The Cowichan Valley is a regional district in the southern part of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We headed over from the mainland to the Island last year to explore its wine offerings after it was recently bestowed the Province’s designation as a sub-Geographical Indication (sub-GI). Of course, no AdVINEture would be complete without trying the local fare and despite our limited time and somewhat limited choices, we did find some worthy stops to recommend.
The Restaurant at Unsworth Vineyards
The renovated heritage farmhouse restaurant at Unsworth Vineyards is an absolute must if visiting the area. The building itself was originally built in the early 1900s and is perfectly situated next to the vineyards providing diners a calming view. Inside you’re instantly provided an ambiance of visiting a friend’s place for dinner rather than a restaurant. The floors and walls have been re-finished with wood from local fir trees, the solid marble bar was sourced from the local quarry, and the original fireplace is the feature point in the main dining room.
The menu is thoughtfully prepared by New Zealand native Maartyn Hoogeveen, a chef with an impressive resume who focuses on seasonal, local fare that they proudly source from their Island neighbours. We were treated to an excellent meal that included a ridiculously fresh beet salad along with polenta fries to start, their house made pasta and a margarita pizza from their outdoor wood fire oven. Simple, delicious food where the freshness and flavour take centre stage.
The wine list is exclusively Unsworth and they produce several different varieties to please a wide range of palates. We enjoyed their Charme de L’ile sparkling and the Pinot Noir with our starters and main courses and the Ovation dessert wine was a perfect digestif to finish the meal.
The Lakehouse at Shawnigan
Talk about tough timing, the Lakehouse was opened within weeks of the global pandemic closing borders and virtually shutting the world down. Owner Shane Clarke is clearly the ultimate optimist as he told us how they immediately pivoted to take-out dining and it allowed them the time to perfect their farm-to-table offerings.
Being lakefront with a large dock on the 7km long Shawnigan Lake definitely had its benefits as a large percentage of their summer business was boaters pulling up for dockside pick up. While the tourists have left for the season, the locals have embraced this dining spot for its combination of casual sophistication. It has a public house feel with its log cabin design, wooden tables and lots of outdoor patio space but the quality of the food and the service made us feel like we were in a fine dining establishment. A difficult combination to pull off but they managed it in spades.
Sitting on the end of Mill Bay Marina in Mill Bay, we lucked out with a clear, sunny day allowing us to take full advantage of the stunning, unobstructed views. We stopped in for lunch for just that reason and were easily rewarded as every table has a view.
This is hearty, comfort food at its best. Burgers, Mussels, and Chow Mein are their signatures, and rest assured their portions ensure no one is going home hungry! Yes, they have salads and lighter fare, but their burgers have a reputation for a reason, so we fully recommend foregoing the healthy ruffage and embracing Bridgeman’s homemade heartiness.
The Cowichan Valley is quickly growing in popularity as people discover its natural beauty and rich indigenous history. Combine that with world-class wines and a burgeoning local foodie scene and it won’t be long before this will be on everyone’s radar. We look forward to returning soon, further exploration and consumption awaits…