Come join me for a culinary tour in London. No, not that one. I mean Canada’s London, a vibrant city with a lively food culture in the heart of southwestern Ontario’s rich farmland at the forks of the Thames River.
You might think we’d start downtown, with Covent Garden Market, upscale kitchen shops and scores of restaurants. Instead, I’ll introduce you to one of London’s most unique neighbourhoods, Wortley Village. There, we’ll visit two tastemakers with decidedly different food styles. Don’t worry, we’ll get some shopping in too.
All you need to do is get yourself to London. That’s easy, with train and bus stations downtown and a readily accessible international airport. It’s also a short drive from Toronto or the US border crossings at Windsor and Sarnia. Once you arrive, I’ll meet up with you and we’ll begin our tour.
Wortley Village is tucked away south of downtown, just past the Thames River. With its pedestrian-friendly vibe, eclectic architecture and independent, often quirky shops, eateries and pubs, the small-town atmosphere makes it easy to forget you’re still in a city of over 360,000 people. It’s also obvious why Wortley Village was named Canada’s best neighbourhood in the 2013 Great Places in Canada competition.
Let’s celebrate our arrival with coffee and pastry at the Black Walnut Bakery Café, known affectionately as the ‘Nut to locals. It’s located at 134 Wortley Road in a 150-year-old building with the charm and patina of a bygone era. The ambiance at the Black Walnut is warm, friendly and coffee-scented. There’s a sense of community, whether among regulars or strangers sharing a table when it’s busy. It’s also a haven for readers and writers alike.
Atmosphere alone doesn’t make a café. The Black Walnut takes an old-fashioned approach to food with everything made fresh from scratch using real ingredients like butter. “We want to keep it like Grandma did it,” owner Mandy Etheridge says. In this case, Grandma really knew how to bake.
For me, the measure of any bakery is the flakiness of its pastry. Biting into a butter tart here leaves a shattering of flakes down the front of my shirt. Oh yes, messy is good. Scones are popular, with sugary crisp crusts and tender interiors. The menu also has savoury options like pot pies, salads, soups and sandwiches of Flintstonian proportions on – what else — freshly baked bread.
The ‘Nut roasts their own coffee, and a bevy of baristas turn out an array of lattes, cappuccinos and more using a new Elektra Espresso machine from Italy, the only one of its kind in Canada.
Once we’ve drained our coffee cups and surreptitiously eaten all the crumbs on our plates, let’s go sightseeing and shopping. There’s something here for everyone, including clothing and accessory shops, alternative health stores and a gift shop showcasing Canadian artisans. We’ll also view the latest show at the art gallery.
All this shopping works up an appetite, so next up is lunch at Raw Juice Co. This juice bar and eatery opened in fall 2014 on the ground floor of a new condominium complex at 162 Wortley Road. You step inside to a light-filled, fresh and calm space with funky touches like an old bicycle hanging on the wall. The fresh scent of vegetables fills the space.
Raw has a current approach to cuisine, focusing on fresh juices and healthy food with on-trend spicy and Mexican flavour profiles. The eatery’s food philosophy is based on local, ethical and organic considerations. While they use only organic greens, cucumbers and celery, whether local or not, they also support local suppliers that are not certified organic but use organic methods.
Lunch options include salads, freshly made soups, and sandwiches like a black bean burrito with guacamole and salsa or the OMG vegetable burger with spicy tomato jam and chipotle aioli. If breakfast all day is your thing, the quinoa breakfast nachos may be calling your name.
Once we’ve eaten, let’s fortify ourselves for the rest of our walk with a glass of juice to go. Raw’s extensive selection, juiced to order, offers bright and well-balanced flavours. Names like Green Peace, Hell-Raiser and Goddess add fun to making your choice.
Juice in hand, our next destination is the Normal School at the village’s southern outskirts. This impressive High Victorian structure with an imposing 40-metre tall tower was built in 1899 as one of Ontaro’s first teacher training facilities. It’s a source of community pride that symbolizes the character and history of Wortley Village.
From here, we’ll retrace our steps back to the car, checking out the shops and eateries on the other side of the street. Like many of the locals, I suspect you’ll be reluctant to leave.