‘The last time we saw you was when you were in for pizza,’ Abra, our server, tells Cai and me as she guides us to our table – a cozy four-seater tucked under an expansive window right up at the front of the restaurant, overlooking a blustery, wintery Wellington Street. Cai nods with a grin (apparently playing that meal back in her head) and lets Abra know how much we loved that visit. I, on the other hand, am utterly confused. ‘We were here for pizza?’, I ask – looking around the joint for some hint of familiarity. I take in the exposed red brick walls, tidy open concept kitchen, lovely wainscoted pass, and bistro vibe. And recognize none of it. ‘This place was Pretty Good Pizza back then,’ Cai reminds me – a bemused look on her face. ‘We were here a couple summers ago.’ 

Things are coming back to me. Of course I remember Pretty Good Pizza: a Stratford pop- up opened by acclaimed Chef Jamie Crosby back in the summer of 2021. Among the best pizzas I’ve ever had. Right up there with Willibald.* Cai and I had eaten out back on the rear patio – shared a ‘Pep’ pie, fought over the accompanying creamy garlic and chili dipping sauce, and slugged back a few negronis. I remember being devastated when we heard it had closed just a year later. But closing was always the plan, as it turns out. To create space for this place: Lovage. Chef Jamie’s new – and, I might add, already legendary – project. 

It’s a Wednesday early evening in late January and Cai and I are here in Stratford on assignment, to scope out a trio of new-ish restaurants that have popped up over the past year or so. A tasty mission, indeed. After all, we’ve always loved this city’s culinary scene. To be sure, we’ve enjoyed some of our best meals ever here – at such foodie meccas as the South African- inspired Braai House, the elegant Bruce Hotel, and, of course, the celebrated AO Pasta (which, since our last visit, has evolved into more of an Italian grocer with hot counter specializing in house-made sauces, lasagna, focaccia. and other Italian treats). 

As a culinary port of call during festival season (and, perhaps even more critically, off-season too), Stratford is known for hosting a good number of world-class restaurants. The dishes that Abra begins delivering to our table demonstrate that Lovage (and, as we will find out, the other restaurants on our list) qualifies as one of these outstanding venues. Delightful ‘Tonnato Deviled Eggs’ with tuna and white anchovy. Whimsical ‘Chicken Meatball Yakitori’ with tare and egg yolk. The most photogenic ‘Hamachi Crudo’ with winter citrus, golden beets, and olive oil. Cozy ‘Squash Agro Dolce’ with stracciatella, raisin, caper, and sage. Every dish an unforgettable encounter, outdoing the last. It’s no surprise that my friend Dave Lobe, globetrotting sommelier, has embraced Lovage as one of Canada’s great dining venues. 

When I walk up to the pass and ask Chef Jamie how he’d describe the restaurant, he’s quick to answer. ‘It’s all about seasonality,’ he begins. ‘The menu’s ever-changing – always reflecting what’s available locally.’ Market cuisine, then. And what of the great vibe? ‘I’ve modeled this place after traditional European eating and drinking spots,’ he tells me, ‘like Italian trattorias, French bistros, British pubs. Here in North America we seem to have lost the concept of eating and drinking out as a pleasurable, drawn out experience – a full evening out where the food’s the destination. I want to bring this back.’ I return to our table, persuaded that Chef Jamie has accomplished what he’s set out to achieve. 

Because downtown Stratford is so walkable, once Cai and I bid Abra and Chef Jamie adieu it’s not long before we reach our next stop on this culinary journey: Blue Bird. (A good thing, too, as a winter storm – perhaps the only one this year – is in full swing.) Opened in late 2022 by Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, Ontario Street’s Bluebird is evocative of some cozy spot you might find in Paris’ hip ninth arrondissement. Vintage chandeliers. Long curtains. A substantive bar featuring gothic ecclesiastical details. Candlelit tables – including our lovely perch at the very back, overlooking, through thick waves of snow, the shimmering banks of the Avon. The only things missing in the packed space, it seems, are French chatter and the evocative voice of Édith Piaf. And the food? Delightful. 

Cai and I share the ‘Roasted Bone Marrow’ (with lettuce wraps, herb salad, crispy rice paper, and fermented chili vinaigrette) and ‘Steamed Mussels’ (with parsley garlic butter and fries). Chef Aaron sends out an order of ‘Ham & Cheese Croquettes’ (with mustard seeds and sharp cheddar). I quench my thirst with a fantastic Old Fashioned, while Cai pairs her food with a brew. Near the end of the meal, restaurant co-owner Bronwyn comes over for a quick chat – making sure that our visit has been a pleasurable one. I dip a remaining french fry into rich mussel broth, wolf it down, and let her know we couldn’t have asked for anything more. 

Cai and I settle up, bundle up, and brave the storm along Ontario until we arrive at our last stop of the evening: Elizabeth. And what a perfect last stop it is. When we arrive, chef Brian Clarke – who owns the restaurant with his partner, Sarah Sylvester (Sarah also runs The Little Shed Flower Co: a favourite Stratford stop) – is quick to greet us. He invites us to sit up at the bar, which overlooks the open concept kitchen. Behind us, wraparound windows offer clear views of folks traipsing past through the snow. On our side of the windows, patrons enjoy their meals in this elevated diner-like space. It’s not long before our server, Nikita – a perfect balance of knowledge and good cheer – brings out what Chef Brian’s been cooking: ‘Crispy Deviled Eggs’ (with panko, everything bagel seasoning, old bay, dijon & scallion), ‘Tuna Carpaccio’ (with avocado crema, pomegranate, lime & olive oil), ‘Salt Roasted Beets’ (with whipped ricotta, wilted greens & harissa), and ‘Maple Glazed Pork Belly’ (with fried sprouts, marrow aioli and pickled cabbage). 

Each dish bursts with complex flavours and unbridled playfulness – and every bite brings a smile to my face. As we near the end of our meal, Brian pours out a few examples of fernet he’s got behind the bar. A swig of the bitter, aromatic Italian spirit makes me feel as though I could be starring in an episode of Munchie’s ‘Chef’s Night Out’ – a favourite YouTube show of mine. ‘More like ‘TOQUE Night Out’,’ laughs Cai when I share my thought. 

And what a perfect night out it has been – scoping out this trio of utterly-memorable culinary destinations. Lovage and Blue Bird. And Elizabeth too. Each one offering so very much more than shelter on a stormy winter night. 

*Rumour has it that when Pretty Good Pizza closed, the place’s pizza ovens found a new home at Willibald – a lucky coincidence indeed.