There is no shortage of restaurant recommendations online. But in places where there is a shortage of strong Wi-Fi signals, the Internet's wisdom is largely useless, forcing hungry tourists to find great meals by other means.
I'm a firm believer in asking food-and-beverage staffers for restaurant suggestions, since they're attuned to the local dining scene and typically have pretty practiced palates. Yet when I found myself stranded in Victoria this week by extremely high winds, I wondered which other workers might be the source of reliable restaurant advice. I consulted five likely founts of culinary intelligence, and -- according to the rules I established for the game -- went exactly where my informants told me go. As much as I wished someone would send me to a Senegalese buffet or a Cambodian noodle house, I learned lunch is still synonymous with sandwiches. Fortunately for me, Victoria seems to have mastered the genre.
The Concierge: Devour
A concierge at the Fairmont Empress told me she likes to recommend restaurants that are "local and indigenous" before sending me to Devour, a slip of a restaurant with a chalkboard menu that changes daily. The charmingly friendly cashier there seemed reluctant to hand over my hot Montreal smoked meat sandwich: "That looks great," she said. Its looks didn't lie: Plugs of sharp aged cheddar, surprisingly flavorful sliced tomatoes and slippery beef with a smoky twang were nestled in a flaky toasted levain roll from Bond Bakery next door. I only regretted going to Devour first, when I was still in appetite conservation mode.
The Tourism Information Center Clerk: N/A
As the center's name says, the non-partisan tourists' bureau can only provide objective information, such as maps and guides listing every local restaurant. When I asked an agent if she had a favorite local dish, she reacted as though I'd asked how much she weighed. "I can't recommend anything," she scolded me.
The Bus Driver: Ferris Oyster Bar
"There's great food at Ferris Oyster Bar," promised a driver who was waiting at a stop near the Parliament Building. A cozy pub, Ferris is obviously a local favorite, where folks head no matter what they're craving: I was seated between a guy eating a burrito and a woman who ordered a fancy-sounding pasta. Unexpectedly, almost every dish to emerge from the kitchen smelled enticingly good.
I zeroed in on the lengthy list of baked oysters, which I consider the mark of a restaurant exceedingly familiar with bivalves. Frying can be used to disguise a sub-par product, but when a kitchen starts treating its oysters like pizza crusts, it's a sure indicator of oyster comfort. At Ferris, the baked oysters are slid out of their shells and swabbed with a variety of sauces, including tequila-lime, bourbon barbecue and the "Oriental Express," a succinct summation of classic Chinese-American flavors.
The Bike Mechanic: Mo:Le Restaurant
Even if they don't have extensive culinary backgrounds, cyclists tend to be trustworthy sources of restaurant guidance. It's impossible to complete an epic ride without devoting most of the final hour to fantasizing about the meal which awaits at its end, which means cyclists give serious thought to available food options. And mountain bikers have an innate affection for the unvarnished and the overlooked, so they're often fond of the dives not listed in glossy brochures. I'm still indebted to a bike shop staffer in Santa Fe who steered me to a family-run joint near the airport that surely serves the state's best chicharonnes burritos.
The clerk at Russ Hays Bicycle Shop sent me to Mo:Le, a touchingly earnest café serving first-wave hippie cuisine. Mo:Le's menu is a throwback to when vegetarians didn't fetishize dark leafy greens and South American grains. Instead, the dishes showcase whole wheat, avocado and sprouts. All three figured in my wrap, along with bunches of shredded carrots, also the dominant flavor of an accompanying soup. The ingredients were all terrifically fresh, and counted as comfort food for someone who grew up in 1970s Ann Arbor.
The Librarian: Rebar Modern Food
The librarian stationed at the Central Victoria Public Library's information desk didn't seem to mind that my query had nothing to do with the Dewey Decimal System. "Have you been to Rebar?," she asked. "It's one of my favorites. I always feel healthy and virtuous after I've been there." Although the bustling restaurant doesn't make any outright health claims, the food is so tenderly prepared that it's difficult to believe the kitchen doesn't intend to cure and restore. "I am so sorry, we are out of wheat grass," a host told me remorsefully as he led me to my seat at a small table draped with a floral vinyl tablecloth. Even without the wheat grass, I felt fairly energized by my bowl of gauzy housemade potstickers, filled with scrambled mushrooms and tofu; bits of bok choy and hardy brown rice.
In the end, my experiment was inconclusive. I liked all the restaurants I visited, but I'm not sure whether that's a testament to my chosen Sherpas' talents, or the overall quality of restaurants in Victoria. And while Devour and Rebar are more likely revisit candidates than the other two restaurants I tried, I'm not ready to declare that concierges and librarians have the lock on restaurant knowledge. I suppose I'll keep asking and eating -- and maybe upgrade my cell phone plan before next traveling to Canada.