Pie and More Pie at Hilltop Diner Cafe in Langley, B.C.

 

Who can wait to tuck into this decadent flapper pie at Hilltop Diner Cafe in Langley, B.C.?

Who can wait to tuck into this decadent flapper pie at Hilltop Diner Cafe in Langley, B.C.?

It’s 11 am, and we’re just finishing a fine breakfast: Thick slices of cinnamon-swirl French toast and bacon and eggs with beautifully crispy hash browns. Burgers and hand-cut fries are just starting to appear from the kitchen.

Thick slices of French toast

Thick slices of cinnamon-swirl French toast

But the real show is just getting started at Hilltop Diner Cafe, in Langley, B.C., just east of Vancouver. Six-inch-high slabs of pie—lemon meringue, pecan, peach, strawberry-rhubarb and a fabulous flapper—are being loaded into cardboard takeout boxes, lifted onto plates and shoveled down gullets. Eleven varieties in all, plus some cheesecakes.

Sisters Andrea Zaiser and Sandie Parley are carrying on the operation of a diner that dates back to 1945, when the Fraser Highway was a major thoroughfare. It’s now a little off beaten track, though not far from the busy Trans-Canada east of Vancouver and along the way if you’re going to or from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal via Highway 10. It’s a good place to step back in time and enjoy a home-cooked meal, finished, of course, with a generous helping of pie.

Hilltop Diner Cafe is a good place to enjoy an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal

Hilltop Diner Cafe is a good place to enjoy an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal

Hilltop Diner Cafe
23904 Fraser Highway, Langley, B.C.
Daily 8 am-2:30 pm
Hilltop Cafe Diner on Urbanspoon

Superlative Salt Spring Island

The Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery is what Salt Spring Island is all about

The Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery is what Salt Spring Island is all about

Salt Spring Island is the largest and most populous of the Gulf Islands, with 10,000 somewhat itinerant residents and this lovely description: “An argument surrounded by water.” No surprise, it’s home to an abundance of artists, witness a 30-studio tour spanning the island. The tour includes such epicurean delights as Salt Spring Island Cheese, Gulf Islands Brewing and Heather Campbell’s Salt Spring Island Bread. All the fixings for a great, waterside picnic.

To sample the many good eats without the driving, head to Ganges (the island’s biggest community), park your car and amble around. The spring-to-fall Saturday Market—vendors must “make it, bake it or grow it”—is famous but mobbed with people and cars. I prefer the smaller Tuesday version, which still features plenty of fabulous produce, such as Foxglove’s bursting-with-flavour orange cherry tomatoes and strawberries.

Perhaps the most colourful place for a meal is Tree House Café, where the outdoor tables are wrapped around an enormous plum tree, with stacks of blankets to stave off the harbour chill. Somewhat pricy lunch highlights include the veggie burger and lamb meatball stew.

The tables at Tree House Cafe are nestled beneath the branches of this huge tree

The tables at Tree House Cafe are nestled beneath the branches of this huge plum  tree

Tree House Cafe
106 Purvis Lane, Ganges, Salt Spring Island
Daily 8 am-10 pm
Tree House Cafe on Urbanspoon

In artsy Ganges, you’ll find good coffee shops on nearly every block. My aesthetic picks are Cafe Talia, in a lovely old, wood-sided telephone exchange, and Blue Coffee Can (aka Slow Espresso), a mini-shipping container, owned by Mt Maxwell Coffee Roaster (“We roast coffee as an excuse to drink more coffee”). Salt Spring Coffee‘s roasting operations have been kicked off the island, but they still run a shop in town, featuring a killer apple-blackberry pie. In a nod to islanders’ health consciousness, many of these coffee emporiums serve power spheres, delectable little uncooked treats featuring carob, peanut butter, coconut and the like.

Cafe Tali is in an old telephone exchange building

Cafe Talia is in an old telephone exchange building

Mt Maxwell Coffee is served at this little Ganges shack

Mt Maxwell java is served at this little Blue Coffee Can shack

All hands on deck for this luscious blackberry pie at Salt Spring Coffee

All hands on deck for this luscious apple-blackberry pie at Salt Spring Coffee

At Jana’s Bake Shop, the wonderful smell that greets you at the door makes you want to order pies, butter tarts or chocolate walnut brownies. It’s small-batch baking, so get there early before it’s all gone. Just south of town, El Loco Taco is a Mexican food truck, in the Seabreeze Inne parking lot, serving up bountiful burritos like a marinated pork with lime-pickled onions, pineapple and a Baja sauce that packs a punch.

