Until very recently, I was set to publish a piece for you entitled “The Two Niagaras”—comparing and contrasting the tourist trap part of Niagara Falls, with its tacky clubs, overpriced chain restaurants, to the beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake, with its abundance of world-class vineyards serving up delicious local food designed to pair perfectly with their own wine selection. In fact, I even attended a bachelorette party featuring both sides one weekend. The 1:00 PM beautiful heirloom tomato salad and delicate apple crisp we enjoyed at Ravine Vineyard were quite the contrast against the 3:00 AM Denny’s corn hush puppies and 11:00 AM mushy IHOP pancakes. There was no question about which side of the Niagara culinary divide I was on.
But then, I was introduced to a “third Niagara”. I guess I always knew there was a massive piece of land between the Horseshoe Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake—I had just never paid it much attention. It was only on a recent Niagara Parks Commission invitation to the region that I was introduced to all the offerings of the 56-km outdoor museum that is the Niagara Parkway. After spending a day exploring the area and enjoying a dish from each of their star restaurants—Elements on the Falls, Edgewaters at Queen Victoria Place, Queenston Heights Restaurant, Legends on the Niagara Clubhouse and Whirlpool Restaurant, I had a much better sense of what I had been missing.
Over the last year, the Commission has been working hard with the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance to get each of its major restaurants FeastON certified, hoping to attract visitors searching for a more “authentic” dining experience in the Niagara area. The FeastON program requires participating restaurants to source at least a quarter of their food from Ontario producers as well as a quarter of their beverage offerings from the province’s wineries and breweries. So far, only Elements, Edgewaters, and Queenston Heights are FeastON certified, but the others will no doubt have their applications granted soon.
Overall, I really appreciated the refreshing change of pace from the hustle and bustle of downtown Niagara. The air was clear and crisp on an early Fall day and I was in great company. We indulged in Queenston Heights’ creamy gnocchi carbonara with a glass of the very popular Château des Charmes 2013 Gamay Noir while overlooking the Niagara River. We visited a quiet, low-key golf course (Whirlpool) for a spicy butternut squash bisque and a simple spinach salad, then drove a few more kilometers to the much grander courses and structures at Legends, where we had a single bacon-wrapped shortrib. These dishes were paired with a bright Hernder Estate’s Riesling (pear and Granny Smith) and a balanced Peller Estates Cab Franc (smoke and herbs), respectively. We looped back from the Lake Eerie side of the Parkway for our final courses overlooking the breathtaking illuminated Falls. We had a short stay at Edgewaters where we were served a piece of Northern Rainbow Trout over a curried seven-grain salad and a dollop of cilantro yoghurt, paired with Malivore’s light and breezy Lady Bug rosé. Finally, we ended the night at the slightly swankier Elements for some grilled and cherry-glazed Muscovy duck breast over Shoal Lake wild rice with an Inniskillin Niagara Series Pinot Noir (forest and floral), and a Cab Franc poached Bartlett pair with maple mousse cream, in a chocolate cup, with a honey tuille crisp.
While the overall experience (and all the wines) was great, I would be deceiving you if I told you that each of these restaurants was worth driving all the way from Toronto the Parkway for. The “authentic” quality of a dish is a difficult thing to define (see my previous post about the topic). But then again, I also recognize my downtown Toronto and personal biases.
The most important thing is that they’re putting in a really good effort.
If you appreciate Canadian flavours and want to support the local economy, or if you want to learn more about the Niagara region and what it has to offer, you can find it on the Parkway. There are tons of great family activities to do out here, including visiting the Old Fort Eerie and Laura Secord’s house. There’s also some excellent golfing, if that’s your thing. It’s also beautifully serene.
Perhaps if you’re an international tourist looking to do the “Falls” and the “Lake” (because both are worthy of being had), this National Park may not be at the top of your list of priorities. However, if you’re from Southern Ontario and looking for a slightly different Niagara experience, give the Parkway a chance on your next trip.
Getting there: It’s easiest to get to and around the Niagara Parkway by car, but they also have a fairly convenient WeGo bus system that takes you along the river and to most places you may want to visit in the area.