WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘You’ve gotta see this,’ I exclaim as I poke my head into Cai’s room. ‘There’s a vintage punching bag hanging in my room.’ Cai – unloading her Filson overnight bag – looks up. ‘And a fuzzball coffee table,’ I add. I can tell I’ve piqued her interest. ‘I’ll have to check it out,’ she says, ‘but how about a drink first – so we can plan our evening agenda?’ What a great idea, I think to myself, and plop down on the rich brown leather sofa beside the room’s king-size bed. After all, the punching bag can wait.
Cai collects two glasses and pulls a bright orange Jobsite Brewing growler from the room’s mini fridge. While she pours us each a sudsy glass of the brewery’s ‘Wiped Out’ white IPA – a juicy blend of hefeweizen and hazy New England-style brews – I scan her digs. ‘It’s called the Celebrations Room,’ she tells me. ‘The website says it’s perfect for lovers,’ she adds with a chuckle. I laugh too. After all, it’s not lost on either of us that over the past few years we’ve likely spent more time together in romantic milieus than either of us have with our respective life partners. All in a day’s work.
Cai’s room certainly has the aesthetics of a lovers’ cocoon. There’s the mammoth bed. A free-standing couple’s soaker tub. The century-old soft wood floors, exposed brick walls, and elegant chandelier. Bright window with a river view. The website even lists chocolates and… err… adult toys to be found in the nightside table. Not that we bother to check. The wonderful Jobsite brew is all the fun we are after – and a romp around town.
It’s just past four o’clock, late October. Cai and I are back in Stratford for an overnight adventure. We’ve done this before. Twice, actually. Stayed the first time at The Bruce Hotel, Stratford’s glorious high-end accommodations where we were fed a splendid dinner by then-Executive Chef Arron Carley (who’s now Chef at Stratford’s South African-inspired Braai House). We enjoyed our second overnighter at Edison’s Inn, the funky downtown digs where Thomas Edison once hung his hat. And now we’re here – at The Perth County Inn in the heart of the downtown.
Owned and operated by man about town Bruce Whitaker (who also owns Edison’s), The Perth is perfect for folks looking for something a bit less formal, and a lot more fun, than your typical hotel. Comfortable quarters located close to most of what Stratford has to offer: downtown shopping at indy boutiques, Americanos at fantastic coffeeshops, pints at wicked pubs and craft breweries. And great food. (It’s worth noting that Stratford is home to Stratford Chefs School, which turns out fantastic cooks who, in turn, turn out fantastic restaurants.)
As for the evening’s agenda: ‘Let’s just hit up a popular local business and ask for recommendations,’ Cai suggests. Perfect. First stop, then: The Little Shed Flower Company, on Market Place – a one-way that’s full of fun boutiques on one side, with Stratford’s city hall (replete with Canada’s version of a piazza – clusters of colourful Muskoka chairs included) on the other.
As we’re heading out the door at The Perth, we run into Bruce. Before we have a chance to ask him for location recommendations, he’s already listing a bunch. ‘Be sure to get to The Relic Bar for amazing cocktails,’ he tells us. Perhaps tonight? ‘And el Cactus Taco Shop for tacos.’ Maybe for lunch tomorrow? I’m beginning to see that Cai and I probably won’t be able to make it to every place we’ll be encouraged to go. ‘And Café Bouffon for oysters,’ Bruce calls after us as we head up the street. (We never make it here. Probably next time. Check their website. Trust me.)
Downtown Stratford is made for walking: whether you’re keen on window shopping, finding good grub, or simply strolling along the riverbanks of the Avon. In no time we arrive at The Little Shed Flower Company, where we’re greeted by the shop’s lovely proprietor, Sarah. ‘I wish you’d have told me you were coming,’ she laments, perhaps a touch frazzled. ‘It’s really not a good time for photos. This past weekend’s weddings cleaned me out – I’ve got barely any fresh flowers left.’ Cai and I look around. And beg to differ. Indeed, everything about Sarah’s shop looks meticulously curated. And ripe for shooting.
The eclectic collection of antique wooden shelving units and wardrobes, for instance – displaying everything from colourful scarves to scented candles. The century-old (and operational) brass cash register. The dried roots-turned-jewelry stand. Collections of custom flower-themed t-shirts. It’s all so good.
I decide that I can’t lose this battle. ‘We’re only in Stratford for the night,’ I begin, ‘and would love to shoot your shop for our feature.’ Sarah protests. I gesture at my camera, noting: ‘While you see an exploded shop, we see a gloriously whimsical and beautifully curated boutique. Even without a full assortment of floral arrangements, there’s so much here that’s photogenic.’
Reluctantly, Sarah relents. She tells us she’s a fan of TOQUE, after all, and wouldn’t mind getting sweet pics of her shop between our sheets.