At Jana's Bake Shop, this fragrant fruit pie has already been sold, alas

At Jana’s Bake Shop, this fragrant fruit pie has already been sold, alas

In Gulf Island communities like Salt Spring, folks must often pursue two or more occupations to make ends meet. For Fernwood Road Cafe co-owner Jennifer Shaw, it’s more about the lives she left behind, including one as a corporate lawyer, to fulfill a dream of running an eatery with husband David. Sure, it means 16-hour days, but she still gets to practice her cake-decorating skills, wear shorts and Crocs and enjoy an “office” view overlooking a seaside pier.

Co-owner Jennifer Shaw is running the espresso machine and tiny kitchen at Fernwood Road Cafe

Co-owner Jennifer Shaw is running the espresso machine and tiny kitchen at Fernwood Road Cafe

Good, reasonably priced breakfasts here include baked egg dishes and thick slices of whole-wheat French toast. Oh, and if you see a regular without a shirt, don’t worry. It’s just one of the island characters.

Whole-wheat French toast at Fernwood Road Cafe

Whole-wheat French toast at Fernwood Road Cafe

Fernwood Road Cafe
325 Fernwood Road, Salt Spring Island
Daily 9 am-5 pm, except a 10 am opening on Saturday
Fernwood Road Cafe on Urbanspoon

Fabulous Farm Gate Store on B.C.’s Mayne Island

Farm Gate Store on B.C.'s Mayne Island is a wonderful combination of grocery and eatery

Farm Gate Store on B.C.’s Mayne Island is a wonderful combination of grocery and eatery

Here’s how good the grilled sandwiches are at *Farm Gate Store, a little place along a country road on Mayne Island, one of B.C.’s southern Gulf Islands. While delivering the sandwiches to our shaded picnic table, our server slips and drops them onto some construction dirt. She sheepishly heads back inside to make them afresh. Me? I would have just wiped them off and dug in.

The caramelized onion sauce brings this fantastic ham-eggplant sandwich together

The caramelized onion sauce brings this fantastic ham-eggplant sandwich together

What makes these meat or veggie sandwiches ($7 apiece) so delectable? Layers of ham, melted Havarti, truly ripe tomatoes and wilted eggplant, all loaded onto Seeded Hearth bread, from Victoria’s Portofino Bakery. The clincher is a sauce of caramelized onions, balsamic vinegar and cream cheese, bringing everything moistly together. A similarly moist, dense carrot and coconut muffin, in a rectangular shape, finishes off our scrumptious lunch.

The carrot and coconut muffin is a mini loaf

The carrot and coconut muffin is a mini loaf

Farm Gate’s logo sums things up: “Local people supporting local agriculture.” The place is indeed a  hangout, islanders chatting amongst themselves and with owners Don and Shanti while picking up plump berries, bunches of basil and organic lamb and chicken, nearly all of it from nearby farms. The farm, too, is where Shanti grows and cuts flowers for stunning bouquets that sell for only $11.

Co-owner Shanti arranges her farm-cut flower bouquets, a bargain $11

Co-owner Shanti arranges her farm-cut flower bouquets, a bargain $11

This is what a country store should be: local, friendly, exceptional.

Farm Gate Store
568 Fernhill Road, Mayne Island, B.C.
Daily 10 am-6 pm, except 10 am-5 pm Sunday

Folks (and Seagulls) Flock to Victoria’s Red Fish Blue Fish

Finally reaching the front of the line at Victoria B.C.'s Red Fish Blue Fish

Finally reaching the front of the line at Victoria B.C.’s Red Fish Blue Fish

Driving into crowded downtown Victoria is good practice for standing in line at celebrated Red Fish Blue Fish—a recycled cargo container on a wooden pier in the city’s inner harbour—unless you strategically arrive near opening or closing. Otherwise, be prepared to wait for up to an hour, while enjoying the marine life around you.

Putting the finishing touches on tuna tacones

Putting the finishing touches on tuna tacones

The good news is the wait is worth it, the line moving slowly because each meal is made to order. The halibut and chips ($14 for a substantial single piece) is outstanding, the fish bursting with fresh-caught flavour and juiciness beneath a somewhat greasy, crispy batter. The albacore tuna tacone, seared till just pink and wrapped in a little tortilla stuffed with slaw, pea shoots and lemon-pickled onions and seasoned with spicy spot prawn mayo, is equally good.

Despite the crowds, Red Fish Blue Fish is still paying attention to the little details that add up to great, fresh fish meals.

There are some fries buried beneath this huge piece of halibut

There are some fries buried beneath this huge piece of halibut

Red Fish Blue Fish
1006 Wharf Street, Victoria, B.C.
Daily 11:30 am-7 pm (3 pm if the weather’s inclement)
Red Fish, Blue Fish on Urbanspoon

Lovely Seaside Dining at Point No Point Resort near Sooke, B.C.

Smoked albacore tuna salad at Point No Point Resort, west of Sooke, B.C.

Smoked albacore tuna salad at Point No Point Resort, west of Sooke, B.C.

How’s this for a perfect lunch experience? At Point No Point Resort, west of Sooke, B.C. on southern Vancouver Island, there’s great food, of course. It starts, perhaps, with a bowl of chowder ($7) packed with clams and rockfish, followed by a smoked albacore tuna salad ($14) or an enormous quesadilla ($12) featuring an unusual filling of squash, edamame beans, pumpkin seeds and melted aged cheddar.

But it’s hard to keep your eyes focused on the meal when nearly every table in this charming old house is a window seat overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Is that a pod of orca whales cutting through the distant waves? Just pick up the binoculars stationed at every table and scan the waters below.

It's hard to concentrate on lunch when there's orca whales swimming in the strait

It’s hard to concentrate on lunch when there’s orca whales swimming in the strait

Finish your stay with a walk down through salt-sprayed forest to an ocean bay on Point no Point’s private trails, open to luncheon diners.

How about a post-lunch walk down to a private beach?

How about a post-lunch walk down to a private beach?

Point No Point Resort
10829 West Coast Road, Shirley, B.C.
Lunch available to non guests 11:30 am-3:30 pm
Point no Point on Urbanspoon

For a more laid-back dining experience, head to Shirley Delicious Café, just down the road in a colourful little building with a garden out front and cheerful owners Phillip and Sheena and staff inside. Try a roasted leek sandwich or a breakfast burrito and latte before going on a seaside stroll in nearby French Beach Provincial Park.

Shirley Delicious Cafe
2794 Sheringham Point Road, Shirley, B.C.
Daily 8 am-5 pm
Shirley Delicious on Urbanspoon

Edmonton’s Duchess Bake Shop is the Sweet Bomb

Sinfully delicious confections at Duchess Bake Shop in Edmonton

Sinfully delicious confections at Duchess Bake Shop in Edmonton

If I had to choose just one affordable Edmonton eatery, my pound-for-pound champion would have to be Duchess Bake Shop, on increasingly trendy 124 Street. Yes, there is a smattering of fine quiches and open-faced sandwiches called tartines and batards, the latter topped with such things as roasted eggplant spread and hazelnuts.

But this five-year-old shop is the place to go for baked sweets and a pot of tea or French-press coffee. Even the names are decadent: apricot bourbon pecan Danish, rhubarb galette or a raspberry-studded confection aptly called l’amour.

These bombes are to die for

These bombes are to die for

Everything is fantastic looking and even better tasting. Indeed, I haven’t seen its equal in my extensive food forays throughout western North America. As owners Giselle, Garner and Jacob note on their website, everything is made daily from scratch, “using no mixes, no preservatives and no shortcuts.”

A nice touch is the elegantly dressed and solicitous young servers. And when was the last time you saw a barista wearing a tie?

Maybe it was a bow tie. In any event, Duchess, it’s time to take a bow, or curtsy. You’re my number one hit in all of Edmonton.

The elegant space is matched by the servers

The elegant space is matched by the chic servers

Duchess Bake Shop
10720 124 Street NW, Edmonton, Alberta
Tuesday to Friday 9 am-8 pm, Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday 10 am-5 pm. Closed Monday
Duchess Bake Shop on Urbanspoon