As I enter my 10th year of writing about restaurants for The Telegram, I’m reminded that I created the first of these lists back in 2005.
Looking at that list now makes me realize how much things have changed on the local dining scene.
Harold Wilson said, “He who rejects change is the architect of decay.” Well, it appears that St. John’s is not for rejecting. It has vigorously embraced change in the restaurant industry.
Of the 10 restaurants that made that first list, four have long since disappeared, including the No. 1 establishment that year, Restaurant 21. But guess what?
Of the 10 restaurants on this year’s list, not a single one existed in 2005. That’s change, and more important, that’s progress.
95 Water St.
There are certain boxes that must be ticked when reviewing a restaurant, with each box assigned a rating from poor to exceptional. Raymonds inhabits exceptional territory in every instance: food, atmosphere, service. The heart of this first-rate restaurant has two side by side chambers (located below stairs) called kitchen and wine cellar. What travels upstairs from there on a tiny elevator is food and drink prepared and paired with a great deal of care and thought. From caviar served with buckwheat blinis to creamy fleshed Newfoundland cod served with artfully cut vegetables and chilled Chablis, nothing sounds a discordant note at Raymonds.
283 Duckworth St.
While hinting at Japanese influence, Basho mostly presents itself as a contemporary St. John’s restaurant specializing in seafood dishes and, yes, sushi. The sushi at Basho is excellent, but so is everything else. A longtime favourite is Basho’s creamed crab and corn croquettes. When available, the lobster served there, as well as the steak tartare, are beyond excellent. Martinis are superb.
65 LeMarchant Rd.
If any restaurant can claim to serve cuisine that is locally focused it is Bacalao. From the day it opened its doors Bacalao’s owners have shown no restraint in praising, like a pol from his bully pulpit, all things homegrown. That may be one reason Bacalao’s food keeps getting better. As the restaurant’s name implies, bacalao or salt cod is a menu constant, but so is fresh fish and game.
From its commanding cliff top perch overlooking Conception Bay and Bell Island, Atlantica continues to impress visitors in search of fine dining. The suggestive airborne tang of Portugal Cove and the water view almost demand a menu weighted toward seafood. On the night I visited, my table was offered an impressive range that included scallops, tuna, cod, striped bass and halibut.
5. Black Sea
193 Water St.
Black Sea’s strengths stem from the motivation for this restaurant. The owners originally came to St. John’s from Europe. They had long wished to open a dining establishment here featuring dishes similar to the food on which they were raised. Enthusiasm and a strong desire for success yielded a quality restaurant. Dishes include kavarma, a traditional dish of braised beef with mushrooms and peppers, and monastery bean soup with sausage.
288 Water St.
YellowBelly not only makes the best craft beer in the province, it has one of the most fun restaurants. YellowBelly’s great attribute is consistency. Knowing that every time you visit the food will be as good as the last time may not sound like much. Yet, for many restaurants in this province that is a challenge. Rest assured, you will not be let down by YellowBelly’s sausage and provolone arancini or a host of other dishes offered.
7. Get Stuffed
190 Duckworth St.
The chef at Get Stuffed is also an owner and one who appreciates the importance of being in the kitchen and in control of what’s going out every day. A dividend of that kind of dedication can be a hard core of regular clients. Many were happily in residence when I visited. Brunch there is delightful, especially the grilled calamari and pasta dishes.
178 Water St.
I wouldn’t classify Tavola as an Italian restaurant but it definitely leans that way. Rustic dishes, the economical use of fresh seasonings, as well as regular risotto and pasta offerings suggest an Italian influence, not to mention the restaurant’s simple but effective name. Coincidentally, my favourite dishes were all out-and-out Italian: pasta of the day, risotto of the day, Italian doughnuts with fruit.
9. The Reluctant Chef
281 Duckworth St.
This is the most unconventional of the new crop of restaurants I visited in 2013. There is no menu. The chef, who is not at all reluctant, prepares several courses based on what he feels like cooking that day, and on the best ingredients he can find. The results are always interesting and delicious. One night I had calamari with lime, sweet potato salt cod cakes and lamb ragout over spirulina spaghetti.
10. The Club
223 Duckworth St.
The Club is definitely no mirror image of its sister restaurant, Aqua. However, individually, the restaurants may reflect the two sides of their owner: one the fun-loving cook that rocks, the other the curious and innovative chef. The Club represents the former. It’s a laid-back restaurant with energy and a great vibe. The Club serves a generous and flavourful fish stew and, in season, a lobster roll that comes close to being divine.
For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant
panellist with enRoute Magazine.
Contact him through his website,