40: According to some sources, that’s the number of dining options here in Nelson, British Columbia. We’ve only got 10,000 people who call this place home, which means for every 250 people, there’s a place to grab something to eat. Compare that to New York City’s 24,000 restaurants serving its 8.4 million citizens; that stacks up to one restaurant for every 365 people. You know what that means?
Nelson is better at food than New York City. Bold claim for this small Kootenay town situated on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake and in the heart of the Selkirk Mountains? Well, let’s at least agree that per capita, Nelson sure does provide options. If you’re visiting, you might appreciate a little guidance in getting great grub. Good thing you stopped by — I like to eat and I’m about to write about it.
Let’s get to it: where to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Nelson. Feel free to partake in a full day of dining or spread these out over your stay.
The Bent Fork: Open 7:00 am – 3:00 pm (most of the time). Cash or debit only. 318 Anderson Street
If you’re looking for Nelson in a nutshell, it’s served up at Bent Fork. This tiny place is kitschy, the staff doesn’t put on pretensions and the food is real. I guarantee you’ll have to wait for a table on weekends — the seating area fits within what used to be the front room of a converted house — and once you sit down, you’ll have to wait again for your food. The staff will tell you up front this isn’t a “fast food” joint. This place is about the experience, both for your eyes and your mouth.
There are variations on eggs benedict for whatever mood you’re in (unless you’re not in the mood for eggs), homemade jam and their home fries are enough to fill you up alone — big, generous hunks of sizzling potatoes seasoned and sauteed in what you imagine must be a cast iron skillet from your grandmother’s day.
While you’re waiting for that food to be served up, cast your eyes about. You can’t resist doing it, anyway; the place is littered with memorabilia from any decade but this one. A two-piece killer whale salt and pepper shaker hugged up to a ceramic kitten, a classic diner-style sugar dispenser and a $20 culture magazine from Dubai at our table and conversations just as eclectic as the interior, and indeed, Nelson itself. Play a round of cards until your food comes, eat up, then lean back and declare that it was worth the wait — because it is.
In a hurry alternative: Oso Cafe, a block uphill from Baker Street, is just as busy (and eclectic, at least as people watching goes), but you take your order at the counter and much of the food is already prepared so you can be in and out in ten minutes or less. Bonus: this place is regionally famous for its coffee.
Smokehouse BBQ: 11:00 am – 8:00 pm, closed Sunday. 301 Victoria Street.
Though I’m French Canadian by heritage, I’m a United States southerner by birth, which means I’m pretty proud of our BBQ. In fact, I think barbeque sauce runs through any southerner’s veins (though mine is laced with maple syrup from my Quebecois family).
It didn’t take long before I found Smokehouse BBQ. The smell permeates the air; anyone walking in the downtown area inevitably comes in contact with its smoky sweetness. So, in the most patriotic thing I could think to do, I walked in those doors on July 4th and gave way to my southern patriotic side.
Smokewood’s walls are plastered with plywood and corrugated steel and photos of the owner barbecuing in the south. A giant menu covers the entry as you walk in. After you’ve made your selection from things like pulled pork sandwiches or the BBQ box, you order from the window and take your pick of checkered cloth-covered tables. Condiments, like extra sauce, are in squeeze bottles and wet towelettes take the place of paper napkins. I was thrilled. It’s exactly how we do it in the south.
My delight was bursting when my order came up (the BBQ box) and I opened the lid — baked mac and cheese (they allowed me to sub out the baked beans), coleslaw, corn bread and mounds of different types of meat, some slathered in the restaurant’s house sauce, some hickory smoked and everything looking just like home. It was enough for two, but there was no way I was sharing, even if it meant taking it home for later.
The southern-style generosity spilled over from the portions to the owners, who took time to talk with us and share my enthusiasm for southern food. My box was only a third empty by the time I left, but my smile was as full as my stomach.
Rel-ish Bistro: 11:00 am – 10:00 pm. 301 Baker Street.
We’ve gone casual all day, now it’s time to step it up a notch. In Nelson, that means getting out of your muddy bike shorts and putting on a pair of clean shoes and jeans. If you can handle that, you’ll be rewarded for all the hard playing you’ve done all day (in between all this eating, of course).
Rel-ish has a coziness with its modern edges. For example, while the open kitchen is decked in stainless steel and the restaurant is laid out linearly, wooden and brick elements warm up the interior and large curved leather seats soften some the lines.
The food plays on its own juxtapositions, taking classics and twisting them with creativity. The Aunt May burger shows off Rel-ish’s talent for this; the burger itself is hearty but with the addition of brie and apple butter, it rises above the everyday. Thin fries, in their golden crispness, are piled to the side of the main course. If you don’t hurry, your dinner date will steal a few from your plate — they’re too good to let sit idly.
Some of the flavours here are uniquely Kootenay. Rel-ish strives to use as many locally-grown ingredients as possible and it’s noticeable when you bite into the freshness of the fare. And while this might be on the slightly upscale end of the town’s scale, don’t think you’ll get miniature dishes. Rel-ish’s portions will appease any hard-charging mountain biker, which is good, because Nelson claims a lot of ‘em.
There are many great places to add to this list — what’s one of your Nelson dining favourites?
Dining in Nelson, British Columbia