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Saint John, New Brunswick
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Saint John, New Brunswick: A food and drink destination guide

June 13, 2024

This relatively compact city has dozens of food operations from quick service to upscale-casual


Look westward as you head toward Port Saint John on Highway 1 in New Brunswick, and you’ll see the surging waters known as the Reversing Falls Rapids. With some of the city’s industry as backdrop, the churn is generated by the collision of the Saint John River (called the Wolastoq by Indigenous peoples) and the Bay of Fundy, an astonishing tidal bore where 160 billion tonnes of sea water flow in and out of the bay as the tide changes by as much as 16 metres.

With a population of 135,000 people and growing in dog-friendly Saint John and region, the tide is also changing for the food scene: the relatively compact city has dozens of food operations from quick service to upscale-casual – and with more to come.

Read Also: Prince Edward County: Where to eat, drink and stay

An ancient city incorporated in 1785 but rebuilt after the catastrophic 1877 fire, the downtown sidewalks can be quite hilly: a War of 1812 Martello Tower overlooking Saint John West is 210 feet above sea level, but the steep inclines mean you can burn calories as you circumnavigate the food-and-beverage nightlife on Grannan, Canterbury, Princess, Germain and other streets. (Note: Thursday to Saturday nights between May and October, there’s free overnight parking on city streets within the entertainment district.)

From bubble tea and candy stores to bespoke whisky bars and “Lebanon on the Go,” there are 60 food-and-beverage businesses in Uptown Saint John. I’ve sampled several of them, so here’s a select tour of just a few:

Indian fusion, but hop out for some cocktails too

Open since 2006, Thandi Restaurant dispenses with any sort of kitsch for décor: your focus is on the food within the lovely old brick-and-beam design in a structure that once housed the printing press facilities for the Saint John Telegraph Journal (which started publishing in 1862).

The menu crosses over from its Indian sub-continent foundation into Thai and Cantonese dishes, but you can also get a clubhouse sandwich on naan or an open-faced steak sandwich with blue cheese. Spicy Indian curries can be made to order for your palate’s heat preference.

Thandi in Saint John

Thandi Restaurant, in Saint John. (Photo: New Brunswick Tourism)

After biryani and some Punjabi saag, it’s literally a 20-second hop-skip-and-jump along Canterbury Street to a unique experience at Hopscotch Whisky Bar, perhaps for a post-korma digestif?

Having just moved to a larger space from their original cozy confines a few metres away, Hopscotch is a sister venue to Thandi, and it certainly hasn’t lost a single step since it opened in its new location in May: the larger interior with seating for about 120 – including a lounge and private room (and with a west-facing patio deck for 40) – is just as gorgeous as the original. Incidentally, the former Hopscotch space is scheduled to open as a wine bar.

“The new vibe with brick-and-beam and exposed pink granite is more modern but just as warm and inviting,” according to manager Dan Vienneau.

Key, of course, is that the spirits selection remains unparalleled and newly expanded: there are 250 whiskies and many other spirits. Pick a flight and enjoy expert whisky curation, then add a few shareable dishes in the form of charcuterie or fresh-shucked local oysters from the new kitchen.

Brick-and-beam and the language of beverage hospitality

If you’re staying with cocktails for the evening, travel southwest about 100 metres where you can combine a refined mixology experience with the unique and engaging theatricality at Kakuteru Lounge and owner Eric Scouten’s dedication to his craft behind the bar. The lounge’s name is, in essence, not a name at all: “kakuteru” is a sort of placeholder so people can find the bar on Google and social media, quips Scouten.

Kakuteru Lounge

You’re certain to find Eric Scouten behind the bar, mixing and pouring at Kakuteru Lounge.

“The lounge has no name. The logo represents the Japanese word for cocktail in the English phonetic alphabet, so it’s not actually a word. It reminds me to stay focused on hospitality, what the Japanese culture does so well. It has created confusion and debate, but I enjoy how it engages people.”

