2020 in Review
While many of my favourite restaurants are featured on this list, which contains some of the best food in Halifax, and I definitely encourage you to go out and support them, please keep in mind that ALL of our vibrant, independent, local restaurants are struggling. If you have a favourite spot, show your support. Don’t form internet mobs. Don’t use third-party delivery apps (which can take as much as a 30% cut from the restaurant). And make sure to tip your server, even if they’re not serving you. None of this is their fault.
With that said, let’s begin.
March 7, 2020. The Side Dish performed her first Halifax burlesque number in a student showcase. She was dressed in a Carmon Miranda get up with the full basket of fruit on her head, incorporating the fruit into the performance. Bananas, peaches… you can imagine. Afterwards we went to a burlesque show at Menz Bar, and I bought a round of Coronas for the table as a joke.
It’s all so surreal now (and that joke didn’t age well). Ten days later we were all in lock down. Bars and restaurants were closed indefinitely, and going to a park was a criminal offense.
I suffered Zoom burnout within a month, and probably had a few too many beer deliveries, while trying to stave off phone addiction and write a goddam book.
My Book of Donair came out in late August. It is a culmination of years of research, a labour of love, and the first historic account of the official food of Halifax. It is so amazing to see my work materialize into a physical record. So 2020 wasn’t all that bad for me.
It has been a hard year, but I feel very blessed. I am thankful for the Atlantic Bubble, for CERB, for my wife – the health care hero (she hates that), and I’m so grateful that we got married and honeymooned LAST year!
I have broken up the post into the phases of 2020: The Before Times, Lock Down, Covid Paradise, Road Trippin’, and Christmas Present.
Here I am at a VIP dinner at The Orient, sitting at a revolving table with Halifax ReTales, Kayla Short, and Craving Halifax. I appear to be reaching into a plate of Chinese BBQ with my bare hands, while my dining companions look on with unalarmed ambivalence.
These were the Before Times, when double dipping and elbow room were optional.
Coney Island Hero – Salvatore’s
Many of you may be familiar with the heroes at Salvatore’s, and I’ve heard you argue about whether the meatball is the best, or whether it’s the ham or the pepperoni. But a lot of people are oblivious to the Coney, which is somewhat of a secret menu item (it’s written on a chalkboard on one of the walls). It features a Nathan’s hot dog split and grilled, and topped with meat chili sauce, mustard, mayo, onions, pickles.
It is everything that is right in the world.
Philly Beef Grilled Cheese – Fickle Frog (now Kai Brady’s)
The Fickle Frog has been my neighbourhood watering hole for years now, and I’ve watched it go through a lot of changes in the last couple of years. The new ownership has gradually changed the menu, decor, and most recently, the name. It’s now called Kai Brady’s.
Thankfully, the new owners have reintroduced pizza and kept the hand-cut fries. The new menu is quite decent, and my favourite new thing is the Philly Steak Grilled Cheese – a double decker sandwich packed with steak, onions, peppers and a flavourful provolone.
This is pub food at its finest.
*Update December 2020: I ordered this for take-out and while it was just as delicious as I had remembered, it was no longer a double decker.
Butter Squid – Kanpai Izakaya
I’m in love with Kanpai’s buttered squid dish. It’s a full squid grilled in butter and soy sauce, and just begs to be poked at with wobbly chopsticks, surrounded by plummeting sake bombs and boisterous camaraderie (of the non-physically distanced variety).
Golden Chicken – The Orient
Chef Ivan hosted his Chinese New Year Dinner at The Orient and it was a glorious multi-course meal as always, with Cantonese and Hong Kong cuisine executed masterfully and playfully, with high quality ingredients.
If I had to pick one favourite dish of the meal (which is hard to do!) it would be the Golden Chicken. This dish is also called “white cut chicken” or bak chit gai. It is poached/steamed whole chicken, typically served cold with ginger scallion sauce on the side.
Chef Ivan served his with chili oil and his signature golden kimchi. Amazing.
