The Simpsons once joked, ‘Now entering Winnipeg: We were born here, what’s your excuse?’ But, as the locals know, there are many reasons to visit this charming little city (nicknamed the ‘Peg). At the top of the list might be the city’s thriving foodie culture, which keeps locals and visitors exploring the city centre and surrounding neighborhoods where excellent Manitoban and ethnic cuisines are on the menus. Throw in a growing indie beverage scene and you’ve got yourself one tasty time.
‘Meet me at the Forks’: The Forks Market
The Forks Market is a great place to start your epicurean exploration. Located in refurbished historic horse stables at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, this fabulous foodie (and meeting) spot is the place catch up over a drink and a bite.
Begin your stall crawl at The Common, the market’s own craft beer stop, where you watch the courtyard crowds over a local brew. Next, munch your way through offerings from the surrounding stalls. Passero, run by Chef Scott Bagshaw, features modern Italian cuisine (Bagshaw also runs the ‘Peg’s other popular eateries – Enoteca, a slick spot that also focusses on shared plates, and Máquè, an Asian fusion eatery). Passero is as remarkable for its striking décor as for its dishes. Here the blond wood struts almost resemble a whale skeleton. Standout bites include the charred octopus and the Caesar salad.
Next stop? Tall Grass Prairie Bakery, whose ovens turn out delectable baked goods from organic and sustainable ingredients (think whole flour; the grains are even milled on site).
A bastion of Spanish flavors
Since its opening in 2009 (it helped establish the ‘Peg’s modern cuisine scene), Segovia Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Osborne Village is as popular as ever. Chef-owner Adam Donnelly applies a modern take to Spanish recipes using local (where possible), organic ingredients.
(Soon to be famous) sweet treats
Chaeban Ice Cream had literally just opened at the time of writing, but we know it will become famous. Why? Lebanese-Canadian owner, Joseph Chaeban, is a cheesemaker. This means that he truly understands the science behind dairy products. He teamed up with his Syrian wife, who is the taste tester and recipe provider extraordinaire. The result? Dense, pure cream delights, popping with both natural flavours and ingredients (many are gluten free). Get your tongue around Abir Al Sham, a favorite Arabic recipe of cashews and pistachios, with rose, orange and blossom waters, or test the tastebuds on beets (yes, really!).
If anyone can conjure food magic, it’s Mandel Hitzer, owner of deer + almond and Winnipeg’s ultra-friendly ‘Personality About Town’. Hitzer’s menu is populated with strange, tasty-sounding concoctions like deer tartare with canned mushrooms and, as a nod to his German roots, a pork schnitzel.
Hitzer has also teamed with local architect Joe Kalturnyk to develop Winnipeg’s annual pop-up restaurant-on-ice – RAW:almond. Each winter near the Forks, in severely frigid temperatures, high profile chefs collaborate with Hitzer to whip up five-course menus for the ‘coolest of cool’ experiences. It’s been so popular, the program expanded to one-off events like RAW:Gimli, which took place on frozen Lake Winnipeg, 90km north of Winnipeg. RAW:churchill, meanwhile, stands as one of world’s most exciting dining experiences, in which guests munch on a five-course meal, prepared and served in a wooden yurt-style structure with a transparent Perspex roof in the far northern reaches of Manitoba while the Northern Lights dance overhead.
Craft Brews, Coffee & Cocktails
The indie beverage scene is the city’s latest trend, with craft brews, coffee and cocktails joining the exploding foodie mix.
Locally roasted beans and superior blends and good baristas equal superb coffees. For great caffeine and killer breakfasts, plus a hip, basement setting (gotta love a ‘70s-style wallpaper and cactus or two), don’t go past Clementine in the trendy Exchange District. Owners Carolina Konrad (formerly of Segovia) and her sister, Raya, serve up some of the best meals around: the porridge (yes, really) is one of the city’s best bites. Or you could hunker down for a coffee or a great cocktail at Forth, where the Scandanavian-style social spaces and art gallery (plus a rooftop bar in summer) are magnets for both workers and conversationalists.
For evening relaxation, Langside Grocery in West Broadway, serves up cocktail creations in a cosy, dimly lit space (formerly a residential grocer’s store; there’s no signage). Or munch your way through the various ethnic options that line Corydon Avenue. While here, nestle in for a late night at The Roost, a small space cocktail bar that emulates a tree house. Its young team cobbles together some great mixes and quality tapas plates.
Beer lovers should hop into a cab and head to Brazen Hall Kitchen & Brewery, one of the latest additions to Winnipeg’s emerging microbrewery scene. This lively, barn-like place, draws in a great crowd for its craft brews (made on the premises) and hearty portions of gastropub-style meals. (For serious brew fans, other names on froth-lined lips are Little Brown Jug, One Great City, Torque and Barn Hammer).
But while food is a focus, local restauranteurs don’t miss the point of their businesses: community. Nowhere is this more obvious than Feast Bistro & Café, a sunny and friendly ‘local’ in Winnipeg’s West End neighborhood. This Indigenous-owned and operated eatery dishes up simple, delicious bites using traditional Indigenous ingredients (bannock and bison is celebrated here). Owner, Christa Bruneau-Guenther, ensures that ‘all are welcome’ and even employs those people who, in her words, have had ‘previous barriers to employment’.
No matter how fancy the food, firm favourites still thrive (the 'Peg’s many ethnic eateries and hole-in-the-walls being no exception). These institutions are integral to many locals’ childhoods: summer walks along the river, first dates and regular family outings. For the traveller, these are a fun way to get your head and heart around town.
Locals will tell you that the ‘best burgers in town’ are at VJ’s Drive Inn, a hole-in-the-wall located in a parking lot. It’s advised that you order up the iconic VJ’s Special, a chilli-flavoured thrill. Nearby is Salisbury House which introduced the term ‘Nip’ to the local burger lexicon (for its ever-so-slightly lesser amount of meat).
Bridge Drive-In (or ‘BDI’ as the locals call it) on Jubilee Avenue, is an ice-cream institution located by the Red River a few kilometres south of the city centre. Since 1957 this modest spot has whipped up quirkily-named confectionaries: Banana Bonanza, Sleeping Beauty and Saltzberg. Try the famous Goog, a blueberry shake with a hot fudge sundae, bananas and whipped cream.
To tip you from a sugary high into saccharine frenzy, don’t miss Baked Expectations where, for a few bucks, you can feast on anything from a range of cheesecakes to a Shmoo, a sponge cake with caramel topping.
Farmers markets and food trucks
Sated? We haven’t touched on the city’s 13 or so farmers markets dotted around the city, offering fresh fruit, vegetables, artisanal cheeses and farm-made goodies. The city’s largest, St Norbert Farmers’ Market sells meats, preserves and baked products made only in Manitoba. Then there are around 45 food trucks that keep the food scene revving and serve everything from Thai food to Middle Eastern bites.
Taken along with the all the options above (plus everything we couldn't fit in this piece), this adds up to a downright vibrant foodie scene that bucks the old perceptions of Winnipeg. As the can't-miss plates keep piling up, maybe it's the foodie travelers who still haven't visited who should be asking each other, 'What's your excuse?'
This article was updated on March 16 and originally published in December 2014.