Our fantasy diners got wound up debating how to spend their fantasy dollars: go for the familiar—the tried and true—or take your chances with that hot new honey of a bistro? Da Maurizio (1496 Lower Water, 423-0859) drew plenty of “oooohs” from the crowd, as did Fid’s (1596 Dresden Row, 422-9162) French-Asian minimalism. jane’s on the common (2394 Robie) scored unanimously high for reliability and great service. One underdressed panelist suggested that dining at Bish (1475 Lower Water, 425-7993) provided a perfect opportunity to buy new threads for her and her dining companion.
Splurge must-haves: Real flowers (“No frickin’ dusty plastic, please!”), great people-watching potential and service that makes you feel like the most important person in the world, which of course you are. For that special splurging feeling without emptying the rent account, order a glass of champagne, sweetie darlings, or head to your favourite dusty diner in prom wear.
Best place to spend your last $10
Dharma Sushi’s (1576 Argyle, 425-7785) lunch special. “Foolproof!” Ardmore Tea Room (6499 Quinpool, 423-7523). “Pancakes the size of your head!” Rassy’s Pizza (5576 Cornwallis, 425-0425). “Those were some dark days…”
Our frugal foodies wasted no time cashing in on this category. Paninis—something magical happens in that ironpress—from Alteregos (2193 Gottingen, 431-3170) and Starr’s Bakery (55 Portland, Dartmouth, 461-4535) ranked high with flat-sandwich lovers, as did sympathetic restauranteurs such as Just Spring Roll (Park Lane Mall, 446-3536) and the Dawgfather (outside the Dalhousie SUB building), both of whom are known to spot a diner in financial need. Just Us! (1678 Barrington, 422-5651) coffee and pakora combos leave more than just lint in your pocket, but the biggest noise came from the contingent of Robie Foods (3095 Robie, 454-7814) regulars. “I swear by the big bowl of soup,” said one Robie fan. “It’s only $5. You can eat it for two days, and that’s only half of your $10!”
Last dollar daze: One destitute diner claimed that after running out of money to cover a meal at a downtown cafe, he ran to his local bank, successfully applied for overdraft and then ran back to pay for his food.
“In Halifax, there’s such a fine line between a crazy confusion menu, ‘Let’s just throw everything on there—I hear people like sushi and I hear people like French fries and I hear people like lobster’—and a menu driven in an interesting way,” suggested one contemplative diner, to murmurs of agreement. Still, if you know where to look, you can break out of the confusing and the conservative.
If Onyx’s (5680 Spring Garden, 492-7999) starter basket of house-made breads, crisps, zatar and grissini is any indication, they deserve the crowd’s admiration for their tapas twist on the ordinary. For dessert, those with vanilla tastes might need a little encouragement to try Onyx’s pairing of green apple and old cheddar ice cream, or Dio Mio’s (5670 Spring Garden, on Brenton, 492-3467) roasted garlic, or vodka, salt and pepper gelato and sorbetto.
Taste killers: Sushi restaurants that cater too much to Canadian tastes—ham-and-cheese maki rolls are a definite downer.
Best comfort food
Our panelists confessed to wiping tears away with grilled cheese and cheap Chinese, especially from Mr. Chang’s Chinese Food Emporium (1304 Birmingham, 423-8882). Landmark diner The Esquire (772 Bedford Highway. 835-9033) wraps up in retro joy, and if you’re really in a slump and have a tank of gas, the milkshakes at The Turkeyburger (Route 10, Bridgewater), come in a big, sweaty metal cauldron.
Breakfast is the most important, and reassuring, meal of the day at Spartan (6403 Quinpool, 429-6858), Athens (6303 Quinpool, 422-1595) and the North End Diner (2776 Gottingen, 455-0856). Downtrodden carnivores swear by the historic Henry House (1222 Barrington, 423-5660) for burgers or shepherd’s pie.
Red alert: “There’s nothing like a plate of those Chinese bo-bo balls in that red sauce—that colour’s not found in nature. It says, ‘That’s OK honey, you’re alright now.’”
