Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cheerful Little Restaurants

January 25, 2009

The sauerkraut was bright, crisp and tangy, and the sausages were robust and spicy – just what I wanted. The waiter was an attentive, good-humoured middle-aged man named Burt – the only male server for miles around, he said.

“How's your haddock?” I asked. Marjorie has extensive knowledge of pan-fried haddock.

“Perfect,” said Marjorie.

“This place is a find,” I said. It was noon-hour, and the restaurant was packed.

We were in Bridgewater, at Waves Seafood and Grill – an undistinguished-looking store-front in a thoroughly ordinary strip mall. The décor was clean and simple, but far from fancy – booths, tables, vinyl floor with pools of meltwater.

But the patrons were voluble and happy, and no wonder. The service was first-rate, the food was excellent, and the menu bespoke the location. You could get any of the staple lunches of small-town restaurants – chops, liver, the always-safe clubhouse sandwich. But we were in Lunenburg County, you, so the menu also offered seafood, sauerkraut, sausage – food that reflected the taste that Lunenburgers brought from Germany 250 years ago.

“There are other restaurants like this around the province,” I said. “There's a little place called Crofter's in New Glasgow. It's in a little strip mall on the Stellarton Road. Good solid food, historical photos on the walls, and an unobtrusive Scottish character, as befits New Glasgow. Great staff, great value.”

That's not just my opinion. When I later went prowling online, I found Crofter's described as “cozy, interesting and friendly.”

“I don't know what we expected,” wrote one happy patron, “but this restaurant exceeded our expectations. Good fresh seafood, good steak, helpful hostess, attractive, pleasant and efficient waitress, good ambiance.”

“I remember Crofter's,” Marjorie said. “The pan-fried haddock was really good. And what about the Fleur de Lis in Port Hawkesbury?”

Same story – a simple but welcoming little restaurant in a strip mall, with excellent food which reflects the proprietors' Acadian origins. The last time I was there, a happy lunchtime crowd made it hard to get a seat. I had Acadian fish-cakes with homemade baked beans and thick slices of bread – delicious, hearty and affordable. Marjorie was equally pleased with her meal. In a wild spasm of experimentation, she chose the haddock burger.

And again, the online comments agree. “Oh, this is such a good little restaurant,” writes one patron of the Fleur-de-Lis. “Easy to miss because it's tucked away in the shopping strip mall---near Sobey's. But oh the food is good especially the apple or blueberry crisp. We always eat there when we are in Cape Breton which is at least twice a year. Don't miss this place!!!”

And I was charmed by another Web endorsement from a much younger critic: “i love this restaurant since my mo owns it, (brenda chisholm) i am candice chisholm and I am 13 years old. I guarantee that you will have food at its best from this restaurant so if you go, please enjoy”

You bet, Candice.

These three restaurants are open all year, as is The Knot Pub in Lunenburg, acclaimed as one of Canada's best pubs – and who am I to argue? Once again, The Knot knows where it is – in a German-rooted seaport – so the interior is all rope and blocks, navigation lamps, flags, casks and nameplates. The sauerkraut and seafood is excellent, and so is the house beer, a “Knots Ale” brewed by Propeller. (And, says Marjorie, so is the haddock.)

These cheerful little restaurants are all located in market towns – small communities, but large enough to sustain a year-round business. They're in high-traffic locations with ample parking. They're attuned to their markets, catering to local tastes and budgets. They compete very successfully with fast-food chain restaurants – and they've been around for a while.

I'm sure there are similar restaurants in comparable towns that I'm less familiar with – Amherst, Kentville, Yarmouth. (In fact I'd like to hear about such restaurants; if you have one to suggest, drop me a line at ). Unpretentious, reliable and welcoming, these little restaurants have all built loyal, local followings, and they lift the heart of a winter traveller who's lucky enough to find one.

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