For the next few minutes I take pictures of all the pretty things. Meanwhile, Cai picks Sarah’s brain about where to eat and drink in Stratford. We’ve got our staple favourite spots, of course – including Mercer Hall for pints, Balzac’s for Americanos, AO Pasta for really anything on their menu, and other spots too. But we’re eager to try something new.
‘Pretty Good Pizza is a new pop-up with delicious pies and wine,’ Sarah tells Cai. ‘And Braai House is amazing for South African- inspired open fire cooking.’ After thanking Sarah we make our way onto Market Place for some window shopping and shop hopping. We’re soon drawn into our first (second) boutique: Perth County Moto – specializing in all things motorcycle.
Cai leads the way. After all, she’s the one with the bike (a Royal Enfield, for those inthe know). The place is like a wonderland of cool. Besides the vast selection of helmets, gloves, goggles, boots, and other protective riding gear, there are killer plaids and other lifestyle pieces. Stickers. Patches. A custom chopper in the front window. And more. Cai snatches a stunning Dixxon plaid while I grab a TROG-inspired vintage moto jersey. Twelve- ounce pre-shrunk cotton. Stitched wool and embroidered letters. Black-and-white striped sleeves. ‘Just like the ones riders wear at The Race of Gentlemen,’ I exclaim as I pay my dues. And then we’re out the door.
The next hour is a blur. Shopping on Ontario Street at Werk Shop (where I grab a few pastel Swiss Army knives for the littles), Small-Mart (where I cop a sweet Herschel cap), Bradshaws (to covet the le Creuset cooking ware, of course), and more. We even manage to fit in a pit stop at Mercer for pints of Jutsu.
Before long, our stomachs are calling. While we’d loveto visit Chef Aaron at Braai House (again, check out their site and drool), we decide on Pretty Good Pizza wherewe settle under twinkle lights on their patio – lavish negronis soon in hand. I propose that we share a shrimp cocktail. Cai’s game. ‘And what about the braised fennel?,’ she asks. ‘With grapefruit, red onion, chili, and black olive.’ Yep. For our main, we split the ‘Pep’ pizza (red sauce, pepperoni, pickled peppers, dry mozz & oregano) accompanied by a fabulous creamy garlic and chili crisp dipping sauce.
Dinner’s tremendous: the shrimp cocktail as tangy as I’d imagined it to be; the braised fennel a playful interlude of sweet and bitter; and the pie one of the best I’ve ever tried. And the dipping sauce – I babble on about it the entire meal.
We pay our bill, fall out onto the street, and begin our short trek back to The Perth. But not without a quick stop at AO Pasta for take-out. For our lovers back home. Because they need to get in on the action somehow. For me (Liz): ‘Spaghetti add Meatball’ (tomato, garlic, basil, parm). For Cai (Sonia): ‘Fettuccine’ (gorgonzola, cream, prosciutto, walnuts, parsley, parm). And while Liz, at least, may not end up with a full dish, it’s the thought. Right? Besides – there’s no way I won’t enjoy at least a bit of AO every time I come to Stratford.
We end our day at The Relic Lobby Bar. Abutting The Perth (with direct access to our rooms), this Cuban- inspired destination is the perfect spot to wind down. Its distinctive cocktails are crafted by master mixologist Ulises Sanchez, and include tinctures infused with such foraged items as dandelion, wild ginger, stinging nettle, and more. I order ‘Blood & Dust’ (scotch whiskey infused w/ garlic, clamato, pickle water, thyme, stinging nettle tinctures, and more); Cai grabs a ‘Wild Bird’ (navy rum, Campari, lime juice, pineapple juice, orgeat syrup, coconut, mint), and we float off to our happy places – surrounded by soft chatter and laughter. Within the hour, we make it back to our respective rooms. Snug under the covers in the dark, I stare up at a vintage punching bag and savour sweet memories of the day.
I wake up the next morning in a great mood – and starving for coffee. While the original Balzac’s location beckons (as does the aforementioned Café Bouffon), we head to The Livery Yard on Downie Street where we choose a corner table in the bright, airy space to enjoy our first Americanos of the day. Then a late-morning stroll along the river, where a bevy of Stratford’s swans strike a group pose against the dazzling backdrop of the new Tom Patterson Theatre. After checking out from The Perth we make one last stop – at el Cactus Taco Shop for lunch.
‘This really is the perfect way to end the trip, eh?’,I ask Cai between bites of my ‘el Cactus’ (roastedcactus, poblano chili, onion, avocado, queso fresco, salsa verde). Cai looks up from her ‘el Cochinito’ (pork carnitas, pickled red onions, salsa cruda) and nods. The sun’s out, and we’re seated on the place’s tiny front patio – with views of the downtown to our left and, if we crane our necks, the Avon to our right.
Once again, Stratford’s been good to us. And Cai and I know we’ll be back. Maybe together. Or maybe, just maybe, with our partners. After all, while even a re-heated serving of AO Pasta can assuage almost anything, it really can’t replace a real-life visit to this magical city – what’s becoming the perfect home away from home.