PEI Blue Dot Ribeye Steak – Edna
Edna had just recently changed hands when I visited early this year, but it was as good as ever. The seafood chowder and beef tartare were among the best I’ve had anywhere, but I’ve chosen to highlight the PEI Blue Dot Ribeye steak because it was truly remarkable. It had a delicious crust, with tender rare steak inside and was served on a rustic, no nonsense pile of root vegetables on a dainty plate.
While I was busy trying to write a book, The Side Dish was hell bent on house shopping. Our place was too cramped for a newly married couple, and we both had dreams of living in the North End. We finally found the perfect place, and we were scheduled to move in on March 17.
Then things got weird.
By the 17th all the restaurants were shutting down, with their Saint Patrick’s Day decorations, full of hopes and dreams, hanging ominously in darkened windows. Elbow bumps switched to 6 foot greetings, and here we were in our new neighbourhood with no where to go.
Mom’s Mac ‘n Cheese
We moved into our new place on Saint Patrick’s Day, surrounded by boxes and a minimalist living room. There were slim pickings for the inevitable moving day take-out. Fortunately, my Mom had made a big batch of her famous macaroni and cheese, and Dad had bought a sampler pack of Irish beers. We popped the mac in the oven, and cracked open a Guinness.
My Mom’s mac ‘n cheese is my absolute favourite childhood comfort food. Hers is the best, and you will not convince me otherwise.
This was a Saint Patrick’s Day to remember.
To say I ate a lot of donairs during lockdown would be an understatement. I spent most of that period writing on my laptop in bed, self-medicating with coffee and beer, while The Side Dish fed me home-baked oatcakes and cookies. Writing, reading, rereading, editing, interviewing… I had nothing else to do but obsess about donairs and beer delivery ordering deadlines.
When I finally submitted my manuscript to the publisher, The Side Dish and I celebrated with donairs and champagne!
Jerk Chicken – Brawta
The best take-out I had during the lockdown was this jerk chicken platter from Brawta. If you haven’t tried their Jamaican food, you are missing out! This is some of the tastiest chicken in the city, and perfectly accompanied by a Jamaican patty and a pink Ting. If chicken ain’t your thang, I’m happy to report that Brawta also makes jerk tofu!
Charcuterie – Eliot & Vine
When I heard that Eliot & Vine was preparing take-home charcuterie boards, I thought this would be a really nice way to “play pretend” that we were having a night out on the town.
The Side Dish and I enjoyed this over a game of backgammon, followed by a winebuzzed frolic through the recently reopened Commons. With the reopening of the parks, the darkest days of lockdown were behind us, and joy was re-entering our lives.
Sweet Treats – Creamy Rainbow
We finished our charcuterie board with a few sweet treats from Creamy Rainbow. Top left: a dangerously decadent cream puff. Top right: chocolate banana bread. Bottom: masked macaron!
This summer was amazing (I mean, when compared to the rest of the year). The Atlantic Bubble was a covid paradise, and inter/intra-provincial road trips were encouraged. Patios were lively. Streets and parking lots were converted into extra outdoor dining. We felt human again!
Seize the day!
Happy Hour Charcuterie – Lot Six
The first week that restaurants reopened, The Side Dish and I took it upon ourselves to get out there and throw what money we had (or didn’t have) at local restaurants. It was kind of eerie dining out, with sparse table arrangements placed miles apart, and staff being extra diligent to sanitize everything. “Tip big, leave early!” was the motto.
Our favourite experience of that week was the Happy Hour Charcuterie board at Lot Six, where we sat in the atrium basically alone, chatting with staff and getting buzzed on New England IPAs. $10 got us a board of salami, fois gras pâté, brie, kimchi and lots of fun pickles. It was colourful, engaging, and brought us a lot of joy after our long hibernation.
Dragon Tail Sandwich – Primal
Open City is a one-day event every spring when businesses offer specials and giveaways and other fun stuff to get people out of the house supporting local. It got postponed until June 27th this year, when it launched as “ReOpen City”, and continued to take place every weekend in July.
