We stood on one side of the four-laned Ontario Street in Stratford, Ontario waiting to cross to the other side so we could step out of the cold and into Small-Mart, a kitchy general store across the street. Beside Small-Mart used to be a diner, now with a huge FOR SALE OR RENT sign in the window, and as cars petered away giving us a gap, I imagined it was Luke’s. I imagined opening up a Luke’s.
I’ve switched gears, but only slightly: I’m referring to the seven-seasoned recently re-vamped television show Gilmore Girls featuring their daily dose of Luke’s diner coffee and where a good portion of the show is set. I love Luke’s Diner and all it represents in the show. And I was falling head over heels for the town I could create that feeling in.
My partner and I were offered a romantic weekend in Stratford and we jumped at the opportunity. For two extremely busy city-dwellers, it was the weekend we needed, and a weekend we didn’t expect to enjoy so wholeheartedly since we’d only ever visited in our youth. What we look for in a town has changed since then, and Stratford offered it all.
I never thought a television show could spark a love in me for alternative city living, but it’s the town of Stratford that made this love tangible. Stratford reminded me of all the best parts of its fictionalized reflection, Stars Hollow: community support, walkability, personality, heritage, history, and the discernible presence of each of these traits around every corner. I believe the universe served this city to us on a platter, right in the middle of our binge watching and hectic Toronto lifestyle; right when we needed it the most.
With a small town feel I think I’ve found a little city I will disappear to, and here’s a handful of reasons why:
Stratford is beautiful.
It feels nice to walk around. There are beautiful brick buildings to look at, and people smile at you when you pass them. It’s not overwhelming. If you make a wrong turn, you’re not far off. It was -7° outside and the sidewalks were alive.
There’s history here.
A small slice of Stratford history goes like this: The Parlour Inn was built in 1871 to serve the Grand Trunk Railway. Stratford was once a junction meant to serve the burgeoning furniture manufacturing the small town turned city was known for (before theatre, of course). This inn once had a women’s only waiting room where wives would patiently wait while their husbands socialized after work. Don’t worry – besides the building itself, the stained glass windows and woodwork are all that remain from 1871. And maybe a few ghosts in the walls. There’s something there, I could feel it, and it was friendly.
Today, the inn is beautiful and full of energy. We loved the staff who went out of their way to find us a bath bomb so we could test out the jacuzzi tub in full force. Oh, and the dinner menu offers a dessert dish that people travel from far and wide to get: pavlova. We were told it’s been offered here for 40 years by the same woman, whose seen the inn change hands multiple times. We’re glad it stuck. It’s to die for.
There’s art. And it’s really good.
Before now, I had yet to find an Ontario town offering art on so many levels and more than traditional, approachable fare. From the white-walled and community-run Gallery Stratford to the indie business-style storefront and gallery Meet Your Maker, we were inspired over and over by the provocative, quirky, and important pieces hanging around here and in neighbouring restaurants. It all seemed to link together with an energy that encouraged me to create.
Even in winter, Stratford’s greenspace is beautiful.
It’s clear when you walk or drive down Lakeside that this place was named after a humble, English town for a reason. The bridges alone offer an Anne-of-the-Gable wistfulness that I wanted to absorb, and I can’t wait to see the Avon River in any season other than winter when I’m wearing shoes that don’t have holes in them.
Still, the calmness of this place invited me to write poetry, even without a pen and paper.
Supporting local business takes the cake.
Revel Cafe gets their juices from a local vendor, The Farm Juice Co. The Red Rabbit gets their food from neighbouring farms and their art from the community and the gallery next door. Junction 56, the distillery, gets their wheat from the owner’s cousin who has a farm up the road. Chocolate Barr’s candied a neighbours’ chilies to test out new product. There’s a slow food market on Sundays from 10-2 for the community to shop direct-from-the-farm. It’s all connected in the quietest, supportive of ways. Inquire anywhere about what one business uses from their community. You’ll get a good story.
There’s a coffee shop I can’t get enough of.
Every Saturday the chef at Revel Cafe (yes, I said chef and cafe in the same sentence) creates a limited number of doughnuts for patrons to enjoy. We arrived at 8am, opening, to a quiet room and were told that, today, the doughnuts would be up at 9:30 (it changes, doughnut dependent). So after breakfast we returned to a transformed space – almost every table was occupied and the doughnut tray was dwindling fast. “Hurry!” I said, hopping in line. It was so exciting!
We were lucky because there were two to choose from: caramel espresso and black sesame crueler. Melt. In. Your. Mouth.
We touted love for these doughnuts all day and the only people who hadn’t participated in #doughnutsaturday said they had trouble getting up early enough on the weekend to get to the doughnuts in time. But everyone knew what we were talking about. I loved it.
The food is superb; an experience.
Never did I expect such a culinary experience jam packed into every plate. The competition is tall but each restaurant we visited delivered in their own unique way. We learned that Savour Stratford is a program encouraging vendors to explore dishes from county comfort foods to haute cuisine.
The city says it best: “Some would say our passion for great food is larger than our passion for the theatre. It begins with the quality and freshness of our organic produce, our artisanal breads and cheeses, pasture fed organic beef, Amish-raised goat milk and heritage pork – all originating from surrounding Perth County.”
And… The whisky is coming.
In Canada, it takes 3 years to distill whisky in order to call it so and Junction 56 is 8 months in. While they offer an amazing vodka, gin (their gin is fantastic, trust me, and also infused from teas from their local tea sommelier), and liqueured moonshine, I am beyond eager to get my hands on Junction 56’s whisky.
As a craft beer lover, I must also mention here that the town’s craft brewery, Black Swan, was also on point with their berry IPA. I went back for a second helping, it was that delicious.
I didn’t even mention theatre which is what Stratford is known for because the closest we got was the roundabout of the Festival Theatre parking lot (we had to check it out). Plays begin in the Spring, and we’re already planning our trip back.
Oh, the Stars Hollow of my real, adult life is only 1 hour and 51 minutes away. Life surprises you in the greatest of ways; who knew I’d love this little town so much.