Sampling restaurants amid the history of Winnipeg’s Exchange District
(Update: Feast on Foot tours are offered by the Winnipeg Exchange Biz every summer. The exact tours offered vary a bit from year to year. The particular tour highlighted in this post no longer exists, but it provides a good idea of what the tours are like. Some of the restaurants are part of current tours.)
The tour takes place in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, one of 16 neighbourhoods across Canada to be designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. The area received its designation because of its significance in the history of Canada in opening up the west and because it contains 140 heritage buildings. In Winnipeg’s boom time from the 1880s to 1920, when it was known as “Gateway to the West”, this area was the city’s centre for the grain trade, finance, and manufacturing.
Winnipeg has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada. There are 40 restaurants in The Exchange District’s 20 block area. The tour took us to 5 of these, with our guide providing history about the area and the buildings along the way.
The walking food tours are offered during July and August. The tours vary slightly from year to year. I took this tour in 2014. Current tours may include some of the same restaurants but not all. My experience will, however, give you a flavour of what to expect.
Our first stop is at Peasant Cookery, located in the Travellers Building, which was built in 1906-1907 for the North West Commercial Travellers Association. It was a hub for travelling salesmen, who picked up goods at Winnipeg’s warehouses and took them farther west to sell. It housed offices, meeting rooms, lounges, and rooms for the salesmen to stay. There was even a Turkish bath in the basement. Today Peasant Cookery occupies the main floor and the rest of the building contains condominiums.
Peasant Cookery’s tagline is “real food from the land”. They pride themselves on updating their menu with unique ingredients and staying at the forefront of the healthy food movement.
Our next stop was at Deer + Almond on Princess Street. This street was once home to businesses supplying goods to the farming industry. The huge show room windows on many of the buildings allowed for display of tractors and other farm equipment. Deer +Almond opened in 2011 and is on the list of Canada’s Top 50 Restaurants.
Chef Mandel Hitzer talked to us about himself and his restaurant. Everything is made from scratch. They cure their own meats, bake their own bread, and work directly with farmers. Mandel Hitzer brought the term “pop-up restaurant” to Winnipeg, a concept where people make reservations at a special dinner to be served at a secret location, which is revealed just prior to the dinner. He is also responsible for Raw Almond, a pop-up restaurant that existed for three weeks in January (for the second year) in a heated tent on the frozen Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
Chef Mandel Hitzer told us about the origin of the restaurant’s name. His name, Mandel, is almond in German. When the opportunity arose to have his own restaurant, one of the first images that came to mind was that of deer running through his grandmother’s property in the Interlake area of Manitoba.
As we made our way from restaurant to restaurant. our guide pointed out historically significant buildings. As we sat in the restaurants, she provided information about the history of the buildings and area and showed us old photographs on her tablet. A university student who had just completed a honours degree in Canadian history, her passion for the history of the area enhanced the tour.
Our third stop was Shawarma Khan at the corner of McDermot Avenue and Albert Street. This area was once known as Newspaper Row. Boys sold newspapers on the corner and yelled out news of the day. Three newspapers competed for business. The building Shawarma Khan occupies the main floor of was once the Manitoba Free Press building. The pressed tin ceiling remains in the restaurant.
Shawarma Khan was opened in 2012 by Ottawa-born Canadian Football League player Obby Khan after playing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 2006 to 2012.
Our fourth stop was at Boon Burger Café, an all-vegan café. They are well-known for their burgers based on one of four patty types: grilled mushrooms and brown rice; black beans, red beans, lentils, and brown rice; chickpeas and brown rice; tofu, brown rice, and oats. I’ve not had any of the burgers, but others on the tour had and raved about them.
The building Boon Burger Café occupies was once a covered alley between two buildings where horses pulled drays with goods to the spur railway lines on the street. The brick walls on the side of the cafe are the outside walls of former warehouses.
Our fifth and final stop was at Don Pedros Mexican Kitchen and Cantina. The owner was from Columbia and trained in Argentina.(Update: this restaurant is no longer open.)
There were 11 of us in the tour group, 10 locals and 1 person who grew up in Winnipeg and was now back visiting family and friends. Our tour guide said the patrons of the Exchange District food tours are 75% local, 25% tourists. Often, locals bring out-of-town guests. One person in our group had taken the afternoon tour the previous year. Same restaurants, different menu.
Just before the tour ended, our guide had one last surprise for use. She handed us each a packet containing two sweets from Cake-ology, a bakery in the district.
The tour was a fun way to spend an afternoon, experience some new restaurants, and learn a little history. All the food was delicious. There are also two types of evening tours available. Each tour is a little different. The tours run June through August. Contact Exchange District Biz Walking Tours. Reservations are required.
One of the women on our tour worked for the West End Biz, a non-profit organization committed to building a strong community in Winnipeg’s West End, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood just west of downtown. They were about to launch their own food tours. For information on those tours, check out West End Food Tours.
Do you have a favourite food tour?
This post is part of Travel Photo Mondays on Travel Photo Discovery.