My absolute favourite ReOpen City special this year was the Dragon Tail Sandwich at Primal. Usually I say less is more, but this was a flavour epic. A chorizo sausage was lovingly cradled in a buttery croissant with “beast” ragu, corn salsa, patron aioli and garnished with fresh dill and popcorn.
I know, right?! A complicated mess, but a delicious one.
Sushi – Doraku
My favourite sushi in town is from Doraku. Chef Shuji Manabe opened a bunch of the early sushi restaurants in Halifax, before settling at Ko-Doraku (on Dresden Row), which later moved to the basement of Spring Garden Place where it became Dora-Q, and most recently he has sold Dora-Q and opened Doraku in Dartmouth (Ochterloney St.).
Don’t be confused. Take a ride to the dark side!
Shuji is a Halifax sushi OG, and I will follow him wherever he goes for his perfectly seasoned, special warm rice.
Smash Burger – Side Hustle
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the new favourite burger of the Eat This Town household. We scooted over to Dartmouth just to check out North Brewing’s new digs, and the conjoined Side Hustle Snack Bar. The smash burger is simple, comforting, and eye wateringly good.
Cheeseburgers don’t get more perfect than this.
California Burrito – Los Amigos
There was some confusion surrounding Taco Lina’s departure from Gus’ Pub, and rumours about a whole new kitchen and menu. It turns out that the head cook from Taco Lina’s stuck around, and now operates Los Amigos Taqueria.
I was excited to see burritos on the new menu! They make 4 types: carne asada, adobada (pork shoulder & pineapple), carnitas, and California. All fantastic, and I dare say the best burritos in Halifax!
The California is kinda special because no where else is doing this San Diego-style of burrito. French fries are used instead of rice, and it is loaded with carne asada, cheese, cilantro aioli and pico de gallo. This is a heavy hitter of a burrito, and you will crave it again and again and again.
Roman-style Pizza – Il Ferramenta
We only had one summer day trip this year, and we stuck pretty close to home. Chester is where we decided to submerge ourselves in the ocean, drink on patios, and set our targets on the hippest new pizzeria in the province.
Il Ferramenta makes Roman-style pizza, rectangular pizzas baked in trays and sold by the slice. The dough is the real masterpiece here. A combination of Italian 00, whole wheat, spelt and barley flours undergo 72 hour rise/fermentation which results in a light, bubbly and crispy texture.
I don’t fully understand pizza science, but I do understand pizza eating, and this stuff is pretty special.
Syrian Ice Cream – Booza Emessa
In the last couple of years we’ve seen some exciting new Syrian businesses opening up in Halifax, and perhaps the most hyped is Booza Emessa. Samer Aljokhadar ran his own ice cream shop in Homs, Syria, where he made his own ice cream from scratch, before he was forced to flee his native land.
We are lucky to have him!
Syrian ice cream (i.e. booza) has a unique, elastic consistency due to the sahlab (ground orchid root) and mastic (a resin) that are added with milk, cream, and sugar. The mixture is pounded and stretched to work out the air and activate the ingredients. It is available in flavours like pistachio, almond, rose, and pomegranate (at least, those were our choices). You can always get more familiar flavours like chocolate, and moon mist has even been on the roster!
Smoked Salmon Rosti – Robie St Station
This has been one of the best brunches in the city ever since Robie Street Station opened in 2014, but I have not had the opportunity to enjoy it all to myself until now.
It is the perfect brunch dish.
Cobb Salad – Elle’s Bistro
This was a post-gym protein barge of a salad, loaded with chicken, bacon, blue cheese, and avocado. I don’t know how, but it was even better than the last time I sung the praises of this salad. If you like cobb salads, as do I, then look no further. This one knocks it out of Barrington St.