Derridean onomastics aside, turn up an alley off Grannan to find the eclectic and warmly quirky 12-seat venue with black walls and materials reclaimed from around the city: the bar was built from the organ at St. John the Baptist Church and is the front row to Scouten’s animated commentary on the drinks he crafts for the individual customer. The gospel here is house-made simple syrups and other potions and concoctions along with the fruits of Scouten’s foraging treks in the area. Non-alcoholic cocktails and simple snacks available.

Try the Negroni: it’s part of Scouten’s mantra not to deviate too, too far from a classic’s template.

“I’m not looking to re-create them,” says Scouten. “The beauty of the classics is they’re often only three ingredients. I see my job as selecting ingredients that blend well together. The gin can be overtaken by the Campari and the Vermouth can be washed out. I use a Vermouth with a touch more citrus and the sharpness of the local Gin Thya by Distillerie Fils du Roy out of Petit-Paquetville, which has a high note of aromatics.”

Coffee with a social conscience; pizza and a beer with a view

The next morning, launch yourself out of bed in the cool salty east coast fog and head to a casual coffee shop experience at Catapult Coffee and Studio on Princess Street. It’s a social venture brewing fair-trade, organic coffee and one dedicated to improving the lives of Saint Johners struggling with poverty. Locally made products from “Catapult Creative” for sale.

Then, with the sun shining in the late afternoon, climb the stairs to the top of a sea-can intermodal container sitting on the patio of Wasted Day Brewery – a fitting structure in Canada’s third largest port which sees nearly 1,000 vessels mooring at the 4,000-metre waterfront each year. Tim Webber and Jon Chouinard opened the space in August 2022 with 75 seats and a capacity of 150 for a regular schedule of live music.

Saint John Ale House

Saint John Ale House.

Twenty local beers are on tap with 11 core brands; there’s a focus on IPAs with their most popular beer the Ruckus New England IPA from their Rothesay, NB., Long Bay Brewery. Then there’s the German pilsner Split Pants (which might follow a ruckus, also from Long Bay). Snacks include sandwiches, salads, pretzels, charcuterie boards and pizza from Jeremiah’s Deli and Catering.

“Wasted Day is a busy event space with jazz on Wednesday and often multiple bands on Friday and Saturday,” says Webber. “With the music, the décor and our beer, we wanted a laid-back space that was unique to the area.”

The gull’s-eye view from the sea-can is pretty unique and pretty laid back, to be sure, offering sightlines of the passing traffic on Water Street below and across to the almost hypnotizingly massive cruise ships that arrive regularly.

Saint John pubs are plentiful and Picaroons pints and Pomodori pizzas pair perfectly – and they share space too: order a woodfired Neapolitan-style Margherita pie and then cross the room in front of the stack of firewood on your way to sip a Picaroons “Yippee IPA” strong beer at their General Store and await pizza delivery.

Picaroons General Store opened in 2016 (Picaroons the brewing company in 1995, making it one of the oldest craft breweries in NB) with 50 seats, up to 98 standing and 60 more seats on the shared Pomodori patio.

“We offer a welcoming environment with a great tasting experience,” says Amy Barrett-Kay of Picaroons. “We have Picaroons beer on tap and make about 20 kinds. You’ll also see our small-batch system here. Our brewer gets to have fun and play with some experimental brews that are always changing.”

Beer Daddy Barbecue

Beer Daddy Barbecue, in Saint John.

Hop heads can enjoy the qualities of “ringwood yeast,” an ale yeast deployed in their open-top fermenters. “It is a super-cool yeast that can be used over and over, and we use it to make some different brews including sours, lagers and fruited ales,” Barrett-Kay says.

Note: Picaroons General Store is big on pets. There were at least four dogs sitting patiently near their masters’ tables when I visited. So, pooches and pints. And cats, too. They have pet treats on site and even a separate Instagram account for furry friends (@poocharonspups).

Speaking of pizza, Beer Bread serves Detroit-style pizza – thick and deep with loads of cheese that goes in before the toppings go on and which develops super-crispy edges – the density of the pie makes it ideal for sharing and is perfect with the local beers on tap.

