WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘I wonder whether Byron’s going to mind my fanboying this time?,’ I ask my TOQUE partner Cai Sepulis as I take a bite of my sandwich, ‘because this is literally the best meal I’ve ever had.’ Cai just laughs at me. She’s heard this line before. Indeed, each time I frequent this place – Willibald Farm Distillery & Brewery – I say the same thing. Over and over. ‘Honestly,’ I tell her (clapping our picnic table with my non-sandwich-holding hand, for added emphasis), ‘I’m not joking. This is the best. And when I’m finished my food, I’m heading straight to the kitchen to give Byron a hug – or at least a virtual one.’ Chef Byron Hallett: Willibald’s culinary genius.
‘Just don’t be too weird about it,’ Cai tells me. ‘We want to be able to come back.’ She’s definitely got a point. Especially during these pandemic times, when great places to eat seem to be in shorter supply than ever. I take a swig of my pint – Willibald’s ‘Broken Galaxy’ IPA – and then another bite of my sandwich: the Buffalo Chicken Ranch sammy (fried chicken thigh, Martin’s potato bun, iceberg, pickles, ranch, buffalo sauce). The buffalo sauce and ranch play off each other perfectly – leaving my mouth simultaneously tingling with spice and cooled by ranch. ‘Have you tried the burger yet?,’ Cai asks, ‘because if you like the sandwich, the burger’s gonna blow your mind.’
It’s a Friday afternoon in July, and Cai and I are visiting Willibald to check out their most recent addition: an expansive Biergarten tent. Located in front of the Willibald buildings proper (which includes the place’s craft distillery and brewery, as well as a converted barn that houses its indoor kitchen, bar, and dining room), the Biergarten hosts the flocks of Willibald fans who simply can’t live without Byron’s food. Appointed with a make-shift bottle shop and merch area, and three rows of picnic tables (each about ten tables deep), the space can accommodate a crowd. And more. Indeed, there are tables (painted bright yellow to match Willibald’s flawless old school Germanic-chic brand) in the farmer’s field beyond the tent – just beside the herd of Galloway cattle (from Ayrsyde Farms) that graze in the next field over.
Those of you who’ve been closely following our little rag since the beginning may be thinking you’re seeing/reading double – or even triple – right now. Indeed, we’ve written features on Willibald before. And given the place a cover, even. But, really, how can we not? After all, what began as a craft distillery located in the back forty of Waterloo Region (featured in the inaugural issue of TOQUE) has since grown into a restaurant (see TOQUE 6), a craft brewery (see TOQUE 10.5), and now an impressive outdoor dining and drinking destination too. The place is ever-evolving. Always building on its past successes. Not re-inventing itself, exactly, but certainly adding value for its devoted fanbase.
Fans like Cai and me. So we settle in – again. Cai orders a Pink Gin & Tonic (Willibald Pink Gin, Fever Tree Aromatic tonic), while I indulge myself with an Orange Dreamsicle Slushy (fresh OJ, vanilla, oat milk, Willibald Vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup). Nostalgia in a glass, I think, as I put down my sandwich and grab my half of the Willy Burger (beef smash patty, Martin’s potato bun, cheddar, onion ring, iceberg, pickles, burger sauce). It’s everything I’d expect from Byron and his team – made even more mind-blowing by the fact that I can see the herd of Galloway that are used for the burger patty from my seat under the tent. And beyond the cattle, in the forest just past the field, are heirloom hogs from Ayrsyde Farms. ‘Byron uses the pork to make the Cubano Sandwich,’ notes Willibald’s Brit Scott when she comes by the table to check on us. Ahh yes – the Cubano. House porchetta and smoked ham on house soft white bread, topped with pickles, swiss, pickled peppers and mustard aioli. Yup, having the farm right next door gives a whole new meaning to dining ‘field to fork’.
For the next hour or so, Cai and I dine in bliss. Besides the sandwich, burger and Cubano, we also share an order of Kimchi Fries (hoisin mayo, scallions, sesame seeds) and a McCallister pizza (slow roasted tomato sauce, mozzarella, pizza parm). The fries are what I’d hoped for, while the pizza needs no introduction. Indeed, my life is meaningless without Willibald pizza. Crafted in the same wood-fired oven that used to bless Hespeler’s City Café Bakery back in the day, Willibald pizza may just be one of the seven wonders of our regional culinary scene.
Really, Willibald’s Biergarten has to be experienced to be believed. The fantastic selection of house (and guest) brews on tap; the cocktails; the rural landscape that literally surrounds the place; and Chef Byron Hallett’s cooking. As Cai and I get up to leave together, I break left and beeline to the kitchen. Byron sees me coming in hot from across the dining room and starts chuckling. No hugs today, I realize as I close the gap. COVID rules still apply, after all. But it’s okay. Byron can feel the love emanating from my eyes – and my bulging belly. We say our farewells, and I promise I’ll be back soon.
Indeed, my love affair with this place – and the Willibald team who make it happen – is far from over.