Chicken Gyros – Athens
Sitting in Athens’ converted parking lot patio in the sunshine, chowing on donairs and gyros, (“Two for Tuesday!”), I couldn’t have been happier to be partnering with this classic Greek resto to promote Book of Donair. The chicken gyros is built onto a thick Greek pita, with tzatziki sauce, French fries, tomatoes and onion. It’s pretty awesome, and a rare find in Halifax.
Beef Tartare – Hopscotch, Edna, Little Oak, Juniper
I just realized how many amazing beef tartares I’ve had this year, and I don’t think I could choose just one, so here ya go! From the broccoli crowned tartare at Hopscotch Dinner Club to the classic version at Edna, to the manchega topped delight at Little Oak, to the smoked pepper and roasted tomato infused rendition on focaccia from Juniper Restaurant, we were never disappointed.
Honourable Mention: The Dish Dish and I had a marvellous anniversary dinner at the Highwayman, and this was easily one of our best meals of the year. However, as an anniversary gift I refrained from taking pictures so you’ll just have to believe me!
The Side Dish had two weeks off in October, and we were originally supposed to go visit family in Alberta. Obviously that got derailed, so we decided to instead take advantage of Bubble Tourism. With help and guidance from Tourism Nova Scotia, we spent a couple weeks travelling around the province, looking for exciting dining experiences. I’m going to write a more in depth piece about our discoveries, but for now, here are a few of our highlights!
Electric Blue Cheesecake – Founders House (Annapolis Royal)
This. Was. The. Best.
We had a memorable meal at the Founders House in Annapolis Royal, punctuated by this amazing dessert. It combines two of my favourite post-dinner options: cheese plate and cheesecake!
It is made with Blue Harbour’s Electric Blue cheese, topped with a honey gel, and garnished with pine nuts, pear, and golden raisins.
This will go down as a lifetime favourite.
Rainbow Trout w/ charred broccolini – Juniper (Wolfville)
Geoff Hopgood has been on my radar ever since I visited his (now closed) Toronto restaurant, Hopgood’s Foodliner. Now Chef Hopgood has his own restaurant in downtown Wolfville, and I had the most impressive meal here with The Side Dish.
The highlight was this rainbow trout with charred broccolini. I love the simplicity of this dish; the ingredients and technique shine. The broccolini had a charred flavour that would bring even the most veg-resistant diner to their knees.
Cajun Haddock Cakes – L’Abri (Cheticamp)
These are not your ordinary fish cakes! Atlantic haddock and potato are joined by Old Bay seasoning, jalapeno, corn, remoulade, and pickled onion. I love that the cakes themselves are hearty and rustic, while the accoutrements ignite a flavour explosion.
Seafood Chowder – Quarterdeck (Summerville Centre)
The Quarterdeck Grill overlooks the beautiful Summerville Beach, and every time I’m there I long to spend a week at the beachside resort. However, this is an excellent day trip destination as well.
If the ocean views aren’t enough of a draw, the seafood chowder is worth the drive. This is the most flawless seafood chowder I’ve had the pleasure of sampling. It is loaded with lobster, haddock and scallop, and the base is perfectly textured and flavoured.
Pannenkoek (Dutch Pancake) – Dancing Moose (Birch Plain, CB)
We were looking for breakfast as we set out on the Cabot Trail, and just stumbled into the Dancing Moose. I wasn’t expecting much, and I certainly wasn’t expecting pannenkoek!
I opted for an apple and bacon pannenkoek, while The Side Dish had “the best waffle of her life”. This is now a Cabot Trail must-do as far as I’m concerned!
Creamed Lobster – Captain Kat’s (Barrington Passage)
Captain Kat’s has been on my bucket list for a long time, and I finally got there to try their creamed lobster on toast. It’s kind of like a hot turkey sandwich, only it’s creamy chunky lobster permeating the bread. So good.
Beef Cheek Pot Pie – Maritime Express Cider
Perhaps my greatest discovery this fall was the unassuming town of Kentville. We loved their “pumpkin people”, Miner’s Marsh trail, and just walking around the town. We were struck by the majesty of the old train station hotel, and this is where we found Maritime Express Cider.
