“Want to visit Guelph?” I ask my 20-something–year-old son. We feel a mid-winter itch to escape the big city. Only an hour train ride from Toronto, Guelph seemed like a first-rate destination for day-tripping since neither of us had ever gone. I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately, discovering the delights of close-by and unassuming cities like Chatham and Kitchener. Guelph seemed the logical next stop.
We roll into Guelph’s historic train station at noon on a misty February day. Crossing over to Old City Hall to meet Taste Detours’ Lynn Broughton for a three-hour romp to restaurants and points of interest, we spot her immediately holding two cups of hot chocolate and pastries from Eric the Baker. My son takes a sip. “I thought I’d grown out of hot chocolate – but apparently not,” he says. Yes, our day is off to a good start.
A Little Slice of Europe
Lynn gives us a history lesson in front of the statue of John Galt, Guelph’s Scottish founder. He arrived in 1827 to build a hub for agriculture and commerce with a European flare. Indeed, Guelph feels like a little slice of Europe. Its downtown is lined with low-rise historic limestone buildings, old churches and a market square that lies in the shadow of the majestic Basilica Of Our Lady.
Like Europe, Guelph also has its local watering holes and share of “scandalous” history. Across from the church is the old Albion Hotel. Granted Ontario’s second liquor license in 1856, it’s still a popular place to imbibe. During prohibition, tunnels (now boarded up) between the hotel and the church were used to transport booze to bootleggers’ trucks stationed behind the church and as a clandestine walkway for priests to drink at the hotel. Mobster Al Capone was a regular guest. His jilted lover hung herself on the top floor and now, according to local folklore, still haunts this place.
Guelph Food Tour
Our mobile feast with Lynn begins at Atmosphere. We munch on thin-crust pizza generously topped with goat cheese, almonds, cranberries, and a burst of spinach. Co-owner Nicole explains that when they opened 14 years ago in this historic building with exposed brick walls, restaurants mostly catered to University of Guelph students. As we happily discover on the rest of our tour, Guelph now gratifies serious foodies.
At our next stop, the modest Guelph Caribbean Cuisine, our taste buds burst from the complex flavours of Trinidadian street food. Married partners Lorenza and Lochan serve us “doubles”—two pieces of deep fried baras stuffed with chickpea stew. I douse mine in a sauce of chadon beni (a coriander-like herb) brought fresh from Trinidad by Lochan’s mother. Oh, heavenly comfort food.
At Miijidaa, every dish tells a story celebrating first nations and our earliest settlers, using only ingredients grown in Canada (Miijidaa means “let’s eat” in Ojibway). No olive oil, lemons or avocados here! My vegetarian son devours sweet potato roasted with Piri Piri (a spice brought over by the Portuguese) while I slather welsh cakes with homemade butter and preserves. I imagine 19th century wives tucking these little morsels into their husbands’ pockets as they left to work in the mines.
Shopping and Art in Guelph
After bidding goodbye to Lynn, we head over to the Art Gallery at the University of Guelph, a short distance away. This renovated early 1900s school is worth a visit to see the contemporary indigenous art and the Sculpture Park on the adjoining grounds. I’m intrigued by Kim Adams’ Crab Leg’s (Studio), his whimsical multi-level rendition of an artist’s “dream studio”.
We stroll back downtown. My son goes for coffee at Red Brick Café while I explore boutiques on nearby Quebec Street, ogling Canadian designs and jewelry at Kennedy Park and Pretty Chic. I can’t resist spoiling myself and buy several bars of fragrant soap at The Truth Beauty Company.
We rendezvous at Bookshelf. The large, retro mural by famous Guelph cartoonist “Seth” speaks to the independent spirit of one of Guelph’s oldest establishments. While my son makes a beeline for the Philosophy section, I check out the less highbrow offerings.
Dinner and Home
Although we are still full from our afternoon epicurean extravaganza, we can’t resist Bin23 for dinner. Owner Gus greets us like long-lost family, as he shepherds us to a quiet table at the back of his narrow, romantically-lit bistro. Our mains of scallop and trout look as exquisite as they taste. So far, today is all about indulgence, so what the heck—star anise and vanilla crème brûlée for dessert it is!
In the late evening we cross over to the train station. Our short trip has whet our appetite for a return visit. We can walk off some of these calories exploring the university’s arboretum with its tree-lined paths and gardens, the trails near the 1880’s-styled covered bridge where the Speed and Eramosa rivers meet, and the farmer’s market. And of course, take more tasty detours.
Top image: © Taste Detours