If you’re looking for a cultured Niagara experience, you’ve come to the right place.
After getting engaged at Pearl Morisette in Jordan last summer, I developed a renewed sense of love for the region. So I took a trip back with HOLRs creative producer Josh Davies to discover some more hidden gems out there.
There’s nothing better than experiencing a region like a local would, so I asked some friends who live there for some guidance. We spent a day exploring and uncovered some great natural wines, indulged in some foodie spots and some stunning scenery that I’ve been thinking about long after I’ve left. Here are some of favourite places to escape the city and explore Niagara this summer the local way.
95 Geneva St, St. Catharines
There’s nothing that screams hidden gem more than a small, unassuming restaurant with local chefs lined up outside for lunch. So when we arrived at It’s About Thyme, I was excited to discover what Chef and owner Sam Salame had cooking up inside. My expectations were high because of what my friends had told me, but when I say I’ve still been thinking about Sam’s shawarma, falafel, and secret menu item’ weeks later, it’s not an exaggeration. The homemade pita Sam makes is like nothing I’ve tried at a Middle Eastern restaurant before. It is so thin, light, and crispy that it provides the perfect exterior for the traditional ingredients. But as Sam notes, everything he creates may start with tradition, but he adds a delicious twist, making this restaurant the ultimate stand out.
I started with the falafel, which is light and airy with just the right amount of crispiness. Sam creates the falafel with his parents’ recipe mixing chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, and cumin, frying them as you order so you can expect the utmost freshness and quality.
Next up was the chicken shawarma, another local favourite wrapped in his homemade pita again. I am always on an eternal hunt for chicken shawarma, and this is the best one I’ve had to date.
Last up was the secret menu item, arguably the most popular order and with good reason. To request this off the menu item, you must ask Sam for ‘The Pocket.’ In a homemade pita, the pocket is filled to the brim with beef in a medley of spices (sujuk), cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and garlic sauce. The combination of ingredients sandwiched by the pillowy pita is a culinary delight. If you’re coming to It’s About Thyme, for your sake, I would advise coming very hungry.
64 Ontario St, St. Catharines
As It’s About Thyme is more of a takeout spot, we grabbed our food to go and took a four-minute drive to enjoy our meal at Montebello Park. This small but lush park is nestled on a quiet street filled with trees and a rose garden. After a short stroll through the garden, which smells divine, we found a bench to unpack the food. Montbello offers a great retreat from the city and provides the perfect backdrop to enjoy a picnic or lounge on the grass with a good book. Take note; if you want to visit Montebello, it is open Monday-Friday from 8:30 am-4:30 pm but well worth the pit stop.
4352 Mountainview Rd, Beamsville
Over the past year, I have developed a great fondness for natural wine. So when I asked the locals for a natural winery, they unanimously pointed me to Rosewood Estates Winery. Driving into the grounds transports you to another world. If you’re like me and frequently find yourself in Europe over the summer, you’re in luck because you don’t need to look further than Rosewood for a paralleled getaway experience. Driving in, you’re surrounded by a sprawling vineyard, a pond, and a garden. The grounds are stunning, but my favourite part is what’s inside.
I would recommend doing a tasting to experience all of what Rosewood has to offer. A knowledgeable staff member will take you through a flight while explaining all of the notes and complexities of the wines they create. I find that natural wine still offers a traditional wine-drinking experience sans the head fogginess I’ve often succumbed to from drinking a little too much wine on any other occasion.
The standout for me was the Night Moves wine, which is a 100% Gamay Noir. The wine is matured in neutral French oak barriques for 15 months and is bottled without fining or filtration. I enjoyed this wine slightly chilled, and it was love at first sip. Upon leaving, I picked up a couple of bottles to accompany me back to the city to relish in the escapism I experienced another time.
Rosewood also has a patio set up where you can indulge in some great wine and company while looking over the vineyards. It is a beautiful place to unwind with a partner or some friends. A family of beekeepers owns the winery, so they also make their own honey on the property. The honey is thick and delicious, offering the type of consistency you can only find with pure honey. Enjoy it on the ground or take a few bottles for home, as I did.
3292 Sixth Ave, Lincoln
A perfect getaway for me consists of balance, and you don’t have to look far to achieve that in Niagara. After indulging in so much wine and food, we decided to take a walk through Ball’s Falls. With two hiking trails to choose from, we opted for the Upper Falls trail that led us to a secret spot that was both serene and stunning. The trail itself is easy to navigate, and you don’t cross paths with very many people along the way. It is peaceful, the air is fresh, and the surroundings speak for themselves. If you take the trail that leads to the top of the Upper Falls, you are in for a treat.
The rocky formation coupled with the lushness of the trees and the water running below is an idealistic spot for relaxation. I would suggest bringing a towel to sit on and reveling in the area’s sights, sounds, and smells. If you’re up for it, you can also hike down to the water below. As it’s a conservation area, it is important to be mindful of your surroundings and not go in the water, but with all of the tall trees surrounding you, it’s cool enough that you won’t even need to.
52 St Paul St, St. Catharines
There is no perfect way to wrap up a day in Niagara than dining at another local favourite like Oddbird. This restaurant is like a choose-your-own culinary adventure providing an array of options from fresh seafood to fried chicken and other culinary delights in between. Located on a bustling street in St. Catherine’s, the ambiance is relaxed and fun, with great music playing in the background. There are plenty of options to choose from on the menu, but we ordered the oysters, chilled half lobster, a shrimp cocktail, fried chicken, chicken liver brulee, and seared sea scallops. The seafood was so fresh and made to perfection, the fried chicken was one of the best I have ever tried, but my absolute favourite was the chicken liver brulee.
While typically chicken liver is not what I would order, I was told I had to try it, and wow, it did not disappoint. A caramelized top cover the chicken liver, which is beneath in an almost mousse-like consistency. It is salty, sweet, crunchy, and smooth providing the perfect juxtaposition of flavours and textures. It is accompanied by crostini, which can crack the caramelized top and with a pickled salad. Even if you’re not typically big on chicken liver, I highly recommend giving this a try.
They also make great cocktails and have a must-try cherry cider on the menu created in collaboration with 26 Acre Craft Cider Company. Fun fact, the cider is also made with cherries from the owner’s farm. The HOLR team loved the cider so much; everyone bought a pack to take home with them.
All in all, it’s safe to say my love affair with Niagara continues, and I have already made plans to go back. Living in Toronto, we are so fortunate that this little slice of serenity, which taps into all of your senses, is only a 70-minute drive from the city.