the north island restaurant report: where to eat in port hardy and port mcneill

I was sure that one of the downsides of moving to a small town in a relatively remote area would be a serious lack of food choices. I've been very happy to be wrong!

There aren't a lot of restaurants here, but what's here is very good -- well-prepared, fresh, tasty food, and excellent, friendly service. As with most things, I'm finding that having a few choices are enough.

I cook a lot more now, as there's no prepared food, and I'm also less busy and have more energy. Allan's been helping me with food prep, cutting up vegetables to store in the fridge. This was my idea, but he's more than willing to do it, and I find it hugely helpful. He's also been making dinner once a week, which gives me another break.

But when we're not eating at home, here's where we might be.

Port Hardy

Fire Chefs, also known as Captain Hardy's. Captain Hardy's was a fixture in town. It closed a few years ago, and new owners updated the menu and changed the name. But they also very wisely kept the name Captain Hardy's on one of the signs, so it's a restaurant with two names.

This place serves what might be the best fish and chips I've ever eaten. The fish is fresh and moist, the batter is feather-light, and perfectly seasoned. I keep saying that next time we eat there, I'm going to order something else, but I never do. But -- drumroll, please -- there is ramen on the menu! If it's good, I'll happily exchange the fried I shouldn't be eating for the noodles I shouldn't be eating. One thing for sure, if you like fish and chips, you will be very happy here.

Ha'me, and its neighbour Nax'id. These are the restaurant and pub at Kwa'lillas, the First Nations hotel in our town, also without a doubt the nicest hotel in the area. We stayed at a similar place in Vancouver a few years ago, a hotel that is also a First Nations social enterprise. We were hoping this meant good food, and we weren't disappointed.

Ha'me is the dining room, which is still quite casual, not at all upscale or formal in look or feel. Na'xid is their pub and lounge area, which is spacious and comfortable, the decor in muted gray tones with an elegant feel. We love hotel bar/lounges, and this is my definitely my favourite space in town.

The food is excellent. There's an emphasis on seafood, especially salmon and halibut, but there's also meat, pasta, salads, and so on. We've shared the salmon platter -- house smoked, candied, and cold -- and it's not to be missed. Allan has had a salmon burger on bannock, and a steak that looked very nice. Once again, I keep ordering the same thing: the hunter's platter, with elk-blueberry sausage (amazing), smoked duck, duck confit, and a few kinds of cheeses. I plan on trying most things on the menu, when I can get over that elk sausage.

Seto's Wok and Grill. Our local Chinese restaurant has been a very pleasant surprise. In Mississauga, and probably Vancouver, too, where there is a large Chinese community, this would be considered "mall Chinese food" -- very westernized. But the food is fresh, the vegetables are always perfectly done, never soggy, and everything is very tasty. My only complaint is that the menu is quite limited. But as with the overall restaurant scene here, what's there is good. We usually get take-out from Seto's on Sunday nights, and I end up eating it for three meals. I heart leftover Chinese food.

Sporty. Sporty's is our local pub. They have good sandwiches, burgers, and salads, and reportedly have amazing schnitzel, which I will soon try. They also have the best pizza in town -- which is not to say they have great pizza, but I gave up on great pizza a long time ago. (The only great pizza I found in Toronto or Mississauga was at more upscale Italian restaurants. Other than that, the pizza sucks.) Like everywhere in our town, Sporty's is friendly and accommodating. You can always get a good meal there.

Karai Sushi. Of all our dining surprises, this has been the biggest and most welcome: sushi! Quality sushi! Hidden away in a motel near the airport, there is a lovely Japanese restaurant, with an extensive menu and excellent food. I was beyond skeptical, but the online reviews -- and a rave recommendation during a manicure -- convinced me to try it. Now it will be challenging not to eat there weekly.

Cafe Guido. Guido's is a neighbourhood cafe, used book store, gift shop, local craft and artisan co-op, and community hangout. Guido's is Port Hardy. They serve amazing coffee and baked treats, along with freshly prepared paninis and sandwiches. Guido's also has a drive-through coffee booth, called G2, and there's a rumour that they're opening a Port McNeill location -- although the rumour may have been started by Port McNeill coffee lovers.

Port McNeill

Port McNeill is about 40 minutes down the road from us, a bit far just for dinner, but if we're driving past, or have business in town (or want to save a few cents on gas and fill our tank), there are some really good restaurant choices.

Gus's Pub. This is a large pub with an ocean view and great food. What more do you need to know? Gus's offers a classic pub menu, large selection of beverages, and super friendly service. Pay no attention to the person on Facebook complaining about the wings. I've had only excellent pub food there.

Tia's Cafe. I wish this place was in Port Hardy! Tia's is a large, friendly place for breakfast and lunch. When I'm in Port McNeill for library business, I always get coffee and lunch here. They serve classic coffee shop food with a slight Mexican spin. The food is always fresh and the coffee is great. When I ordered a salad instead of fries, it was green, fresh, crisp, and delicious. That speaks well of a place where people mostly order fries!

Archipelago's Bistro. We've only eaten here once, but I have not forgotten the melt-in-your mouth lamb shank and crispy roasted potatoes. I also attended a breakfast meeting here, and although I didn't eat (I was giving a presentation), I've been trying to dream up an excuse to have breakfast in Port McNeill ever since. Everything looked so good! Like most restaurants in this area, the decor is simple coffee-shop style, but the bistro is in the food -- quality ingredients, freshly prepared, classic dishes.

We have not tried the Northern Lights restaurant in Port McNeill. Online reviews all claim that if you ignore the roadside motel atmosphere, you will be rewarded with a great meal, but so far I have not had the nerve.

Seasonal picks

There are two seasonal restaurants, open during tourist season, that I look forward to trying. At the Cluxewe Resort (pronounced cluck-soo-we), the Cluxewe Waterfront Bistro is said to have the best food -- and the best views -- on the North Island. And the Seven Hills Golf Club, on the road to Port Alice, is supposed to be a great place for lunch.

Trust me

Lest you think I'm a hometown booster, there are one or two places I have not included here. I don't want to write bad reviews of local businesses, and I can't write an honest good review. If you're visiting Vancouver Island North and you're curious, drop me a line.

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