Best place for an after-work drink
“I hate to say it, but the Shoe Shop (1663 Argyle, 423-7463),” one trendy panelist confessed. North-enders like to bitch about their bosses at the North End Pub (2776 Gottingen, 455-7432) and at Gus’ Pub (2605 Agricola, 423-7786). Quinpoolians attempt to avoid their coworkers at Freeman’s (6092 Quinpool, 429-0241) and at the Nail & Kneecap (6194 Quinpool, 404-3377).
Hotel bars scored high as the best place to pretend you’re not in Halifax, and as, well, the best place to score, including the gentlemanly Victory Arms (1515 South Park, 431-3101) and the chic Westin Hotel bar (1181 Hollis).
High season: You can pick up more than stale popcorn at hotel bars during the Atlantic Film Festival in September.
Nine out of 10 panelists prefer a booth, especially a black, leather one at Tribeca (1588 Granville). Deco’s (5518 Spring Garden, 423-9795) scarlet-red half-booth, half-table is the perfect compromise for privacy and people watching, as is the cozy back corner table at jane’s. For some, sushi tastes even better footwear-free, relaxing in Doraku’s (1579 Dresden Row, 425-8888) traditional room, while others preferred digesting large meals in the comfy chairs at the Fireside (1500 Brunswick, 423-5995) and stroking the leather club chairs at Jamieson’s (5 Cumberland, 433-0500) popular front-end sitting area.
If listening to arguing reminds you of Sunday mornings with mom and dad, perch on the counter stools at the South End Diner (1128 Barrington, 492-0271). Other diner table must-haves: feeling comfortable pouring your own coffee, and the ability to curl your feet up in the booth for those long-haul lunches.
Ear to the wall: “High booths are bad because you can’t trash talk people if you can’t see who’s there. In this town, you need to know who’s sitting around you.”
Best reason to take a drive
Squeals of childish delight erupted like a lumberjack stomping out of the bush at the mere suggestion of Sugar Moon Farm (Alex MacDonald Road, Earltown, 1-866-81-maple), and their all-you-can-scarf buttermilk pancakes, baked beans and sausage, with all-you-can-downpour maple syrup. “It’s like having your own tap,” sighed one Sugar-fiend dreamily.
Inspired by a New York Times review, one adventurous bivalvophile took a trip to Flex Mussels (150 Harbour, Summerside, PEI), declaring it worth the three-hour drive for the fresh catch, available in over 22 internationally inspired flavours. Closer to home, the fresh warm gingerbread at Peggy’s Cove received an ecstatic eye roll, as did fish and chips from Musquodoboit Harbour.
Catering to the BLIP: If, while waiting for the 52 bus to take you home from a day of car-dodging at Bayer’s Lake, you feel the urge to fill up that vacuous hole in your gut, try the Zellers cafeteria, a veggie burger from Harvey’s or grab a big, salty pretzel from Empire Theatres, and just try to “suck it up.”
Best place to take a vegan
“Heartwood (6250 Quinpool, 425-2808),” says our resident vegan, without hesitation. The Ethiopia Restaurant (6249 Quinpool 444-3030) also receives vegan happy marks. Robie Foods fans piped in again, singing their praises for being “the best with substitutions. They’re very happy and willing to do anything.”
Best place to feel like you’re not a vegan but you are in Winnipeg: Pie and coffee overlooking Flinn Street at The Bay’s (7067 Chebucto) time capsule of a restaurant. This little hideaway was also voted best place to take a secret lover.
Quickest way to become annoyed
They’re an opinionated bunch, our panelists. In no particular order, here are some of the top dining annoyances, as tabulated by the volume of groans: poutine without real cheese curds, Greek salad with lettuce, shitty artwork, dirty bathrooms (“you wonder what’s going on in the kitchen”), overly ambitious wine lists (“big lists don’t impress me, they just make me feel stupid”), gigantic menus with ugly fonts and stupid cutesy names, size-zero art-school wait staff who think they’re too cool for their jobs and spelling mistakes on the menu or special boards—it’s a Caesar, dammit, not a ceasar, ceazer or seizure.