My husband and I visited St. Johns early October 2016 for a few days and loved downtown St. Johns with all its colourful buildings, interesting stores and eateries, and waterfront area. One computer crash and a few recently-found notes later, I’ve tried to recreate our experiences while realising that a lot can have changed in the meantime.
Rocket Bakery in downtown SJ was a great casual spot for hot chocolate and a snack late one cold rainy weekend. It has savoury and sweet offerings, and drinks; novelty items; friendly staff, and lots of space to sit and devour your choice, take a break and watch the world go by. Lots of ambience, central location, friendly staff!
Bacalao was our first dining experience in NL.
This restaurant is located in an old house, with the small rooms turned into several small dining areas with a few tables in each. We were seated in a room with a small fireplace (not turned on) with a family at an adjoining table. There were murmurs from the neighbouring rooms, and the lone server was busy all evening. The lighting is very dim, you’ll need the flashlight app. We hoped to savour local seasonal fare and asked for it during reservation, but they didn’t have any at the time; about the only local thing was the seafood chowder appie which was hearty and stick to your ribs and quite tasty. The rest of the menu was a blur, nothing stuck out as being wow.
Parking behind the restaurant – you may be ticketed if you park elsewhere.
Chafe’s Landing. Great location by the busy fishing port, very average food.
We liked The Merchants Tavern for dinner: Sat at the bar one evening and people-watched, the place was heaving on a weekday evening! Fantastic cathedral ceilinged room with a big central bar and a huge moose head over the entrance. Lots of ambience, with a display of their made in-house charcuterie by the old bank vault.
Friendly bartenders, nice selection of drinks including several local and Canadian beers, ciders, wines. The food menu is not lengthy. I had half a dozen raw oysters from PEI at $2 a pop, they came with a couple of sauces but were lovely with just a hint of lemon and grated horseradish. Our mains were the salmon and the cod, about $35 each, both of which were prepared just right and were flavourful. Portion size is not huge.
We needed something sweet after the fish, so on the recommendation of the bartender, we shared the vinegar pie with hay icecream (yes, hay) .. the flavour of the icecream changes every now and again. I sometimes cook lamb in hay, and expected that sort of summery grassy flavour and scent, but what we got hinted at cinnamon and brown sugar. The pie was well-made, not cloyingly sweet, but seemed more of a novelty, not particularly memorable. $12. A good meal, nothing memorable other than the freshness of the seafood, but great ambience on a chilly evening.
We returned to Merchants Tavern for a late lunch (bar menu only) a couple of days later. We were the only people there, other than the staff. We asked to sit at one of the bar-height dining tables this time, hoping for a view of the street. The tables by the windows were tables for 2 that had been pushed together to make room for 4. They were all partially laid for 4 (casually folded napkin upon which rested a fork and knife each, no plates or glasses). However, we were not allowed to sit by the window at one of these, no reason given, and had to sit at a similar table but a couple of tables closer to the bar, at a tiny table for 2, which meant that we ended up placing our stuff on the next table for 2 and there was no room for the plates as they arrived .. we didnt get the point of not allowing us to be comfortable and enjoy spending our money, since the place was empty anyway?!! That started the experience off on a sour note. Happily our server was friendly, which was a positive.
We got the chacuterie and cheese plates, one of each, about $20 pp: The chacuterie was all made in-house (you can see them hanging near the bank vault, which is now a private dining room). We asked if they had any game, but they didnt have any at the time. The selection we got included bresaola, a few bits of very spicy dried sausage, some prosciutto, a couple of inches of a pork sausage, and one more kind of meat. They came with a tiny portion of sourdough bread (we asked for more and got it at no charge), pear and mustard compote and some pickled veg.
The cheese board turned out to be surprisingly tiny pieces of cheese. am not a goat cheese person but I completely fell for a fresh goats cheese rolled in ash. We also got a ripe brie, a hard nutty cheddar, a blue cheese, candied nuts and some crackers.
Not a very filling lunch (we were not comfortable and decided to leave and have a big dinner instead), but a great tasting experience of mostly local fare. I asked where I could buy some of the cheese and was directed to Belbin's grocery at Quidi Vidi.
We finished off with a coffee and a cappuchino. When asked when the coffee had been brewed, the waiter said he would make a fresh pot for us.
A trio of elderly women came in as we ate, and parked themselves by the kitchen – we were not offered this option, which would have been a great alternative to a window seating. A couple of men sat at the bar and had lunch too.
With late lunch diners scattered around the room, why were we forced to perch at a tiny table in a spot we did not enjoy? This took away from the enjoyment of the ambience and food, and we did not order much nor return here for the rest of our visit.
Belbin’s grocery is a wonderful gourmet grocery with a good selection of foodstuffs and cheeses, many of which were ripe and advertising this aromatically. We bought several but to my regret they didn’t have the fresh goats cheese rolled in ash, at the time.
For our last dinner, we were recommended SJFX - St Johns Fish Exchange.
It's in a large building with a maze of corridors and we got a bit lost. With no parking to be found in front of the restaurant that evening, we parked in the street behind it, near the harbour. This meant that because of the streets sloping down towards the harbour, the restaurant was suddenly not at our street level anymore. Thus began the hunt for the restaurant .. We didn't have a reservation but despite the busy Friday evening, we got a table anyway. The room is well-lit, with a gorgeous bar, and large windows that wrap around part of the room, providing a view of the street in front of the restaurant (not the harbour). The crowd was happy, our server attentive, and on a windy, rainy, cold evening, the buzz and smells were just wonderful.
I enjoyed my first drink, Sailors Thyme, $12, a fruity take on G&T with muddled orange and thyme - sweet, savoury, it was exactly what I wanted after a sunny day turned chilly and rainy. Hubby enjoyed a couple of local beers. The Sangria with port and screech and fruit chunks $12 though recommended by the server as very popular, was rather sweet and a bit blah, so I switched to wine after this.
We began with popcorn cods tongues with tartar sauce $15. Interesting, rather greasy and appetite-killing, but no sign of the scruncheons. We ordered the mains off the specials menu and regretted it: They seemed to have been put together with an eye on the novelty factor, rather than on the compatibility of the ingredients. Arctic char with chimichurri? Nope, while it sounds like it might work, in reality it was pretty awful; hubby scraped off the chimichurri after a couple of bites. Can't recall what I had, which is probably quite telling. The best thing was the SJFX traditional seafood chowder appie that was packed with flavour and tender seafood - I should just have ordered a full-size portion and dived in. We decided against the somewhat unexciting desserts or coffee.
Mallard Cottage was recommended but didn’t pick up the phone although we called several times. We decided to drive out there, and our GPS directed us to a location near downtown, that turned out to be occupied by Golden Wok eatery?! After that we gave up on Mallard.
I recall an icecream at a chocolate store at the far end of the main street downtown, and a couple of lunches on the fly.
All in all, what I remember most is the glorious freshness of the seafood that shone through when it was prepared simply. And the variety of cheese, and charcuterie that were probably just a tiny variety of those available. We bought some Canadian cheese at Belbins .. we'd have loved to have bought a lot of foodstuffs and taken it home to share with friends, particularly those who told us we wouldn't find much in terms of good food in NL! But we didnt know where to find them. Local Chowhounds, please consider a opening a thread on this topic, as well as farmers' markets .. I'd love to return, and do more food shopping and eating this time around.
The photos I had all disappeared in the computer crash, apologies.