HALIFAX - With the Atlantic ocean lapping at its front door, it's no secret a trip to Halifax pairs nicely with a side of fish and chips.
But adventurous gourmets may be surprised to learn the seaside capital also offers up a smorgasbord of dining options that local foodies say rivals big city competitors.
"When you think of Halifax, seafood — no question — comes to mind as a leading commodity," says Patricia Lyall, executive director of Destination Halifax, the city's tourism marketing organization.
But with some 500 bistros, pubs, fine dining rooms, supper clubs, diners and international eateries in the sprawling municipality, Lyall says there are plenty of opportunities to push the boundaries of your palate.
"You can very easily plan to dine out seven days a week and not replicate the experience."
That doesn't get much easier than in February when the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia hosts the annual Savour Food and Wine Festival.
The event was launched nine years ago to promote the province's restaurant industry during what's widely considered a slow season in the business. Savour events have since been held in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador.
In Halifax, the month-long pageant of dinner, drinks and desserts includes four events: a chocolate, wine and cheese showcase (it was held at the beginning of the month); a rare and fine wine tasting (Feb. 17, sold out); and Dine Around, an offering of three-course, prix-fixe menus at participating restaurants (all month).
The highlight of the festival is the Savour Food and Wine Show on Feb. 23 — a one-night-only epicurean extravaganza hosted by some of Nova Scotia's most inspired chefs. Tickets for the popular event are typically sold out a week in advance.
"I think Nova Scotians have been educated; there's a lot more travel and people want to have a better quality product," says Joe McGuinness, festival chairman and co-owner of Durty Nelly's, an Irish pub located on Argyle Street.
"We're now a cosmopolitan city offering a wide variety of local and ethnic cuisine."
But while variety may be the spice of life, local restaurateurs say the city's affection for local products is key to its culinary appeal.
Nova Scotia is a veritable pantry for the city's restaurants, offering everything from vegetables to beef to scallops. The province also has a burgeoning, award-winning wine industry, with an annual Ice Wine Festival taking place in early February.
The love of local can be seen throughout Halifax.
Downtown, a couple of blocks away from bustling Spring Garden Road, is Morris East. The small but stylish restaurant serves up gourmet, thin-crust pizzas and boasts what it says is the city's only real wood-fired oven. The oven came from Naples; its chef hails from Halifax.
"A lot of people are very concerned about where their food is coming from," says Lauren Marshall, who has whipped up a vegetarian dish for the Savour show that features handmade pasta, local veggies and Nova Scotia cheese.
At 25, Marshall has already worked in kitchens in Montreal, Belize and Australia, but found herself yearning to work at home.
She says part of what makes Halifax stand out is the healthy competition between local chefs, who are always striving to make innovative, appealing dishes.
"I definitely think (Halifax) offers a great variety and extremely top-notch restaurants," says Marshall. "Every chef has their own flavour."
Tucked away in the north end is Chez Tess Creperie, offering sweet and savoury crepes served with Annapolis Valley cider. On historic Barrington Street sits Chives Canadian Bistro, known for its eclectic menu that favours local food producers.
And of course, there's no shortage of seafood — with a twist.
Spots like Fid Resto on Dresden Row serve up seared Atlantic salmon with pickled plums and poutine made with fresh Nova Scotia lobster.
Lyall says it's only in recent years that Destination Halifax began thinking of dining out as more than a basic travel need, but as a tourism draw — a key part of a visitor's itinerary.
She admits being initially surprised by the diversity and expertise the city has to offer. Now, Lyall believes Halifax can "punch above its weight" and compete with any cosmopolitan city.
"The old perception of it being a sleepy fishing village, that's long gone."
If You Go ...
— Tickets for the Savour Food and Wine show cost $79 plus tax. For detailed information on the festival, visit www.savourfoodandwine.com.