The Sunshine Coast is nestled on the southwest corner of mainland British Columbia, but its seclusion—notably that it is accessible only by water or air—gives it a distinct island vibe.
This easygoing nature does not result in a lack of quality, however, especially when it comes to food and drink. From Gibsons to Halfmoon Bay, the culinary scene just across Howe Sound is transforming.
With an abundance of fresh fish and farm products, locals are experimenting with ingredients in big ways, and having a lot of fun doing it. Take, for example, the family behind Bruinwood Estate Distillery, the first standalone distillery on the Sunshine Coast. Jeff Barringer and Danise Lofstrom know a thing a two about drinks; they were producers on the television series BC Wine Cellar, exploring the province’s rapidly growing vino industry. After a dinner with Alex Nichol of Nichol Vineyards in Naramata, the husband-and-wife duo began dreaming up a future of handcrafted spirits.
“We wanted something fresh to do with the next stage of life,” Lofstrom says. “And we thought, ‘Hey, we could do a distillery on our property.’” Bruinwood’s forest-like location, once occupied by many bears (thus its name), is in Roberts Creek, where the couple has lived for 25 years. They have a vineyard, honeybees (Barringer is a master beekeeper), and heritage rare-breed chickens who happily eat the spent grain after it is pressed in the distillery, which itself is state of the art. The team keeps things relaxed, though. “It’s more like cooking than it is science for us,” Lofstrom explains of their liquor production. “There’s a lot of touching and feeling. We really go for quality over quantity. Our whole thing has been better quality, even if that takes us a longer time.”
With an abundance of fresh fish and farm products, locals are experimenting with ingredients in big ways, and having a lot of fun doing it.
Grain to glass in 18 days is the timeline for vodka, but gin takes longer to perfect. “For our gin,” Lofstrom explains, “we take the vodka and add botanicals to it. In the latest recipe, there are 13 different botanicals and then it steeps and gets distilled for a third time.” Leading with classic juniper, the gin also has flavours of coriander, citrus, sarsaparilla, and anise—a perfect cocktail mixer. The self-taught distillers use B.C. ingredients, herbs, and spices to create their small batches, and take the time to use their diverse palates to make something unique and surprising.
Barringer and Lofstrom aren’t the only ones spending time in the distillery, either: their young daughter Sara is the assistant distiller and mixologist, and is often found creating new recipes and acting as Bruinwood’s brand ambassador. Today she pours the slightly sweet Aquasen vodka, with B.C. organic wheat, malted barley, and a touch of the honey that is made on the property; it is fantastically smooth, a sipper that she says is best when chilled in the freezer. As for the locals, they’re enjoying the vanilla vodka (made with whole Madagascar vanilla bean)—so much so that Bruinwood has completely sold out. “We are defining distilling on the Coast,” Barringer says. “We are the ones who set the bar for quality. We’re offering an illustration of a fantasy, living the dream.” He pauses and then laughs, jokingly mentioning a Vancouver actor with a distillery of his own: “We’re thinking of sparking a fight with Ryan Reynolds. He claims that his Aviation American Gin is the best in the world.”
Another must-visit spot in Roberts Creek is The Gumboot Cafe, which has been serving locals and visitors for 20 years. Whether it’s a breakfast burrito in the morning or a kale salad in the evening, this quaint little spot carries the heart of the community.
And over in the coastal town of Gibsons, a dining renaissance is taking place thanks to new joints like Buono Osteria, a classic Italian restaurant from chef Mike Buono (son of former B.C. Lions head coach Wally Buono), and Lunitas Mexican Eatery, offering mouth-watering charred avocado and roasted poblano burritos slathered with salsa verde and ranchero sauce. Both restaurants show off fabulous views of the Gibsons Landing’s marina and the bobbing boats that float here year-round. But the most iconic restaurant to call this marina home is the veteran Smitty’s Oyster House, a Gibsons institution. Stafford Lumley, previous owner of Vancouver’s Rodney’s Oyster House, transformed the forgotten marine repair shop into the seafood haven it is today after a family stroll down the sea walk in 2005.
Older generations will know Gibsons as the setting of longtime hit TV show The Beachcombers, which first aired in 1972 and ran until 1990. Today, the name lives on through a new coffee shop in town. “This doesn’t exist in Gibsons,” says Martin DesRosiers, owner of Beachcomber Coffee Company, on a busy Sunday morning. “A lot of people come in here and say it reminds them of a cafe in East Van.” After returning home to the Sunshine Coast following years in Vancouver, DesRosiers decided to create a brick-and-mortar location for the award-winning craft coffee company he founded in 2015.
Caffeine-lovers will be delighted by the available coffee flight (one drip, one cortado, and one cold brew), which can be enjoyed in the shop’s bright space with pops of yellow. Still, DesRosiers says he serves more than just cups of coffee—he is selling the Sunshine Coast experience. “The difference between us and other coffee shops is we’re a coffee company,” DesRosiers explains. “We’re like a craft brewery in the sense that a craft beer company has a tasting room; we’re a coffee company and this is our tasting room.” When reflecting on the culinary transformation happening along the Sunshine Coast, pointing out other Gibsons hot spots like Persephone Brewing Company and Gibsons Tapworks, as well as The Bricker Cider Company in Sechelt (where Northern Divine caviar is also based), DesRosiers says there isn’t a cutthroat sense of competition here that is found throughout larger Canadian cities. “Everyone’s connected and supports one another here,” he says. “We’re a small community, but we work together.”
New York City never offered the breathtaking views of the Salish Sea and Vancouver Island, after all.
Also new to the Coast is Christopher Norman Chocolates. In Halfmoon Bay, master chocolatier and West Vancouver native John Down and partner Joe Guiliano have found their bliss after 25 years in New York City, where together they grew Christopher Norman Chocolates into one of Manhattan’s finest. An artist by trade (he studied at Emily Carr), Down always had an eye for beautiful things, so when he was forced to make truffles for his exhibition opening in 1990, it wasn’t surprising that guests completely fell for his creations. Realizing he was onto something, Down used his fine art talent to launch Christopher Norman Chocolates in New York in 1992.
He opened an atelier off the Bowery, and what began as a small business making chocolates for dinner parties quickly became an empire. Florence Fabricant, a New York Times food writer, tasted Down’s rosemary-walnut truffle and gushed about it. Then Martha Stewart came knocking, calling Christopher Norman Chocolates “mouth-wateringly good,” and then Anthony Bourdain’s and Vicki Gabereau’s television shows wanted to show off Down’s work. From lecturing on chocolate and art at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to designing a chocolate replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house Falling Water, Down was the talk of town; his creations became signature products at New York institutions like Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Henri Bendel’s, Dean & DeLuca, and Neiman Marcus.
But then 9/11 happened. The Christopher Norman storefront was just a block away from the New York Stock Exchange, and their lives were greatly impacted by the attack—so Down and Guiliano put their chocolate business on hold. When Down’s sister came to visit them in New York and showed them a Sunshine Coast real estate magazine, the couple knew they had found their new home. So in 2013, they made the move to the Coast, where the pace was slower and the quality of life was higher. New York never offered the breathtaking views of the Salish Sea and Vancouver Island, after all.
So now Down makes chocolate here, providing impeccable delights for this tight-knit town. There’s the fleur de sel and caramel dark chocolate bar with handmade caramel, for example, and a hazelnut gianduja chocolate bar with a nutty core of hazelnut butter. Christopher Norman Chocolates is finding its footing once again—and this chapter, much like the Sunshine Coast’s growing culinary scene, is shaping up to be the sweetest of all.
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