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This nautical corner of the city is full of history and great food
Fifty years ago, Fisherman’s Wharf had an air of chaos.
Fishermen and their trawlers jostled for space on the docks with residents living aboard trimarans, junks, or float homes built on precarious rafts of mossy logs. Almost no one paid their moorage fees, and skirmishes often brought police down to investigate. The lone restaurant was a hamburger joint called Vinnie’s Eats, which sat atop a Texaco fuel barge.
By contrast, today’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a picturesque corner of Victoria’s waterfront, home to a bright new generation of float homes, attracting hundreds of tourists each year. Vinnie’s is gone, replaced with a circle of food vendors drawing a mix of locals and tourists alike throughout the spring and summer. The eating experience is invariably memorable, especially on windier days when the waves bob the floating restaurants up and down. You may be tempted to beeline for a classic fish and chips (after all, what tastes better than fish and chips near the ocean?), but trust me: don’t skip out on the variety of fare offered by the many Fisherman’s Wharf vendors.
This Mexican spot features recipes from the owners’ family-run restaurants in Acapulco, Morelia, and Puerto Vallarta. It’s the most festive restaurant on the Wharf, with speakers emanating dance music and a jaunty, sombrero-wearing prawn on its sign. Last year, the establishment often hosted live music on Friday nights that brought curious locals down from the adjoining Fisherman’s Wharf park for a dance party.
The food options include a filling beef barbacoa burrito stuffed with tender and mildly-spiced meat as well as refried beans, rice, and a garnish of lettuce. Three vegetarian burrito options are available, too: potato and spinach, beans and cheese, and soy meat chorizo.
For sides, Puerto Vallarta Amigos offers esquite (Mexican street corn), which is warm corn kernels served with a mix of sour cream and cilantro. And the Baja-style fish tacos are excellent: served on a soft corn tortilla with generous chunks of seasoned fish on a bed of cabbage, cilantro, with tangy salsa and mayo. An equally good shrimp version is also available, both served with smoky chile hot sauce. Arm yourself with a stack of napkins: the juices will drip down your hand.
On summer evenings, gourmands gather in the covered eating area attached to The Fish Store and More—another vendor that has upgraded its structure in recent years. Iced trays of fresh oysters in a half-shell are passed around, washed down with flights of beer in plastic cups and local wines. With a greater variety of seafood offerings than other vendors, The Fish Store prides itself on serving Oceanwise (certified ecologically sustainable) seafood. The restaurant’s status as a licensed processing plant means fish and shellfish are purchased directly from fishermen and processed at its floating store.
"We try to serve fish and shellfish that comes from within 100 miles of Vancouver Island," says Peter Gregg, who co-owns the restaurant with Colleen Smith. They do a brisk business in fish and chips, but also offer steamed mussels and clams, crabs, and unique options such as Fraser River sturgeon, with its strong river-bottom flavour.
On the site of what was previously the sushi restaurant Rockn’ Rolls, Pirate Pizza upgraded its structure and installed two shiny new pizza ovens before opening its doors in the spring of 2019.
Owned by James Bay realtor and residential developer Mark Imhoff, the restaurant has a cordoned-off licensed seating area where you can sit and enjoy a drink with a view of the busy harbour traffic. Despite offerings of salads, chicken wings, and Greek-style pita wraps, the pizza (as you’d expect) is the star.
“What makes our pizza special is definitely our crust,” says general manager Ryan Agnew. “We consider ourselves one of the only and best purveyors of the more ‘East Coast style’ of thin crust … thin but wide; crispy, yet foldable.”
The description proves accurate when I taste the Hawaiian, with its pleasantly chewy crust spread with a mildly spicy sauce, cheese, and a generous dusting of oregano. According to Agnew, the best-selling artisan pie is the Maiden Voyage Vegetarian (with pesto, roasted peppers, and other vegetables), followed closely by the Abandon Ship—a creamy prawn- and scallop-topped pizza. Classic pizzas, like Hawaiian, cheese, or pepperoni are available by the slice for $6.25.
Coco Grill is the new kid on the block, and replaced the previous Smoke & Anchor Smoked Meats last summer. The family-run restaurant, with its faux palm umbrellas and bright parrot and shell decorations, could—in the summer, at least—make you feel like you’re in Hawaii. And according to its website, that’s the goal.
Its Onolicious Prawns really hit the mark. The juicy grilled prawns taste like they’ve been plucked and served right from the ocean and are served on a bed of soy-sauce-infused fried rice with peas and corn. A lightly dressed salad with cubes of tomato and coconut meat tops it off. It’s comfort seafood done well. The bao tacos look attractive—creamy prawn filling topped with a shock of purple cabbage and black sesame seeds—but it's mild, like a prawn-and-mayo sandwich. The Hawaiian burger fulfills a certain craving with its generous toppings that include crispy sharp cheese, pineapple, and avocado, but the dense patty may not appeal to everyone.
Despite all this variety, some visitors to Fisherman’s Wharf will still only have eyes for Barb’s Fish & Chips. Established in 1984 and the oldest of the currently operating vendors, Barb’s is an institution.
You’ll normally find a lineup of people waiting to order there. Join them if you must, and get the generously-sized chunks of cod or halibut in an extra-crispy coating. The mild-tasting fish and chips have their appeal, especially when doused in salt and vinegar, and their large burgers are satisfying. But Barb’s chowder is heavy on salt and low on fish, although the accompanying fried buttery garlic toast helps round out the flavours. It’s tough to know whether the food is worth waiting in line for, given the many other delicious options at the wharf.
For something sweet to finish off your meal, head to Jackson’s Ice Cream. The all-women staff serves Island Farms hard ice cream by the scoop, plus soft ice cream and frozen dog treats, taking payment at a till with a pink tip jar labelled “girls just wanna have funds.”
At the other end of the wharf is Sweets, a pastel-striped shack that sells treats of all kinds: salt water taffy, kettle corn, three Slush Puppie flavours (cherry, lemonade, and blue raspberry), and cotton candy spun on site. The smell of its icing-sugar-dusted mini donuts wafts far from the kiosk, causing all the children in the vicinity to tug their parents’ hands in its direction. Parents be warned: they’re $12 for a baker’s dozen.
After dining in the fresh air, a summer evening calls for a leisurely walk down the docks past the residents’ floating homes. The homes are kitschy and lovingly cared for, as unique as each resident. Just remember, it’s not always easy for the residents to share space with so many visitors—and unlike on the wharf of decades ago, good manners are expected. “Float homes are private property and should never be boarded without the owner's permission,” states the residents’ website. “Imagine how you would feel if someone climbed on your home.”