Halifax Nova Scotia: great food, cool bars, funky shops and a fab waterfront

HALIFAX – We all know about the harbour here; the tall ships and the Titanic connection and the seafaring history.

We also see those pictures of the Citadel’s green, rolling hills and the beautiful clock tower. And we know Peggy’s Cove waits just a few minutes down the road, waiting to seduce yet more camera-toting visitors. (And a quick nod here to the 13th anniversary of the Swiss Air 111 flight departing from New York for Geneva, which crashed near Peggy’s Cove on this day in 1998; a very grim mark on an otherwise  IMG_6950 beautiful place).

There are lots of great reasons to visit Halifax. But I’m beginning to discover the more urban and urbane parts of the city, a little away from the salt water. And I’m loving it.

I had a little time yesterday afternoon to explore Argyle Street and wandered into the Biscuit General Store. I’m a sucker for off-beat places and wacky artists, and I quickly fell in love when I spotted men’s and women’s clothes amongst a group of Archie lunchboxes, goofy 60’s paraphernelia, women’s purses, off-beat books, candy/chocolate bars, Elvis and Beatles long-playing albums, cable-knit sweaters and a small package of something called “Squirrel Underpants,” which I clearly didn’t take enough time to investigate.

The lights are bright and the dressing-room doors are painted vivid red and pale blue and forest green and white.

“We’ve been here about 15 years,” a kid at the cash register told me. “We just expanded north into the next store a few years ago.”

There’s a big sign on the wall that says “There’s no place like Biscuit,” and it would be hard to argue.

Just down the road a few steps is the Economy Shoe Shop, an old shoe store that’s now the hub for what’s probably the city’s top nightlife street. There are a series of a half-dozen pubs and restaurants and thriving outdoor patios along Argyle of various styles; from touristy-youthful such as the Toothy  IMG_6972 Moose to the barrel-vault ceilings of Backspace, which is next to the Economy Shoe Shop bar/patio/restaurant and enjoys the same ownership. There was a Latin jazz trio playing at one of the spots last night, and a popular local R and B band had them lining up early for a show at the Seahorse.

I tried a Garrison Irish Red at the bar at the Shoe Shop, staring at Italian-looking yellow walls, exposed brick, thick wooden beams and a ceiling display that included a tricycle and a wooden sled. The bartenders will mix you up some classic cocktails if you ask, and the place has atmosphere to spare.

One of the workers recommended I try Press Gang around the corner for dinner, and I’m thankful he did. It’s said to be the second-oldest building in the city, and features everything from rough rock walls to huge, exposed wooden beams and small nooks filled with glowing candles.

The local oysters were out-of-this-world good, my daughter told me, and the Digby scallops were perfectly seared. They serve a great dish of Nova Scotia mussels with a coconut-chili-lime base. But I was blown away by the Lobster Duo. Half was a simple, grilled lobster tail, which was great. The other half was a couple of large claws soaked in a champagne/butter sauce that had me crawling on my knees in the general direction of the chef to give thanks. WIth all sincerity, I have to say it was the best seafood dish I’ve ever had anywhere in the world. Brilliant.

IMG_7109 I had a chance to walk along the harbour walk last week, taking in museums and the Garrison brewing company and the farmer’s market, pausing to check out restaurant patios and the Rum Runners rum cake shop and more. I also forked out a few bucks for a 90-minute sail on the Mar tall ship, enjoying a perfect summer’s day and chatting about the city with the crew.

“Halifax reminds me of Vancouver and Victoria,” said one crew member, who hails from Nanaimo. “But I think it’s more family-oriented here. They’re both maritime places, but I think people here feel more strongly about family.”

A friend who’s a doctor in Halifax for a few months said it’s not uncommon for an entire car-full of folks from, say, Cape Breton to come to the city for a parent’s 45-minute consultation.

I noticed a LOT of people stopping in their cars to let me jaywalk on busy streets. Astonishing for someone from Toronto, especially considering many of the polite drivers were cabbies.

I don’t know if it’s typical, but when I stopped for a shoulder bacon sandwich at the farmer’s market I got another slice of Halifax life.

“What drinks do you have,” I asked the woman who served me my sandwich (pretty good, by the way).

“We don’t have any,” she said. “There’s a guy just down the row who serves lemonade and someone else has orange juice. IMG_7419

“They’re our neighbours and our friends so we don’t want to compete with them.”

Isn’t that nice?

The Mar is a great ride and you might get to help hoist a sail or two. There’s plenty of beer on board and the views of the city are magnificent.

I kept hearing about Halifax and its famous donair sandwiches. I’m big on falafel and I really like shawarma and, even better, a good gyro with plenty of garlic and hot sauce. So I tried King of Donairs, which is located on what locals call “pizza corner” in downtown Halifax, owing to three pizza/donair shops on three of four corners on Grafton St. at Blowers.

The meat in my donair was good but I don’t like the sauce they use. It’s way too gloopy and sweet.

IMG_7043But it was the only bad meal I had in four days, so what the heck. The seafood was out of this world, as you’d expect. Awesome fish and chips at Henry House, the best lobster of my life at Press Gang and a fabulous arrabiata pasta dish with shrimp at Du Maurizio on Lower Water St. And I can’t forget my buddy, Ash, at the Economy Shoe Shop on Argyle.









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