Just around the corner from Beer Bread and adjacent to the new waterfront is Saint John Ale House and chef Jesse Vergen’s homage to the land-and-sea savouries of New Brunswick, including smoked mackerel, fiddleheads and periwinkles. And his own foraging as well. Check out the rum selection during happy hour.

Bella's Traditional Ice Cream

Bella’s Traditional Ice Cream

I scream, you scream, we all scream for… chatbot?

Perhaps a warm evening stroll around the town is in order? And with an ice cream from Bella’s Traditional Ice Cream on Germain? Having opened in 1999 and family owned, Bella’s makes small-batch ice cream in their quaint space of only several hundred square feet, but which importantly draws on New Brunswick dairy and local ingredients.

“Typically, we have eight to ten flavours including some of our signatures like ricotta fig and roast banana,” according to Derek Billingsley, Bella co-owner with Naomi van Roosmalen. “We sell out flavours regularly, so we always have different flavours on rotation.”

Billingsley and van Roosmalen, partners in a Saint John software company, revel in the science of formulating ice cream recipes but also cutting-edge tech, according to Billingsley.

“As a fun side project, we built an AI chatbot that you can ask, ‘What flavours are you scooping today,’ and it talks to our point-of sale to send customers an up-to-date flavour list,” he says.

There’s a selection of vegan/dairy-free flavours, too, and compostable or re-usable packaging and utensils.

Chinese food, cider and BBQ: flavourful road trips just outside the city

Check out Mimimi Chinese 20 minutes outside the downtown in Millidgeville, a suburb of Saint John. There you’ll discover chef-owner Ning Hou’s pork-forward menu items that you may not see in many other places: that includes guo bao rou, a dish from Heilongjiang province which is crispy deep-fried pork tenderloin medallions, ginger and garlic tossed with chef’s house-specialty sweet and sour sauce that defines the dish. His mapo doufu is ground beef embellished with fermented bean paste, ginger, chili and Sichuan peppercorn.

There are a couple of communal tables for larger groups, or for making new dining-out friends, but you can also take a seat at the bar to watch the cooking. Interestingly, Ning and his restaurant were inducted into “Chaîne des Rôtisseurs” membership in 2019, a world-wide community dedicated to the passion and camaraderie of all things culinary.

Mimimi

Mimimi (Photo by: Jessica Emin)

A bit further afield, Yip Cider is 45 minutes from the downtown in Long Reach. Made using 100 percent New Brunswick apples from an orchard a few kilometres away, Yip ciders are available at about a dozen Saint John restaurants. Like at Picaroons General Store, Pomodori Pizza is available in the spacious, vaulted-ceiling taproom.

Venture a pleasant half-hour drive to the town of Hampton on the Kennebecasis River and you’ll find Beer Daddy BBQ. Pit master and owner Corey Richard moved from his food truck to a bricks-and-mortar venue joining Gridiron Brewing in August 2022. Open year-round and with two 500-gallon offset smokers and a variety of local maple as fuel, Richard cooks low-and-slow southern U.S.-inspired barbecue in the Memphis, Texas and Carolina styles.

Yip Cider

Yip Cider.

“I’d say our signature protein is our brisket, but the pork belly surprises people who have preconceived ideas about it. Our home-made pineapple-chipotle barbecue also rocks,” says Richard.

Collaboration is characterizing Saint John and environs, including a trifecta of flavours with Beer Daddy and Gridiron Brewing joining forces with Ole’ Foggy Distillery to form a new food-and-beverage venture called “The Porch,” coming in 2025.

It’s an entirely fitting and homey name that shares the welcoming energy of downtown Saint John with new restaurants popping up and the massive Fundy Quay waterfront development launching retail, residential and commercial spaces along with an extension of Harbour Passage, an amphitheatre and “tidal steps” that invite a tactile connection with the world’s highest tidal range.

 

– Andrew Coppolino is a restaurant reviewer, book author and food columnist advocating for local chefs, restaurants and food businesses

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