Their special for the NS Comfort Food Festival was a beef cheek “pot pie” with an herb and pepper biscuit. The beef was super tender, accompanied by a fun mix of root vegetables and a gravy masterpiece. The biscuit was the crowning glory on a perfect hearty stew.
I’ve delved into my tales of Covid Past, and we are just treading into Covid Yet-To-Be. But here we find ourselves in the Christmas Present, and I will present you with some of the tasty gifts I have given my mouth this season.
Pork Bone Soup – Young Pocha
Our Nova Scotia road trip adventure ended in time for Halloween, and shortly thereafter was my birthday. My family hasn’t been gathering during the pandemic and The Side Dish was back to work, so I was alone on my birthday on a chilly November night.
I decided to make the best of it, and ordered a bunch of Korean food from Young Pocha. I knew I wanted pork bone soup because it’s the ultimate Korean comfort food, and I thought it would be the perfect stick-to-my-ribs dish on such an evening requiring spiritual and physical warmth.
Indeed, it was the perfect thing. It even came with a little bag of Halloween candy!
Indian Gold Box – Posh Thali
Katie Junus (of the Dhaba Restaurant family) returned to Halifax after a stint in New York City, and started up Posh Thali, specializing in Indian grazing boxes. She makes Indian sweets and chutneys, and beautifully arranges them in boxes with Dhaba pastries, cheese/fruit/charcuterie, crunchy things and other surprises. She can even do vegan sweets/charcuterie boxes.
I was gifted a box to try, and I enjoyed it so much I ordered this box for my Festivus Feast!
Basque-style Cheesecake – Chéché Bakery
Another of the new, specialized delivery-only pop-ups that I fell for was Chéché Bakery. They do Basque-style cheesecakes: caramelized on the top, custardy soft on the inside. No crust. No gimmicky infusions. Just perfection.
Forget Chicago. Forget New York. This is the ticket.
Pork Arepa – Verano
My love affair with Verano dates back to my Taco Quest. I love their house-made corn tortillas, so I was excited to finally try an arepa.
It was a spontaneous thing. We were going to the gym, and just happened to park the car right out front of Verano. Arepas and tacos were dancing in our heads for the entirety of our work out, and we made a beeline for the restaurant as soon as we kicked off our gym shoes.
This is absolutely one of the tastiest things you can find in Halifax.
Cuban Flavour Crisis – Good Robot
This Cuban-style sandwich was Good Robot’s special for the NS Comfort Food Festival: a panini sandwich with pork shoulder, ham, spicy genoa salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickle, mojo mayonnaise, and house made mustard. This is one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a long time! Full of flavours, meat, spice, satisfaction!
Wicked Chicken – Tin Pan Alley
When the food courts reopened in December, I decided to support one of my favourite restaurants: Tin Pan Alley! This once-upon-a-time food truck is now a stall in the Scotia Square Food Court, slinging some of the best poutine, fish ‘n chips and steak frites in the city.
But if you’re looking for fried chicken, look no further than the Wicked Chicken with its juicy thigh meat, cut thin, and coated with a crispy batter for a perfect ratio of yum:yum. It’s drizzled with an Alabama white sauce and served atop their wonderful Dutch frites.
Pomodoro Pizza – Salvatore’s
And this brings us all the way back to Salvatore’s! After moving to the North End, I’ve had some hit and miss pizzas (mostly misses) when that comfort craving hits. But I decided that it was time to get some Sal’s, and when this Pomodoro pizza arrived (sesame seed crust with sun dried tomatoes, fresh garlic, black olives and feta) my eyes welled up and I sighed a big sigh.
This is what pizza is supposed to taste like.
Phew! That’s it for the best food in Halifax I’ve enjoyed in 2020! My last meal of the year will hopefully be a feed of Chinese food from Silver Dragon on NYE, and then I’m going vegan for the month of Veganuary!
What were your favourite meals of 2020, and what are you looking forward to trying in 2021? Is anyone else doing Veganuary?