owner of Highbrook Bed and Breakfast and creator of lifestyle blog Niagarafied. "I've been several times, and each time it's been excellent."
Backhouse" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 242 Mary St., Niagara-on-the-Lake Type of food: "Cool climate" and "sustainable" cuisine — i.e. items grown in Canada, with their own private farm supplying as much as possible Type of price: Appetizers $5 to $11; mains $14 to $29; three and five-course tasting menus also available Known for: Beloved local chefs Ryan Crawford and Bev Hotchkiss were much celebrated when they opened this spot in 2015, and have been received praise for their attention to detail in everything from greens to tea.
Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 114 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake Type of food: Simple, high quality ingredients from local suppliers Type of price: Appetizers $12 to $20; mains $32 to $38 Known for: "Chef Stephen is a founder of wine country cuisine and has been doing farm-to-table long before it was a trend," says Gunning. "Their wine bar has a charcuterie platter that our customers keep asking for. And they have the best peameal bacon sandwich and fresh cut frites with rosemary sea salt and malt vinegar mayo that you can't leave a bite."
The Smokin' Buddha " width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 265 King St., Port Colborne Type of food: Global eats Type of price: Appetizers and salads $8 to $13; mains $12 to $16 Known for: "You can get Thai, Mexican, Indian and Japanese specialties all under one roof!" says Deall. "And the food is really delicious."
AG Inspired Cuisine" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 5195 Magdalen Ave., Niagara Falls Type of food: Classical French with a seasonal sensibility Type of price: Appetizers $10 to $16; mains $22 to $44 (approximate) Known for: "This is one of Niagara Falls' hidden gems," says Gunning. "Chef Corey Linkson, formerly of Hillebrand and Peller, has helped develop wine country cuisine as we know it. Try the sterling silver tenderloin with its almond-brie crust or the prosciutto-wrapped rabbit."
OLiV Tasting Room & Restaurant at Strewn Winery" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 1339 Lakeshore Rd., RR#3, Niagara-on-the-Lake Type of food: Continental, shareable plates Type of price: Soups and salads $9 to $11; tapas $6 to $12; mains $20 to $42 Known for: "I love the variety in their menu," says Deall. "Tuesdays their special is artisanal pizza, Thursdays it's gourmet sliders. They also have Sunday brunch, a tapas menu, and their regular menu on top of that."
Restaurant at Vineland Estates Winery" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 3620 Moyer Rd., Vineland Type of food: Classic dishes, made with local ingredients Type of price: Appetizers $12 to $22; pasta $15; mains $32 to $36; five-course tasting menu for $80 Known for: "This is a great example of a chef [Justin Downes] who gets to step out of the restaurant once in awhile," says Gunning. "They have a stellar view from their patio and a sweet little carriage house that they use for events and weddings." And, adds Deall, "they have excellent wine, and an always beautiful presentation."
Iggy's Pub & Grub" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 115 Hwy 20 E, Thorold Type of food: Upscale pub food Type of price: Shareable appetizers $7 to $12; mains $10 to $16 Known for: "They have elevated pub grub and made it interesting and delicious," says Gunning. "You'll find items like burgers with cookie butter, San Francisco garlic fries and smoked wings. They're also known for their craft beer and VQA wines."
Zest Kitchen" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 1469 Pelham St. S., Fonthill Type of food: Casual fare Type of price: Appetizers $8 to $14; mains $25 to $29 Known for: "Excellent food, with an open kitchen and a bit of an urban vibe," says Deall. It's a favourite among locals, and worth the 20-minute drive for tourists to Niagara Falls.
Ravine Vineyard" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 1366 York Road, St. Davids Type of food: Based on what's available locally (including from foragers) Type of price: Appetizers and salads $9 to $16; entrees $22 to $32 Known for: "Ravine is one of the less formal winery restaurants but don't let that fool you — the food is exceptional," says Gunning. "I dream of the slow-braised short rib with buttermilk whipped potato and Steven prefers the patio pizza bar, where he can hang out on a hot summer night and have a beer."
Mai Thai Cuisine" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 8123 Lundy's Lane, Niagara Falls Type of food: Thai Type of price: Appetizers, soups and salads $5.95 to $14.95; noodles $10.95 to $14.95; mains $10.95 to $20.95 Known for: A family-owned and operated vibe, with mom as the chef and daughters running the front of house. "We enjoy their green curry with kaffir leaves and bamboo shoots, or their Panang curry with peanuts," says Gunning.
Il Sorriso Cafe and Pizzeria" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 5983 Clark Ave., Niagara Falls Type of food: Pizza Type of price: Pizzas $7.99 to $13.99 Known for: An authentic Italian thin-crust pizza. "They have something for everyone, including my favourite, cudo e rugola and calabrese," says Gunning. "It's a known hangout for local chefs who like to try some of their more exotic offerings, like tuna and onions or a surprise pizza."
Wellington Court" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 11 Wellington St., St. Catharines Type of food: Classic dishes with surprising, modern touches Type of price: Appetizers $10 to $16; mains $24 to $40 Known for: Thirty years in a house that's belonged to the Peacock family for 60 years. "Chef Erik is a rather young old boy on the Niagara food scene," says Gunning. "This year he opened the upstairs [called UP] and offers a fine private dining experience."
Tide and Vine Oyster House" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 3491 Portage Rd., Niagara Falls Type of food: Oysters and associated snacks Type of price: Dependent on the oysters, but approximately $8 to $12 for appetizers; $24 to $31 for mains Known for: What was once a food truck is now a full-fledged hangout. "It's a nice place for a date night and oysters for two from their oyster bed and raw bar," says Gunning.
Rise Above" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 120 St. Paul Street, St. Catharines Type of food: Vegetarian and vegan Type of price: Soups, salads and appetizers $4 to $10; sandwiches and entrees $12 to $14 Known for: "A vegan restaurant that makes even a carnivore enjoy his veggies," says Gunning. "Last time we were there we enjoyed the kale caesar salad, a roasted root bowl and an apple walnut flatbread."
Scratch Kitchen in the Flour Mill Restaurants at Old Stone Inn" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 6080 Fallsview Blvd., Niagara Falls Type of food: Organic and local Type of price: Appetizers $9 to $20; mains $25 to $38 Known for: "It's located in a boutique hotel that was formally a 1904 flour mill. The bar has a 10 for $10 menu, but when looking for something a little more posh, the restaurant really delivers," says Gunning. "Great vibe, nice people and an old soul."
Weinkeller" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 5633 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls Type of food: Lots of meat (and a little pasta) Type of price: Three courses for $50, or five courses for $60 (with extras a little bit more) Known for: An unexpected gem in the midst of a tourist-heavy area, with food that's both familiar and well-crafted. Plus, they make their own wine.
Peller Estates Winery Restaurant" width="52" height="52"/>
Where: 290 John St. E., Niagara-on-the-Lake Type of food: Canadian flavours Type of price: Appetizers $10 to $15; mains $30 to $44; or five-course tasting menu, $89; seven-course tasting menu $109 Known for: A constantly changing menu that is impeccably prepared in a room geared toward romance, complete with a massive fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows.