by Eric Pateman
Someone once asked me what I would do with my time if I found out I had a year left on earth. Coming up with an answer was easy: I would pack up my family and hit the road and fulfill my dream of showing my daughters their place in this incredible world, and hopefully instill in them the desire to give back, to help the less fortunate, and to leave their own mark on humanity. The trip could take us anywhere and everywhere in the world. But for the last two weeks, the place I would want to be, over all others on the planet, is Tofino.
Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Tofino is a surf town of vast beaches, old-growth forests, thunderstorms, and excellent food, and a place where I truly feel at peace. No matter how busy I am, I can relax and let go when I am there. It’s a place filled with so many wonderful memories, and the site of some of my favourite family photos. Whether it’s sunny or stormy, the sound of the crashing surf draws you outside, where you can run endlessly on miles of beaches, breathing in air so clean it makes everything clearer when it fills your lungs.
Where to Eat in Tofino
Tofino is in a remote part of the world – it wasn’t accessible by paved road until 1970 – and so the local food is based on the ingredients from the surrounding land and sea, from the ocean’s fish and shellfish to the wild mushrooms and other delights found in the forests. Chefs from around the world have settled on this wild coast to turn its offerings into incredible food. Today, the dining scene is a big part of what makes Tofino so magical.
As someone who travels 275+ days a year, and dines out for more than 1,000 meals, I invariably get asked about my favourite food or meal. And while I’ve had more than my fair share of mind-blowing restaurant experiences, the meals that stand out most for me are the times I’ve enjoyed simple food, simply prepared. I don’t think I’m alone in this. If you ask most chefs what their most memorable meal has been, or what their last meal would be, many, if not most, will list something like bread with really good butter, a steak cooked over fire or something their mother used to make. Ultimately, eating is as much about the people and the place as about the food itself.
In Tofino, for me, the perfect meal is a picnic on the beach of fresh Dungeness crab cooked in seawater, paired with drawn butter and a bottle of champagne, and shared with family and friends. That’s it, that’s all. I usually get my crab from the Crab Lady (900 Campbell St., Tofino) across from the gas station, where the jumbo crabs are only $25! I buy my champagne before I get into town – usually at Vessel Liquor in Victoria, which has the best selection of bubbles in BC.
The restaurant experience in Tofino is wonderful as well. Located right in downtown Tofino, Wolf In the Fog is in my personal Top 10 restaurants in the world, with family-style dining, friendly, unpretentious service and the best cocktail list in Tofino. Order a selection of dishes to share, and don’t miss the oysters wrapped in spirals of crispy potatoes, or the Gooseneck barnacles – a local delicacy that can be hard to find. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but dinner is where they really shine.
For a selection of wild foods, I like 1909 Kitchen, located on the harbour side of Tofino with great views out to the inlet. Chef Paul Moran from Canada’s Top Chef cooks casual, comforting dishes, specializing in wild foraged foods and seafood, and they have a very cool “cook your catch” concept – you can drop off what you caught that day, and the culinary team will cook it up for you!
For me, Tofino is all about comfort – mornings spent surfing, the sound of the ocean and crackling fires. The perfect way to end a day is with a steaming bowl of Japanese comfort food. Head to Kuma in downtown Tofino for your umami fix: ramen, miso, mushrooms and flavourful sauces.
And no trip to Tofino would be complete without a stop at Tacofino, the cheap and cheerful taco stand that has now spread its legendary fare all over Vancouver as well. Their Fish Taco with locally caught lingcod is my top pick, but the Albacore Tuna is a close second. Leave room for a Chocolate Diablo Cookie for dessert!
Where to Stay in Tofino
Part of what makes Tofino such a relaxing place is the people who go above and beyond to find ways to make your stay better. There’s nowhere that shows that mindset more clearly than The Wickaninnish Inn, a stunning Relais and Chateaux property situated so close to the famous Chesterman Beach that the waves actually lap underneath the stunning Pointe Restaurant. Owned by Charles McDiarmid, whose family literally put Tofino on the map, the Wick (as it is known) is the ultimate splurge for both dining and accommodation. The anticipatory service is incredible – the staff somehow know what I need even before I do, whether that’s baskets of beach toys for my daughters or salted caramel hot chocolate brought to our room.
Every aspect of a stay at the Wick is relaxing, from the coziest of beds and robes to the TVs that are hidden so as to not distract from the view, and massages by world-class therapists on the rocks by the sea. It’s a place for lazy mornings with postcard views, and the Pointe Restaurant on site serves, hands down, the best breakfast in Tofino. The kitchen has turned out some of Canada’s most prominent chefs, including Rod Butters, Andrew Springett and Warren Barr. Current Chef Carmen Ingham has some lofty shoes to fill, but is doing an admirable job. Don’t miss the stunning wine room and cocktail bar, or the carving shed with work from local artists.
If you are travelling with a family and want some privacy, the Pacific Sands Beach Resort is always a great choice, with townhomes that easily sleep a family or group of 5 or 6 and are literally right on the beach. If you like to cook, these are fantastic units, with full kitchens and dining areas. Wet weather gear is provided, and there’s a shared box of beach toys for the kids. There’s also a great take-away place for fish tacos, burgers and more.
If you’re coming to surf, book a lesson with the onsite Surf Sisters surf school, the best in Tofino. Outdoor hoses make cleanup a breeze, and some of the units have private hot tubs to soak in afterwards (you will definitely want to book these suites in advance – and I’d recommend that for Pacific Sands in general, as it tends to fill up). Pacific Sands also offers lodge-based 1- and 2-bedroom suites, but I prefer the privacy of the townhomes. After a day on the beach, enjoy the magical sunset and then gather around the giant outdoor fireplace.
A stay at Pluvio in Ucluelet is an amazing bargain. Opened in 2019 by the husband and wife team of Warren Barr (previously of the Wick) and Lily Verney-Downey, this cozy inn, named for loving the rain (a must in this part of the world) has five spacious, beautifully appointed rooms. There’s an excellent coffee and tea service, and breakfast is included in your stay and delivered each evening while you sleep. You get to wake up to a glorious red cooler that is a treasure trove of tastiness, and you can eat at your leisure in your PJs! Yes, staying in Ucluelet means the area’s top surfing and walking beaches are about a 20-minute drive away rather than right outside your window, but you’ll save hundreds of dollars a night and enjoy true peace and quiet.
You’ll also be guaranteed a spot at Pluvio’s very popular restaurant, which was voted one of Canada’s top 10 new restaurants in 2019 by enRoute Magazine. Intimate and inviting, with incredible food, they serve some of the best-presented dishes I have seen, with special touches like pebbles, hidden boxes, foliage and more. Their candied salmon is insane – moist, flavourful and full of smoke and sweetness. They bake their own bread, and fresh ingredients are supplied by the rooftop kitchen garden and a team of foragers who visit daily.
On Your Way to Tofino
If you’re arriving via the BC mainland, you’ll want to make a stop at Coombs Market on your way across Vancouver Island, so plan your ferry departure time to give you at least an hour to explore this legendary roadside market. There’s so much more to Coombs than the famous Goats on the Roof (although they are pretty cute!). You can shop for everything here, from condiments to produce and meat, not to mention bowls, knickknacks, art and so much more! There are also great dining options, and an incredible donut shop.
Tofino is such a magical place, where time slows down and you are totally immersed in the natural world. I always joke that even two nights in Tofino feels like two weeks anywhere else! It’s a place that has so many memories for me and my family, and a place I feel completely like myself. I can think of nowhere I’d rather be.
About Eric Pateman
Eric is one of the world’s leading experts on Culinary Tourism and is one of our nation’s leading ambassadors of Canadian cuisine. He owns and operates the successful Edible Canada brand of companies, which includes an award-winning restaurant, retail stores and a culinary travel division. Additionally, Eric also has a salt company called Amola and a consulting practice that keeps him travelling around the world about 250 days a year for both public and private sector clients to define cuisines, build brands and shape the future of food. You can follow Eric’s global culinary adventures on his Instagram account @ericpateman.